Mar 22nd 2014

And Now for Something Completely Different

by David W. Galenson

Dr. David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009). David W. Galenson, picture aboce. Derek Walcott, picture in the text.

In the modern era, conceptual innovators have radically transformed the function and role of style in the arts. Traditionally, style was the artist’s signature or trademark, the unique and distinctive means by which he expressed his ideas or perceptions. Style was nurtured painstakingly: Cézanne reflected that “style does not develop from the slavish imitation of the old masters; it develops from the artist’s personal manner of feeling and expression.” A personal style was the distinguishing characteristic of a true artist: Frank Lloyd Wright angrily declared that “The style of the thing…will be the man – it is his. Let his forms alone.”


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La Vie (1903). Image courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio by Pablo Picasso.

The break with this traditional conception was pioneered by Picasso, who was known from early in his career for his abrupt and frequent changes of style. Experimental artists and critics puzzled over Picasso’s versatility, which they perceived as arbitrary and insincere, but in a celebrated interview in 1923 Picasso explained that his shifts and alternations of styles were a product of his conceptual approach to art: “Whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said. Different motives inevitably require different methods of expression.” Picasso would later reflect that he perhaps had no style: “I’m never fixed and that’s why I have no style.”


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Family of Saltimbanques (1905). Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In Picasso’s radical new conception, style was no longer a unique expression of personality, but merely a convenient means of expression, like a language, to be taken up or put aside depending on the particular idea to be represented. This new approach spread rapidly throughout the world of advanced art. Marcel Duchamp was among the early practitioners of stylistic versatility. Setting out to undermine the rigidity of the art world, and reasoning that taste was a product of habit, he determined to avoid repetition, and once declared that “I’ve had thirty-three ideas; I‘ve made thirty-three paintings.” In 1943, Duchamp paid tribute to Picasso’s innovation, writing that his “main contribution to art” was his ability, in each of the many phases of his career, “to keep free from preceding achievements,” without any “repetition in his uninterrupted flow of masterpieces.”


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Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Duchamp’s friend Francis Picabia shared his attitude toward style; Picabia declared that “If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.” Picabia’s refusal to follow any fixed formula earned him Duchamp’s praise as “the greatest exponent of freedom in art.” Another friend of both Duchamp and Picabia, the painter and photographer Man Ray, also deliberately avoided a fixed style: he explained that “each new approach demanded its particular technique which had to be invented on the spot.”


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Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910). Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois.

Whether directly or through the intermediation of Duchamp, Picasso’s novel approach to style spread widely among conceptual painters in the following generations. Robert Rauschenberg, who admired Duchamp so much he tried to steal a marble cube from Duchamp’s Why Not Sneeze? on a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, explained that whenever he began to work, he tried to clear his mind of all he knew: “Everything I can remember, and everything I know, I have probably done, or somebody else has.” In 1960, David Hockney felt liberated by seeing a large exhibition of Picasso’s work, because it showed him that “style is something you can use, and you can be a magpie, just taking what you want.” Two years later, Hockney’s entry in London’s Royal College of Art student exhibition comprised four paintings, collectively titled Demonstrations of Versatility.    In a 1963 interview, Andy Warhol asked, “How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something.” In 1984, Gerhard Richter explained that changing styles gave him “the freedom to do what I like…not to become an artist-painter who is tied down to a single trick.” He recognized that “historically speaking, changeable artists are a growing phenomenon. Picasso, for instance, or Duchamp and Picabia – and the number is certainly increasing all the time.” Seeing a Man Ray retrospective inspired the young Bruce Nauman: “What I liked was that there appeared to be no consistency to his thinking, no one style.” Nauman subsequently avoided predictability: “it’s never going to be the same, there is no method.” Damien Hirst prides himself on heterogeneity: “I curate my own work as if I were a group of artists.” He deliberately avoids repetition: “I mean, I don’t want to make ‘Damien Hirsts.’”


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Olga in an Armchair (1917-18). Image courtesy of Musée Picasso, Paris.

John Berger observed in 1965 that Picasso’s stylistic practice had no precedent: “In the life work of no other artist is each group of works so independent of those which have just gone before, or so irrelevant to those which are to follow.” And at the close of the 20th century, David Sylvester reflected that Picasso’s behavior would not have been possible earlier: “Picasso is a kind of artist who couldn’t have existed before this century, since his art is a celebration of this century’s introduction of a totally promiscuous eclecticism into the practice of art.” What even Berger and Sylvester failed to understand, however, was the underlying change that allowed Picasso to pioneer this practice. Unlike in virtually all earlier times, when artists were subject to the demands of specific individual or institutional patrons, in the first decade of the 20th century Picasso effectively completed the process, that had begun in 1874 with the Impressionists’ challenge to the official Salon, of transforming a monopolistic art market into an atomistic and competitive one. Instead of having to submit his work for the approval of a powerful individual patron or a conservative academic jury, Picasso had a number of independent dealers competing for the right to buy his paintings, and to find purchasers for them. This gave him a freedom in making his art that had almost no precedent in the entire history of Western art. The radical innovation of stylistic versatility was just one of the bold and imaginative responses Picasso made to this situation, as he successfully attained his goal of becoming the most innovative artist of his time, and of ranking among the greatest of any time.


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Two Women Running on the Beach (1922). Image courtesy of Musée Picasso, Paris.

Picasso’s novel approach to style spread widely among painters, but only among those who were conceptual. Stylistic versatility has remained anathema to experimental artists, who almost universally regard the painstaking construction of a unique personal style as a necessary condition for the creation of sincere and truthful art. But for conceptual artists interested in expressing ideas, the flexibility of changing styles was a powerful and liberating innovation. As Picasso explained, “style is often something which locks the painter into the same vision…sometimes during one’s whole lifetime…I myself thrash around too much.” In language that would echo through generations of brash young conceptual innovators, Picasso declared that “In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find, is the thing…When I paint my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for.”


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Girl before a Mirror (1932). Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City




Previous article by David Galenson:


Derek Walcott, Old Master

by David W. GalensonAdded 10.03.2014
Fortunately, Derek Walcott didn't study psychology. So he never had to read Harvey Lehman's claim that he was supposed to peak early -- "the golden decade for the writing of secular poetry occurs not later than the '20s" -- or Howard Gardner's...




     

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Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."