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Book Review
‘Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art’
Looking to give a dramatically different and peculiarly unconventional interpretation of 20th-century art, ‘Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art’ by David W. Galenson tries to explain why and how artists, their practices and works are distinct from all the earlier art produced. The book claims to deal with a vexing issue of contemporary culture as why much of contemporary art is so bizarre, apparently missing the previous eras’ stylistic coherence.

An Economics professor at the Chicago University, Galenson has authored ‘Painting Outside the Lines’ and has edited ‘Markets in History’. He has also extensively published in leading volumes like the Journal of Economic History and Journal of political Economy. Apart from acting as a Contributing Editor to The Art Economist magazine, he has served as an Academic Director of the Universidad del CEMA’s Center for Creativity Economics, and has been associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Research Associate.

If the author is to be believed, what most art historians haven’t grasped is the fact that 20th-century art practices were vastly distinct from all earlier art forms largely owing to a drastic change in the market for advanced art, which occurred during the late 19th century. A competitive market didn’t come into existence immediately. In fact, it took quite a while for collectors and dealers to follow that the works of art by innovative younger painters could be an excellent investment. The author argues ‘markets’ are what indeed make the 20th century art different from all other earlier eras and those, who succeeded in changing styles frequently and inventing genres, have reaped the greatest rewards.

He points out that Pablo Picasso was the first ever artist to take real advantage of the new regime: he painted more portraits of dealers early in his career than any other artist had. He systematically created competition for his work. Throwing light on this thought behind the book (Publisher: Cambridge University Press; $89-$99; Pages: 460),an introductory note mentions: “From Picasso's Cubism and Duchamp's readymades to Warhol's silkscreens and Smithson's earthworks, the art of the twentieth century broke completely with earlier artistic traditions. A basic change in the market for advanced art produced a heightened demand for innovation, and young conceptual innovators – from Picasso and Duchamp to Rauschenberg and Warhol to Cindy Sherman and Damien Hirst – responded not only by creating dozens of new forms of art, but also by behaving in ways that would have been incomprehensible to their predecessors. ‘Conceptual Revolutions…’ presents a systematic analysis of the reasons for this discontinuity.”

“Galenson, whose earlier research has changed our understanding of creativity, combines social scientific methods with qualitative analysis to produce a fundamentally new interpretation of modern art that gives readers a far deeper appreciation of the art of the past century, and of today, than is available elsewhere.” A series of insightful essays traces 20th-century art’s back story; its greatest male and female artists; the most important artworks; the greatest artistic breakthroughs; new genres; the versatility of conceptual innovators; Portraits of the artist or personal visual art; evolution of abstract painting during this period; and the globalization of advanced art in the 20th century. There are some offbeat chapters focusing on the conceptual innovator as trickster and the conceptual artist as manufacturer; language in visual art.

Another interesting segment highlights ‘Artists and the market: from Leonardo and Titian to Warhol and Hirst’. Finally, he takes a succinct look at the state of advanced art: the late 20th century and beyond. Galenson believes that terms like ‘postmodernism’ and ‘pluralism’ are based on a complete misunderstanding of the broader 20th-century art trends. In fact, the proliferation of new art genres of art, the fading out of dominant styles, and the elimination of style altogether by several leading artists were not really new practices in the 1970s-'80s. They were just a part of logical extension by young conceptual innovators of the practices initiated at the start of the 20th century by Picasso, Duchamp and a host of other young conceptual innovators.

To him, markets distinguish the 20th century from all other earlier phases when artists would create works for wealthy patrons generally in the church or the court that functioned as a monopoly. It was only in the 20th century that art entered ‘free’ marketplace and turned a commodity. In this new democratic system, breaking the rules emerged as the most precious attribute. “Important artists are innovators whose work changes the practices of their successors,” the art expert concludes, “The greater the changes, the greater the artist.”