Conceptual Revolutions in 20th-Century Art
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Conceptual Revolutions in 20th-Century Art

Art critics and scholars contend that the last three decades of the 20th century initiated an unprecedented regime of incoherence in advanced art. What the art experts have consistently failed to recognize is that what they call pluralism or postmodernism did not arise spontaneously in the late 20th century, but was instead a logical—indeed, systematic—extension of practices that originated at the beginning of the 20th century and developed throughout the decades that followed. Here I propose that contemporary art is largely the product of a specific type of artistic creativity, operating in a particular market environment.

But first a short detour. Allow me to divide important, innovative artists into two types, on the basis of differences in their goals, methods, and achievements.

Experimental innovators seek to record visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so they proceed tentatively, by trial and error. The imprecision of their goals rarely allows them to feel that they have succeeded, and they often spend their careers pursuing a single objective. They consider making art a process of searching, in which they want to discover images in the course of making them. They build their skills gradually, and their innovations emerge piecemeal in a body of work.

Conceptual innovators express ideas or emotions. Their goals can be stated precisely, so they usually plan their works, and execute them systematically. Their innovations are conspicuous, transgressive, and often irreverent. Their innovations appear suddenly, as a new idea produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from their own previous work.

The long periods of trial and error typically required for important experimental innovations mean that they tend to occur late in an artist’s life. Radical conceptual innovations depend on the ability to recognize the potential gains from extreme deviations from existing conventions, and this ability declines with experience, as habits of thought become fixed. The most important conceptual innovations consequently occur early in an artist’s career.1

Both experimental and conceptual innovators have played on important role throughout the history of Western art. So, for example, the Old Masters Jan van Eyck, Masaccio, Giorgione, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Vermeer were great conceptual innovators, while Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Hals, Velazquez, and Rembrandt were great experimental innovators.2 The conceptual innovators Courbet, Manet, Gauguin, and van Gogh were among the greatest artists of the 19th century, as were the experimental innovators Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Renoir.3 For centuries, neither type of innovator dominated advanced art. This changed, however, in the 20th century, as conceptual innovators gained an advantage over their experimental counterparts. This advantage stemmed from a change in the structure of the market for advanced art.

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Pablo Picasso, Standing Female Nude, 1910, from Arthur Jerome Eddy, Cubists and Post-Impressionism (A. C. McClurg and Co., 1919).

In 1874, frustrated at their lack of success in having their paintings accepted and displayed at the official Salon (the annual or biennial exhibition operated by the Academy of Fine Arts), Claude Monet and a group of his friends organized an independent exhibition that included paintings by twenty-nine artists. Although its full significance would not be recognized until much later, the first Impressionist exhibition began a new era in which the reputations of advanced artists would no longer be created in the Salon, but would instead be made in independent group exhibitions. The most important of these would be the eight Impressionist exhibitions held during 1874–1886, and the Salon des Indépendants, which was held annually from 1884 on. The critical change that the Impressionists initiated in 1874 was the elimination of the official Salon’s monopoly of the ability to present fine art in a setting that critics and the public would accept as legitimate. The Salon consequently would no longer determine whether an aspiring artist could have a successful career.4

A competitive market for advanced art did not immediately come into existence, however, because of the slow emergence of private galleries that were willing to sell the work of younger artists: it was not until the early 20th century that the...