Jul 26th 2023

Improving Art History

by David Galenson

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).


I want to talk about improving our understanding of the history of art; specifically, I want to tell a story about the relationship between market structure and creativity.  Art historians have never understood economics, and as a result they believe they can ignore markets: in their view, the production of art can be treated in isolation from its sale.  This is of course disastrously wrong.  But their ignorance has led to a neglect of the economic history of art.  Today I'd like to illustrate the intellectual rewards for remedying this.

Many years ago, when I was a senior in college, I took a wonderful course on the history of modern art.  The text was an excellent book by George Heard Hamilton, titled Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940.  Hamilton opened the book with a striking statement, which I quote:

In the half-century between 1886, the date of the last Impressionist exhibition, and the beginning of World War II, a change took place in the theory and practice of art that was as radical and momentous as any that had occurred in human history.  It was based on the belief that works of art need not imitate or represent natural objects and events. Therefore artistic activity is not essentially concerned with representation, but instead with objects expressive of human experience.

Hamilton's subsequent description of the development of modern art was so absorbing that it never occurred to me that neither he nor the professor who taught the course not only never explained why this radical change occurred, but never even raised the question.

Fast forward to the 1990s, when I discovered that there are two very different kinds of artistic innovator.  And this led me to a reinterpretation of one of the key episodes in the history of modern art, the Impressionist group exhibitions that began in 1874.  For what I now understood was that Claude Monet and his friends were at a disadvantage not only because they were outsiders in a hierarchical art world that favored artists who had ties to the official Ecole des Beaux Arts, but that they were the wrong kind of artist to compete in that system.  The problem was that as experimental artists, who painted directly, without preparatory studies, they were unable to construct the large and complex figure studies that were necessary to gain attention in the crowded halls of the official Salon.  And it made perfect sense for experimental painters to design their own group exhibitions so as to allow each artist to present a large number of smaller paintings.

The Impressionist exhibitions were intended simply to provide a showcase for Monet, Pissarro, and their colleagues, but they famously had much more momentous consequences, as their critical success - remarkably - led to the effective collapse of an already weakened official Salon.   The Academy of Fine Arts now completely lost its control of the art market, for aspiring artists no longer had to satisfy the conservative juries of the Salon in order to have their work exhibited and reviewed.  The void left by the official Salon was filled not only by the Impressionist exhibitions, but also by other group exhibitions that followed their lead.

This produced a change in the economic structure of the market for advanced art.  Until the 1870s, the official Salon held an effective monopoly over the ability of artists to enter that market successfully.  But the end of the monopoly introduced a new element of competition.  Paul Gauguin observed that the final decades of the 19th century constituted a new regime for artists: "When they want to exhibit their work, the painters choose the day, the hour, the hall that suits them.  There are no juries."  And he recognized a consequence: "Today boldness is no longer blackballed."

This new era of competition made the Paris art world of the 1880s a battleground, in which new styles competed for critical prestige.  Ironically the Impressionists, who had fought to create the new regime, came under the most severe attack, as ambitious younger artists contended to unseat Monet and his colleagues as the leaders of advanced art.  And in a preview of the future, the innovations of these younger artists would have a source very different from those of the Impressionists: their art would not be based on vision, but would express their ideas and emotions.

The role of galleries also began to change.  Previously, galleries had exhibited the work of artists who had received honors at the Salon.  But in the 1880s Paul Durand-Ruel presented a series of solo exhibitions for the Impressionists.  These had little success, but they pointed to the future, in which gallery exhibitions would replace group shows altogether.

The first artist to rise to prominence by exhibiting exclusively in galleries was Pablo Picasso.  Picasso was the young artistic genius who was the key figure in the radical change George Heard Hamilton described,  for Cubism was the first movement, in Hamilton's words, "in which the work of art is no longer a description or illusion of actuality."  But what has been much less appreciated by art historians is the fact that Picasso was also the entrepreneurial genius who created a competitive market among dealers.  Picasso settled in Paris in 1901, at the age of 20, and during the next two decades painted portraits of a dozen dealers, as he systematically cultivated those who could sell his work and spread his reputation.  When the Italian painter Umberto Boccioni visited Paris in 1911, he reported to a friend that "The young man ruling the roost here now is Picasso.  The painter scarcely finishes a work before it is carted off and paid for by the dealers in competition with each other."

The rise of competition created even greater incentives for conspicuous innovation.  Over time, critics, dealers, and collectors had learned about the new economics of modern art.  Every time a modern artist became famous, from Monet, Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin on, one element of their careers that invariably gained a great deal of attention was the complete early neglect of their work.  Each such episode carried a powerful lesson about unexploited profit opportunities, and intensified the search for new innovators.  The young artists who innovated most conspicuously were conceptual.  And so the new century became an era of conceptual innovations.

Picasso initiated this new regime with the radical new style of Cubism, which quickly gave rise to such other movements as Futurism, Suprematism, and De Stijl.  But Picasso didn't stop there.  In 1912 he made the first collage, by violating the centuries-old convention that nothing other than paint could be placed on the surface of a canvas.  This inspired other young conceptual artists to create their own new genres: later in 1912, Picasso's friend Georges Braque invented papier-colle; the next year Vladimir Tatlin, excited by a visit to Picasso's studio, invented the counter-relief; also in 1913 Marcel Duchamp invented the readymade; and on and on.  During the next seven decades, nearly 50 new genres were invented, all by young conceptual innovators.

And Picasso was still not finished.  During the 1910s he began doing something equally radical, by working simultaneously in multiple styles.  Style had traditionally been an artist's identity, a personal hallmark to be developed and guarded.  But Picasso declared that styles were merely languages, to be used and discarded at will.  Marcel Duchamp seized on this new conception of style, and he and his friends Francis Picabia and Man Ray began to make changes of style a deliberate practice.  They would be followed by a succession of young conceptual artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Damien Hirst.

Picasso created the first conceptual revolutions of the new century, but other young conceptual artists recognized what he had done, and followed his lead.  Marcel Duchamp created the model of the artistic trickster with his porcelain urinal readymade, a radical challenge to conventional art that forced debate over whether he was serious or joking, and his innovation was adopted by other provocative masters of ambiguity - Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Piero Manzoni, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, to name a few.  Georges Braque introduced letters into his paintings, and the use of language became an important element of conceptual 20th-century art.  And on and on.

I don't have time to go through a more complete list of what I have called conceptual revolutions; for anyone interested in this, I wrote a book with that title.   Let me just point out that art historians' inability to deal with an era that has no dominant styles led them to coin the empty label "post-modern."  That term is simply their admission that they cannot understand an era of conceptual innovations, in which a succession of isolated young innovators has replaced the stylistic movements of the past.

The moral of my story is that we can genuinely understand art history only by taking account of economic forces.   The radical developments in art in the past 150 years have been directly related to changes in the structure of art markets.  And this is of course only the modern era.  We have elements of an economic history of art prior to the modern era that are both richly empirical and informed by an economist's understanding of how market forces affect production: prominent examples are John Michael Montias' study of Dutch art in the Golden Age, and Federico Etro's studies of the development of the market for art in Italy and elsewhere from the Renaissance on.  But we still have no integrated economic history of art, including the major innovations and innovators.  Many opportunities remain.

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