New Approach to Old History

David W. Galenson Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press, 2009, New York)

I have very mixed feelings about this book because I’ve been waiting for this kind of book for decades and I hope that it leads to a revolution in art history. There are problems in art history that I would like to see addressed and Galenson’s book lives up to some of those expectations. Unfortunately the book is also a bit of a bore.

It is this methodology that is the most startling part of the book, an art history book with no pictures but lots of tables. It was the first thing that attracted me to it when I flipped through its pages. I have encountered quantitative research in art history before Galenson but it has been rare; there is a wonderful graph detailing Marcel Duchamp’s art and media coverage throughout his life that Art & America in1969. It is worthwhile method, even if it arrives at intuitively obvious answers. I wish that he’d taken this method further as mapping art movements would have changed his examination of the globalisation of art.

The book does not come to any startling conclusions – the position of Jasper Johns at number 10 in the greatest artists of the 20th Century may be the most startling. This is not surprising as Galenson approaches art history with the attitude that the artists and art history are always right. And Galenson has quantitative and qualitative evidence for this conclusion; he has a data set of images of art in histories of the 20th Century art. And Johns on average beats Brancusi, at number 11, by 0.1 of an illustration.

Galenson is not frightened of making predictions because his predictions are not based on speculation but evidence.

“In view of this, it is likely that in future increasing numbers of young artist will not only make their work jointly, but it will present it explicitly as their joint product. It is also likely that, as in the past, these teams will generally be made up of conceptual artists, for ideas appear to be more readily exchanged and negotiated than visions.” (p.209)

I found some of this evidence interesting in understanding street art and graffiti. The growth in collaborative or co-authored art, the growth in language in visual art and the growth in art refers to graffiti or uses the techniques of graffiti (although street art is not covered in the book).

Galenson does address some interesting points that have rarely, if ever been addressed in art history: the lack of narrative in art history in the late 20th Century, the role of the art market in the proliferation of styles, the growth in artistic collaboration, the relevance of grumpy old artists complaining that the current art is rubbish and the significance of artists who are one hit wonders.

Some of it is a fascinating read but a lot of the book especially the first four chapters felt like revision. I kept on wanted to skip to the end of chapters to see what Galenson’s conclusions would be. If only this wasn’t another overview of 20th Century art history (or if this was the first book on the history of 20th Century art that you have read). And if Galenson wasn’t so focused on his under-whelmingly obvious thesis that it was artists creating new concepts that changed in 20th century art. Then this history might not be such a bore.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

One response to “New Approach to Old History

  • David Galenson

    I appreciate your interest in my book, but I disagree that the central thesis is obvious. As I did this research, I was increasingly struck by the fact that art scholars had never explained why art had changed so radically in the early 20th century, and why it continued to change so rapidly – in effect, they had never dealt with the question of Why 20th Century Art Is Completely Different From All Earlier Art. I think my explanation is powerful: the change in market structure that began with the Impressionists and was consolidated by Picasso created a new demand for faster and more conspicuous innovation, and this tilted the balance away from experimental innovators and toward conceptual innovators. The 20th century, and beyond, became an era of conceptual innovation, in which young, transgressive artists broke every rule or convention they could find. One of the many consequences of this is that graffiti and street art could be considered art: these are among the many new genres created by conceptual artists.

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