Tag Archives: David W. Galenson

Flame, Remember My Name

I was going to comment that this year in street art had a bit dull… the same old same old stuff on the streets, no innovations or developments like yarn bombing or street sculpture. But then along came Doyle with his Empty Nursery Blue in Rutledge Lane. And the division between the technical and the conceptual elements in street art was brought into even sharper contrast with CDH’s article “The Commodification of Street Art” in the September issue of Art Monthly Australia and E.L.K.’s reply “The mouse that sunk the boat” on Invurt.

Mask sticker, 2009

Mask sticker, 2009

I am used the word “technical” in the last paragraph to describe the work of artists with the technical skill of stencil cutting, aerosol spray skills, etc. in contrast to the conceptual, thinking of and executing an idea. I am using ‘conceptual’ in the way that Galenson uses it, to refer to conceptual break through from collage to video art, and not to exclusively refer to works of conceptual art; David W. Galenson contrasts modern and contemporary conceptual and experimental artists in his book Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press, 2009, New York). I’ve used the word ‘technical’, rather than ‘experimental’ because there aren’t that many experimental artists, in Galenson’s terms, on Melbourne’s streets, most are content to become technically proficient, although Slicer, Reka, Conrad Bizjak and others might count as experimental.

Aside from the conceptual versus the technical there is a contrast in the ideological purity of CDH’s position opposed to the pragmatic concerns of E.L.K. The utopian ambitions of the politics of conceptual artists have often caused them to cry: “sell out” (in various ways, like all the “expulsions” from the official Surrealist movement). This usually been countered with accusations of lack of talent or technique but this doesn’t address the real differences between the two radically different approaches to art. The conceptual artist is not interested in the technique but the politics or philosophy of artistic progress and likewise the technical artist pragmatic has little time or interest in philosophy or politics.

Specifically in reply to CDH’s article I would argue that street art is not held back or corrupted by its commodification because that was happening since the beginning of street art; Fab 5 Freddy was exhibiting in galleries in 1979, it is part of the street art system. Nor is being distorted when graffiti goes mainstream that was also happening since the beginning, appearing in pop music videos like Blondie’s “Rapture” (1981) and the 1983 PBS documentary, Style Wars, for example.

In Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt’s introductory essay “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion” the authors examine Alvin Toffler’s mainstream absorption model where “the potential disruptive energies of the subculture are controlled, and the hegemony of mass culture is continually reasserted” and provide a counter example, hip hop, where “the process of mediation and commoditization were factored in all along”. (Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, ed. Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, V&A Publisher, 2011, p.53) To put it bluntly not all subcultures have the same relationship to mass culture as hippies or punks.

Finally, I have no aesthetic or political opinion on the matter for without conceptual artists there will be little or no innovations or developments in street art but without the technical artists there wouldn’t be as large an audience or the interest. What I think is holding Melbourne’s street art back is the conservative traditionalists in street art and graffiti that believe that they can enforce their various definitions; in this respect they have a similar attitude to their traditional opponents, the police, railway security and city councillors.

Adnate & Slicer "Nothing Lasts Forever" Brunswick Station, 2012

Adnate & Slicer “Nothing Lasts Forever” Brunswick Station, 2012

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.

%d bloggers like this: