VoxEU Column Frontiers of economic research

Conceptual revolutions in twentieth-century art

The art of the past century was radically different from earlier art. This column says that that was a direct result of a basic change in the structure of the market for advanced art that occurred during the late nineteenth century. Indeed, contemporary art is the logical result of young conceptual innovators operating in a competitive market that has consistently rewarded radical and conspicuous innovation.

Art scholars and critics have confessed their inability to understand contemporary art in what they consider the incoherent era of “pluralism” and “postmodernism.” So, for example, the philosopher and critic Arthur Danto remarked in 1997 that “contemporary art no longer allows itself to be represented by master narratives at all,” and in 2005 Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker that “The contemporary art world of the 1980s blew apart into four main fragments…Eventually, even the fragments disintegrated, becoming the sluggish mishmash that has prevailed ever since.” Key features of this era include the disappearance of dominant styles and a dramatic increase in the variety of material forms of art.

What the art experts have failed to recognise is that what they call pluralism or postmodernism did not arise spontaneously in the late twentieth century but was a systematic extension of practices that began early in the century. The art of the twentieth century as a whole was distinctly different from all earlier art because of the primacy of a specific type of artistic creativity given a decisive advantage by a new market environment.

Old masters and young geniuses

Important artists can be divided into two types on the basis of their goals and methods. Experimental innovators seek to record visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so they work by trial and error. They build their skills over time, and their innovations appear gradually, late in their lives. Conceptual innovators express their ideas or emotions. The precision of their goals allows them to plan their works and execute them systematically. Radical conceptual innovations depend on the ability to recognise the value of extreme deviations from existing conventions, and this ability declines with experience, as habits of thought become entrenched, so the most important conceptual innovations occur early in an artist’s career.

Both experimental and conceptual innovators have played major roles in the history of western art. Among the Old Masters, van Eyck, Masaccio, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Vermeer were conceptual innovators, while Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Velazquez, and Rembrandt were experimental innovators. The conceptual innovators Manet, van Gogh, and Gauguin were among the greatest artists of the nineteenth century, as were the experimental innovators Monet, Degas, and Cézanne. For centuries, neither type of innovator dominated advanced art. This changed in the twentieth century, however, as conceptual innovators gained an advantage over their experimental counterparts as a consequence of a fundamental change in the structure of the market for advanced art. There were great experimental innovators in twentieth-century art, including Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock, but the influence of each was quickly eclipsed by that of younger artists who turned their discoveries to conceptual ends.

The rise of a competitive market for art

In 1874, frustrated by their lack of success in having their work accepted by the official Salon, Claude Monet and a group of his friends organised an independent exhibition that included paintings by 29 artists. Although it would not be apparent until later, the first Impressionist exhibition began a new era, in which the reputations of important artists would no longer be created in the Salon but would instead be made in independent exhibitions. Analytically, the critical change the Impressionists initiated in 1874 was the elimination of the Salon’s monopoly on the ability to present new art in a setting that critics and the public would accept as legitimate.

A competitive market for advanced art did not immediately come into existence. But as the prices of works by not only the Impressionists but also Cézanne and other Post-Impressionists began to increase, more private galleries became willing to sell the work of younger artists. The first artist to gain prominence by exhibiting in galleries rather than group shows was the ambitious young Pablo Picasso. Early in his career, Picasso used his art to create a competitive market for his work; during 1901-20, he executed portraits of no less than nine dealers and the wife of a tenth. Picasso’s portraits of Vollard, Kahnweiler, and a series of other gallery owners provide visual evidence of the birth of a new regime in the history of art markets.

From the Renaissance onwards, artists were constrained in the extent to which they could innovate by the need to satisfy powerful patrons and institutions. The rise of a competitive market removed this constraint and gave artists greater freedom. Collectors soon recognised that the most innovative art would become the most valuable. In a market setting that rewarded innovation, conceptual artists who could innovate rapidly and conspicuously gained a decisive advantage. And here too Picasso led the way.

The road to pluralism and postmodernism

Early in his career, Picasso puzzled many in the art world by changing styles frequently and abruptly. For earlier artists style had been a personal trademark, but Picasso compared styles to languages and contended that artists should be free to use whatever language best expressed their ideas. His new practice was quickly followed by Duchamp, Picabia, and a series of other conceptual artists. The practice of stylistic versatility thus became a pattern. In 1963, Andy Warhol rejected the idea of commitment to a single style, declaring that “You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something.” This attitude eventually led to one of the features of contemporary art that has most puzzled critics, as for example Schjeldahl declared of Bruce Nauman in 2002 that “There is no Nauman style.” For many art scholars this behaviour was troubling, but for conceptual artists it was liberating. Thus the German painter Gerhard Richter observed in 1977 that “changeable artists are a growing phenomenon,” and later reflected of his own work that “It has now become my identifying characteristic that my work is all over the place.”

In 1912, Picasso glued a piece of oil cloth to a small painting. This violated the longstanding convention that nothing but paint should be placed on the surface of a canvas, and was quickly recognised as the first example of a new genre, collage. Braque, Tatlin, Duchamp and other young conceptual artists were quick to follow Picasso’s example, violating conventions of painting and sculpture to devise their own novel art forms. During the twentieth century, more than four dozen new artistic genres were invented and named. This contributed to the balkanisation of advanced art, as painters and sculptors were joined by sizeable numbers of artists who made collages, installations, environments, and other novel forms. This proliferation of genres, which has been central to the artistic pluralism of the late twentieth century, was a result of the response of a series of iconoclastic young conceptual innovators to the high rewards for conspicuous innovation.

A conceptual art world

In 2001, Arthur Danto declared that “We are living on a conceptual art world.” The observation was accurate, but tardy. The conceptual art world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries developed clearly and directly from the earlier conceptual innovations of Picasso, Duchamp, and their many heirs.

During the twentieth century, conceptual innovators not only began to make frequent changes of style and to create works that deliberately violated the boundaries of traditional artistic genres but also began to engage in a series of other behaviours that departed radically from earlier art (see Galenson 2009). Yet these patterns were generally overlooked or misunderstood by art scholars. Trained to analyse the history of art as a progression of styles, art scholars were left helpless when style became one casualty of the century’s conceptual revolutions, and they could only describe contemporary art as incoherent. This judgment is mistaken. Contemporary art is the logical result of the development of advanced art throughout the twentieth century, but this can only be understood by those willing to recognise the systematic patterns created by the deliberate behaviour of young conceptual innovators, operating in a competitive market that has consistently rewarded radical and conspicuous innovation.


Danto, Arthur (1997) After the End of Art, Princeton University Press.

Galenson, David (2009) Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, Cambridge University Press and NBER.

Schjeldahl, Peter (2008) Let’s See, Thames and Hudson.

4,304 Reads