NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

A Conceptual World: Why the Art of the Twentieth Century is So Different From the Art of All Earlier Centuries

David W. Galenson

NBER Working Paper No. 12499
Issued in August 2006
NBER Program(s):   LS

This paper surveys 31 new genres of art that were invented during the twentieth century, chronologically from collage, papier colle, and readymades through installation, performance, and earthworks. This unprecedented proliferation in art forms was a direct consequence of the dominant role of conceptual innovation in the century's art, as a series of young iconoclasts deliberately broke the conventions and rules of existing artistic practice in the process of devising new ways to express their ideas and emotions. This overview affords a more precise understanding of one conspicuous and important way in which twentieth-century art differed from that of all earlier eras. The proliferation of genres has fragmented the advanced art world. A century ago, a great painter could influence nearly all advanced artists, but today it is virtually impossible for any one artist to influence practitioners of genres as diverse as painting, video, and installation. This survey also underscores the central role of Picasso in the advanced art of the past century, as he not only created the first, and one of the most important, of the new genres, but in doing so he also provided a new model of artistic behavior that became an inspiration for many other young conceptual artists.

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