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How Artists Will Have Nothing To Do With Economists: Q&A with David Galenson, Economic Historian, University of Chicago

Why is a shark in a tank of formaldehyde, the brainchild of Damien Hirst, such a celebrated piece at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art? Why is a pile of rocks, designed by Robert Smithson, one of the most important installations in the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing?

David Galenson, Professor of Economics and the College, is the author of a new book, Conceptual Revolutions in 20th Century Art, which he says answers one of the most vexing questions of contemporary culture: Why is much of contemporary art so bizarre, and seemingly lacking in the intrinsic appeal and stylistic coherence of previous eras?

Galenson, an economic historian, isn't as well known as colleagues Steven Levitt (Freakonomics) or Richard Thaler (Nudge), but his work on art has been far from ignored. He's been the subject of feature stories in Wired, the New York Times, the Financial Times and the New Yorker, in which Malcolm Gladwell described at length "Galeson's idea that creativity can be divided into types."

Economists have praised his work on art for providing fresh insights into the nature of creativity. The economic historian has written four books and more than 50 articles and working papers about art. He co-sponsored a 2003 conference, titled "Measuring Art: The Scientific Revolution in Art History." Galenson's research on painter's lives may even spawn a subdiscipline. Inspired by Galenson's "Old Masters, Young Geniuses," Carlos Rodriguez (Ph.D.,'73), president of Universidad del CEMA in Buenos Aires, is establishing a Center for Creativity Economics next year to foster similar research.

But Galenson's work gets less attention from art historians, the people he set out to influence more than a decade ago.

"One," said Galenson, sticking out a finger. "I know of only one art historian who has read this work." That one, Robert Jensen of the University of Kentucky, called Galenson's latest book "the most inventive, surprising and illuminating book to appear in my lifetime."

Beyond Jensen, Galenson said, his efforts to bridge disciplines have been met with silence. He said there have been "casual dismissals," but there's never been, in over a decade, a serious response to his work. "I think this could lead to a major advance in the field, but art historians won't even pay attention to it."

His newest book is his most ambitious yet. The nearly 500-page treatise offers "the first explanation as to why 20th-century art is completely different from all earlier art," Galenson said.

We sat down with Galenson to talk about his thesis, his methodology, why he doesn't like the term "postmodernism" and why Gladwell likes his work but art historians don't.

How does an economist who has spent much of his career studying labor behavior in colonial America end up writing a new interpretation of 20th-century art?

Conceptual Revolutions is the most recent product of my research on creativity. All of this research is based on a discovery I made more than 10 years ago. I was buying a painting by Sol LeWitt (contemporary artist) at ArtExpo, an art show on Navy Pier. In discussing the price and when the painting was made with the dealer, and then a friend of mine who worked for LeWitt, I became aware that neither of them knew what painters' age-price profiles looked like.

I began using auction data to estimate these, and found that there were two very different patterns: Some artists, including C'ezanne and Pollock, did their most valuable work late in their lives, but others, including Picasso and Warhol, made theirs early in their careers. I began studying this puzzle, and it led me to the realization that there are two very different types of innovators, who have different goals, make their contributions by different methods and have different life cycles of creativity. A key feature of the visual art of the past century is that it has been dominated by one of these types, the conceptual innovators, who make their breakthroughs early in their careers.

How is your interpretation of 20th-century art different from others?

What art historians have not understood is that 20th-century art was completely different from all earlier art because of a change in the market for advanced art that occurred in the late 19th century. The Impressionists' independent group exhibitions of the 1870s and '80s had the unexpected consequence of destroying the dominant position of the official Salon in controlling artists' entry into the art market. A competitive market did not immediately come into existence, because it took time for dealers and collectors to understand that the work of innovative younger artists could be a good investment. Pablo Picasso was the first artist to take full advantage of the new regime: early in his career, he painted more portraits of dealers than any artist ever had, as he systematically created competition for his work. With the Salon monopoly eliminated, a competitive market gave artists unprecedented freedom to innovate. Twentieth-century art came to be dominated by the young conceptual innovators who could respond most readily to this freedom.

You've said the terms "postmodernism" and "pluralism" lead to a misunderstanding of 20th-century art. How?

Art scholars and critics recognize that pluralism and postmodernism are not explanations of recent art, but rather labels for artistic behavior the art experts don't understand. I believe that, in fact, these terms are based on a misunderstanding of 20th-century art as a whole. The proliferation of new genres of art, the disappearance of dominant styles, and the elimination of style altogether by many leading artists were not new practices in the 1970s or '80s, but were simply the extension by young conceptual innovators of practices that were initiated at the beginning of the 20th century by Picasso, Duchamp and other young conceptual innovators who followed them.

Why haven't art historians embraced your work?

Current art historians hate systematic generalization. They have refused to even consider my work.

Your work has received little attention from art historians, but it's been popular with journalists who focus on innovation in business - Dan Pink and Malcolm Gladwell have been among your biggest cheerleaders? Why?

I think both Dan Pink and Malcolm Gladwell really understood that although my analysis was first developed by studying painters, it is in fact much more general - it applies to all the arts, and in fact to all intellectual activities. Gladwell's article did a great job of showing how differently conceptual and experimental writers of fiction go about producing their work and how different their lifecycles are as a result.

You co-sponsored a 2003 conference, which encouraged art historians to use statistical tools. Why do you think methods, like regression analysis, can benefit artists?

A great economist, Joseph Schumpeter, once wrote that we need statistics not only to explain things, but also to know what there is to explain. I think my research on art and creativity presents examples of both of these uses of statistics: I've solved problems humanists couldn't, and I've also identified problems they couldn't.

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