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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

7 - And Now for Something Completely Different: The Versatility of Conceptual Innovators



In recent decades, it has become fashionable for scholars of art history to disdain systematic comparison or generalization. Much recent scholarship in the discipline considers one artist, or even one work, at a time. Art historians' unwillingness, or inability, to carry out systematic comparative analyses has often led to a failure to recognize and understand important patterns of artistic behavior. This chapter examines a striking example of such a failure, in which a form of creative behavior that has become enormously important in the art of the twentieth century has been neglected because every instance of it has been treated as idiosyncratic.

The following section of this chapter documents an observation that art historians have made about what they consider a puzzling practice of modern painters. Specifically, in three separate instances, a scholar commented on the behavior of a single painter, then attempted to explain the behavior by considering only that one artist. Although the observation was precisely the same in all three cases, the scholars were different in each case, the artist in question was also different, and none of the scholars showed any awareness of any other instance of this observation. My contention is that the failure to recognize the commonality of the artistic behavior at issue precluded satisfactory explanation of it. The practice noted by the scholars is in fact not unique to any artist, but rather is characteristic of a class of artists.