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4 - The Greatest Artistic Breakthroughs of the Twentieth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

David W. Galenson
Affiliation:
University of Chicago
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Summary

Breakthroughs

[The artist] has to make an enormous effort to lift himself above his contemporaries. This results in what we often call the “breakthrough,” that every artist on the path to success has to make.

Sir Alan Bowness

The true subject of art history is the narrative and analysis of the succession of innovations that have changed the practices of artists over the course of time. This is a source of considerable confusion not only among the public at large, but even among many art scholars, for there is a persistent belief that art history is the story of the lives of great artists. However widespread, this belief is mistaken. Artists' contributions to their discipline do not consist of their entire body of work, but rather only that part of it that embodies inventions that are subsequently deemed useful by other artists. The chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, perhaps the world's preeminent museum of twentieth-century art, recently expressed this succinctly in explaining the mission of his institution: “MOMA is a museum interested in telling the story of successive innovations rather than a museum interested in the longevity of individual careers.” Scholarly surveys follow this same model, as for example in the statement that opens the preface to their recent textbook, Art Since 1900, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloh declare not that their work is arranged around the careers of artists, but rather that “This book is organized as a succession of important events, each keyed to an appropriate date, and can thus be read as a chronological account of twentieth-century art.”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2009

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