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Artistic Innovation: Individual or Collective?

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In the modern era, nearly all great innovators in visual art have emerged from groups. From Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism through Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, and beyond, groups of artists have worked together to make great breakthroughs. Thus Sir Alan Bowness, in his excellent 1989 lecture, "The Conditions of Success: How the Modern Artist Rises to Fame," observed that:

The creative act is a unique and personal one, but it cannot exist in isolation. I do not believe that any great art has been produced in a non-competitive situation: on the contrary it is the fiercely competitive environment in which the young artist finds himself that drives him to excel...

Most truly original new art is the result of group activity. It appears that the conjunction of several exceptional talents results in something that is greater than the parts.

The pervasiveness of groups of artists in innovative modern painting has in fact been such that the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman considered it a defining characteristic of modern art. Thus he wrote:

Here is the dividing line in the history of art! Whereas every serious artist throughout history has had to solve the problems of his medium, it had always been personal, a problem of talent. It was not until the Impressionists that a group of artists set themselves a communal task: the exploration of a technical problem together...

Modern painting begins with the Impressionists precisely because for the first time in history, a group of artists repudiated the role of the great personal message with its attendant doctrine of the immaculate conception and decided to devote themselves exclusively to solving a technical problem in painting -- color.

Early collaboration has been almost a necessary condition for the production of significant contributions to modern art. This is true from Impressionism through the Young British Artists, and beyond. And this has recently led some social scientists to argue that artistic innovation is not an individual, but a group, phenomenon. These scholars contend that we should not speak of the innovations and impact of Monet or Pollock, but instead those of the Impressionists or Abstract Expressionists, respectively, as groups.

These scholars are profoundly mistaken. To say that Monet could not have developed his art in precisely the same way without the support, and challenge, of Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and others, or Pollock his without the early collaboration of Motherwell and Baziotes, can be true without implying that all the Impressionists share equal credit for Monet's innovations, or all the Abstract Expressionists for Pollock's. Monet was recognized by his colleagues as the leader of his group, just as Pollock was recognized by his colleagues. And both Monet and Pollock created art that was distinctly different from that of even their closest collaborators. In the modern era, great painters have learned from their peers (and from their teachers), but have made distinctive individual contributions. To fail to recognize this is to fail to understand modern art.

The artists themselves have never made this mistake. Examples abound. In 1895, Cézanne had his first solo exhibition, at Ambroise Vollard's gallery. Camille Pissarro, who had tutored Cézanne in the basics of Impressionism two decades earlier, wrote to his son, complaining of the ignorance of a critic who exaggerated the uniqueness of Cézanne's art:

He simply doesn't know that Cézanne was influenced like all the rest of us, which detracts nothing from his qualities. People forget that Cézanne was first influenced by Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, and even Legros, like all of us; he was influenced by me at Pontoise, and I by him. You may remember the sallies of Zola and Béliard in this regard. They imagined that artists are the sole inventors of their styles and that to resemble someone else is to be unoriginal. Curiously enough, in Cézanne's show at Vollard's there are certain landscapes of Auvers and Pontoise [from 1871-74] that are similar to mine. Naturally, we were always together! But what cannot be denied is that each of us kept the only thing that counts, the unique "sensation"!

The subtlety of Pissarro's recognition of the co-existence of influence and originality in the work of a great artist is an object lesson for scholars whose understanding of art is less subtle. In a similar vein, in 1965 Barnett Newman protested the group label of "New York School," stressing the individuality of the artists included: "The only common ground we all had is the creation of a new, free, plastic language. Some of the voices in this language are strong, some hollow, some thin."

If social scientists are to make a real contribution to understanding artistic creativity, they must recognize the importance of both collective languages and individual voices. In the words of Sir Alan Bowness: "The great artists who emerge from such group-based developments are completely individual of course, but at an early stage they seem to need this communal support." Of course.