Montias in the Annales

The economist who taught the art historians a thing or two about art. Michael Montias brought about a minor revolution in art studies. He might however have brought in a bit more bathwater that’s good for the baby.In 1962, the American historian of science Thomas Kuhn published a brilliant volume entitled The structure of scientific revolutions. In it he described the development of science not as a march of progress but as a succession of what he called paradigms. A paradigm is a set of convictions shared by the practitioners of a particular science. Most of the time, scientists have unreserved faith in the ruling paradigm. This allows them to engage in normal science. However, every once in a while a crisis occurs which leads to a paradigm shift. When this happens, scientists see their material through different eyes and say different things about it. For a while, the field goes into a revolutionary convulsion, until the new paradigm becomes the basis for a new brand of normal science.

A paradigm shift in the history of Dutch painting has been taking shape over the past seventeen years as the field responds to the work of the American economist John Michael Montias. The fact that Montias is a non-art historian (he is a specialist in the economies of central and eastern Europe at the Institution for Social and Political Studies at Yale University) bears out Kuhn’s observation that a successful shift is often traceable to an outsider. A personal interest in Dutch painting inspired Montias to apply the tools of his trade to the history of his hobby. From the 1970s on he has devoted much of his time to the field. A campaign of six summers and a sabbatical in the municipal archives of Delft provided him with material for Artists and artisans in Delft: a socio-economic study of the seventeenth century, Princeton (Princeton University Press) 1982, which is consulted extensively by everyone in the field. Since then he has published several important articles on the production, collecting and trade in art in seventeenth-century Holland, and the book Vermeer and his milieu: a study in social history, Princeton (Princeton University Press) 1989.

Montias’s work contains several elements which are rare in earlier writings on Dutch painting. He applies general principles of economics to art; he uses massive archival documentation to define the quantitative dimensions of the art world and its products; and he uses that same documentation to reconstruct family and professional circumstances in the greatest possible detail. Although these things are anathema to traditional art historians, who reject amounts, numbers and personal anecdotes as keys to the evaluation and interpretation of art, Montias has not been excoriated by them. In part this is exactly because he does come from outside. An economist may be forgiven for not taking the work of art itself as the central object of his study, a sin for which a colleague art historian would be punished severely. Montias on the contrary was welcomed warmly by historians of Dutch art, who awarded the Johannes Vermeer Prize to him even before the appearance of his first book.

There are several reasons for this. One is that Montias is a conservative scholar and a non-polemical writer. In contrast to his fellow economist William Grampp, whose book Pricing the priceless: art, artists and economics, New York (Basic Books) 1989, is an aggressive taunt against the notion that art is economically exceptional, Montias never challenges art-historical assumptions openly. By adopting a low profile (in Artists and artisans he calls himself an “eavesdropper” on art history), he underplays the implications of his own method, which in principle does not differ from Grampp’s. This has made it possible for Montias to be joined by other researchers without the ruffling of too many art-historical feathers. The economic historians Ad van der Woude, Jan de Vries, Neil De Marchi and Marten Jan Bok are adding their considerable scholarly weight to what might be called the Montias School of the study of Dutch art. Their success can be gauged from a review in the Burlington Magazine of January 1994. The English art historian Paul Taylor, writing of the prestigious volume Art in history, history in art: studies in seventeenth-century Dutch culture Santa Monica (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities) 1991, concluded: “These three essays, by Montias, De Vries and Van der Woude, are the highlight of the book, and it is revealing of the present state of Dutch art history that none of the writers is an art historian. There is currently a sense of aimlessness in the subject…”

The latter observation fits in with Kuhn’s theory that paradigm shifts take place in periods of crisis. When “normal science” fails to come up with convincing answers to its own questions, people become more receptive to those offered by newcomers. Such nagging questions about Dutch art are indeed hanging in the air. To what extent and in what respects was it an exception to the European Baroque? How does the descriptiveness of Dutch art – and its commercialism – relate to its moralism? Just what does its subject matter tell us about the life of the time or the new Dutch nation? Art historians are divided – even polarized – on these issues. They and their readers are growing weary of debates which recycle arguments that in some cases have echoed since the seventeenth century itself. Montias’s hard facts seem to offer a new handle on parts of these questions.

The uncontroversial quality that makes Montias so palatable to traditional art historians has its disadvantages. By avoiding polemics, he fails to isolate and engage the incompatibilities between his contribution and the field as he found it. This makes it possible for him even to disagree with himself without seeming to notice it. In Artists and artisans in Delft and his articles of the 1980s he reasons very much like a neoclassical economist. The impartial forces of the market are given all the credit for shaping the field, with only a few desultory pages devoted to patronage. But in his book on Vermeer, the giant of Delft painting, we learn that half the artist’s production was bought by one patron, a man named Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven! Van Ruijven, whose choices as a patron helped make the oeuvre of Vermeer what it was, is not even mentioned in Artists and artisans. Although it may not have been typical, the relationship between Vermeer and van Ruijven illustrates how vital personal ties can be even in an art world dominated by “the market.” This weakens the basis of much free-market thinking about Dutch art. It also makes us wonder whether present-day economic theory really transcends history. Is it that much of a boon to the study of a society like that of Holland in the seventeenth century? In articles postdating Vermeer, Montias indicates his new awareness of this problem.

In his latest article, in the November-December 1993 issue of the famous French journal Annales ESC, Montias goes back in time to search for the origins of the Dutch art market in that of the southern Netherlands in earlier times. “Le marché de l’art aux Pays-Bas: XVe et XVIe siècles” investigates the question of patronage versus the market that the author perhaps answered too hastily with regard to the seventeenth century. The new article, based not on his own archive research but that of other scholars, does not allay my doubts that Montias may be thinking too simplistically about his problem. The situation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is even further removed from the pure forms of either a free and open market or a patronage system than that of the seventeenth century. Consider a hypothetical but typical case. An Antwerp altarpiece is put together by masters and assistants and apprentices in four different studios of carpenters, sculptors, painters and gilders. It is offered for sale by an art dealer who covers his investment by selling part ownership to a colleague and by delaying payment to the craftsmen. The buyer is a tradesman from Portugal working on behalf of a patron who wants to present it to his local church. The priest of the church has sent a letter giving the dimensions of the available space and the required iconography. The buyer purchases the altarpiece that comes closest to his needs, but before he takes delivery it has to go back to the workshop to be enlarged and for some saints to be replaced with others. Dealing with situations of this kind, Montias tries to factor out the elements made on commission and those made on spec, the risk capital and the money in the bank. Is this really the right question? I beg to differ. To my mind we misrepresent the complex historical (and social) facts of a market of this kind by studying it as an accumulation of separable bound and unbound strands. I would say the same of the Dutch seventeenth century.

One of the nice things about new paradigms, according to Kuhn, is that they do not have to be superior to those they replace in order to be successful. What makes them work is that they carry more conviction to a new generation than the older model. In this regard, the key element in Montias’s success is the crisis of the preceding paradigm. I would define the crisis as the unacknowledged inability of historians of Dutch art to maintain the work of art in the center of their field. It was starting to slide off into the realms of intellectual, social and cultural history when Montias came along unawares, with his passion for Holland, art and archives.

Montias’s work has proved to be a catalyst for new approaches to Dutch art. The first group to come up with something like a coherent program are the economic historians. Their quantifiable conclusions, as a form of force majeure, have helped traditionalists to qualify their aestheticism without loss of face. (Do not ask them what they think of the sociology of art unless you are in the mood for a long, aggrieved litany.) Whether the economic model will become the new paradigm remains to be seen. My own feeling is that the crisis is too fundamental to be settled with what economics or any other single field has to offer. Perhaps it cannot be settled at all in our time. Paradigms are not as resilient as they used to be, even as recently as 1962.


(c) Gary Schwartz 1994. Published in different form as “Der Gast, der lauscht: ein Ãkonom revolutioniert die holländische Kunstgeschichte,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 29 June 1994, p. N5 and in Homo Oeconomicus 12, nr. 3/4 (1995), pp. 529-534.

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