by Pierre- Michel Menger. Harvard University Press, June 2014. 416 p. ill. ISBN 9780674724563 (cl.), $49.95.
Reviewed September 2014
Ryan Evans, Archivist, Bard Center for Curatorial Studies/Hessel Museum, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Economics of Creativity: Art and Achievement under Uncertainty brings together a collection of essays first compiled and released in French in 2009, by leading theorist in the sociology of creative work, Pierre-Michel Menger. These translations were recently published by Harvard University Press in a sturdy, hard-bound volume of 416 pages, including extensive notes.
The central goal of this book and Menger's work in general is to examine the work of artists through both a sociological and economic lens. In particular Menger seeks to differentiate artistic labor from other types of labor, bringing to light a characteristic that he argues is intrinsic to artistic careers, namely their relationship to economic uncertainty and risk-taking. Menger seeks to elucidate the balance that exists in the relative success of an artist's career, between determining the quantifiable talent of a particular artist vis-a-vis his peers, and the social and historical conditions that determine what opportunities exist.
In his investigation of artistic labor Menger highlights exemplary careers in the history of art. These themes are delivered in the form of independent articles that make up the chapters of his book. In his chapter "How Can Artistic Greatness Be Analyzed?" the author takes issue with other academic explorations of the notion of artistic genius in relation to success in the career of Beethoven. He attempts to provide a new theoretical framework by addressing the seemingly disparate forces at work in Beethoven's career which he describes as the "Beethovenian paradigm...that of the intersection of the new social situation, which strengthened the power of the bourgeoisie in its battle against aristocracy, the success of the norm of expressive individualism in art, and the development of the music market." In his chapter "Profiles of the Unfinished" the author takes up a discussion of the issues present in the career of Rodin including the problematic status of the original artwork in light of derivative versions, especially with regard to the way in which Rodin made traces of his artistic labor visible. Here the concept of uncertainty is developed in order to argue that in offering multiple versions Rodin escapes the finality of a complete manifestation.
While his analysis is applied to both Modernist and Premodernist examples, I believe Menger's discussion is easily applied to contemporary art figures, insofar as an analysis on the social and economic conditions can be performed. In an increasingly interdisciplinary field of art history and criticism, Menger's book is a unique contribution to the field, as well as a new model for considering artistic labor. I would recommend this title for any library with holdings in philosophy relative to the arts.