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Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity Paperback – December 2, 2007
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Galenson's idea that creativity can be divided into these types--conceptual and experimental--has a number of important implications.---Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker
David Galenson has developed something approaching a unified theory of art . . . [that] does a surprisingly good job of explaining the relative value of the world's great paintings. . . . While Mr. Galenson has been studying the art world over the last five years, all sorts of other fields have been engaged in their own debate about judgment versus rules. . . . When the traditionalists in these fields describe their skepticism of statistics, they sometimes make the argument that their craft is as much art as it is science. That's a nice line, but the next time you hear it, think back to Mr. Galenson's work. Even art, it turns out, has a good bit of science to it.---David Leonhardt, The New York Times
An intriguing book. (The Age)
After a decade of number crunching, Galenson, at the not-so-tender age of 55, has fashioned something audacious and controversial: a unified field theory of creativity. Not bad for a middle-aged guy. What have you done lately?---Daniel Pink, Wired
"[A] really wonderful book. . . . There's something important to be learned about the way our minds work by entertaining the notion that there are two very different styles of creativity, the Picasso and the Cézanne."―Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink
"Beautifully written, well argued, and an exciting read, Old Masters and Young Geniuses is a strikingly novel interpretation of the creative process by a leading scholar in the economics of the arts. It realizes the exceedingly rare accomplishment of providing a fresh way of looking at the careers of the greatest artists of Western civilization."―William N. Goetzmann, documentary filmmaker, coauthor of The West of the Imagination, Edwin J. Beinecke Professor of Finance, Yale School of Management
"A very well written and intellectually stimulating piece of scholarship that deserves to be widely read and debated."―Dean Keith Simonton, author of Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis
"This extremely lucid, logical book is very much a voyage of discovery, exploring different ways of extending the author's theory of the two polar types of creative behavior to all forms of artistic and intellectual activity. As with all truly original work, it will be controversial."―Robert Jensen, author of Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Kentucky
From the Back Cover
"[A] really wonderful book. . . . There's something important to be learned about the way our minds work by entertaining the notion that there are two very different styles of creativity, the Picasso and the Cézanne."--Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink
"Beautifully written, well argued, and an exciting read, Old Masters and Young Geniuses is a strikingly novel interpretation of the creative process by a leading scholar in the economics of the arts. It realizes the exceedingly rare accomplishment of providing a fresh way of looking at the careers of the greatest artists of Western civilization."--William N. Goetzmann, documentary filmmaker, coauthor of The West of the Imagination, Edwin J. Beinecke Professor of Finance, Yale School of Management
"A very well written and intellectually stimulating piece of scholarship that deserves to be widely read and debated."--Dean Keith Simonton, author of Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis
"This extremely lucid, logical book is very much a voyage of discovery, exploring different ways of extending the author's theory of the two polar types of creative behavior to all forms of artistic and intellectual activity. As with all truly original work, it will be controversial."--Robert Jensen, author of Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Kentucky
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As other reviewers have noted, the book challenges the idea that genius only develops in youth, rather than in middle age or later. Instead, Galenson argues that creative geniuses (artistic and literary genius is the focus here) may be either young or old when they do their breakthrough work. Picasso offers a textbook case of creative genius achieved in youth, while Matisse represents the other extreme: genius that takes many years to develop. Galenson suggests the traditional view that artistic geniuses peak when they are young only holds true for what he calls "conceptual innovators." These are artists who's vision is fully formed when they are young and are able to just put it out there. By contrast, "experimental innovators" are artists who peak much later in life because their genius takes much trial-and-error work to develop. They aren't much good when they are young. But, as with Matisse, the later works of these mature artists are often highly innovative. These are good insights which have some other interesting implications for the development of peoples' talents more generally (For those interested, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article with a similar theme titled "Late Bloomers").
One important thing to be aware of is that this is a pretty academic piece of writing. And like a thoughtful academic, Galenson presents lots of data to support his arguments. If this isn't your idea of fun reading, then think twice before buying, but if you don't mind the academic presentation, there are some real gems to find in here.
Well-written, clearly organized and thought-provoking, "Old Masters and Young Geniuses" increased my understanding of the creative process and how it differs among artists. Highly recommended.
David Galenson has done pretty much the same thing for art history and the benchmarking of creativity over the life cycle of artists. Galenson by first focusing on modern painters uncovered that artists career were determined by their own temperament and approach to painting. He observed two very different archetypes: conceptual vs. experimental artists.
The conceptual artists think deductively and first develop in their mind a completely finished product. Next, they plan out their product in exhaustive detail with many preliminary sketches and drawings. Then, the actual execution of the product is almost a formality done in a decisive and quick manner. And, the painting is finished with much confidence. Such artists are deemed young geniuses as very early in their career, they come up with radical innovations representing a departure from the past. Picasso and his cubism innovation is such an example. However, their career often peak out early with less to show for in the remainder of their career.
The experimental artists think inductively. They have no clear direction where their art work will take them. They go through numerous random iterations. They don’t plan ahead. They are plagued with uncertainty. They rarely have a sense of completion or closure. Contrary to conceptuals, the experimentals take much longer to mature and succeed. But, their art often improves continuously throughout their entire life. They often achieve their artistic legacy late in life.
Galenson states that conceptuals are sprinters and experimentals are marathoners. This metaphor sums it up pretty well.
Galenson was not the first to notice those two archetypical artistic temperaments. Many artists had noticed those two different temperaments a long time ago including Honore de Balzac in the early 1800s, and William Faulkner in the early 20th century. But, such artists are not in the field of conducting related quantitative studies on age-related curve of creative performance.
Similarly, Galenson was not the first to investigate the age-related curve of creative performance. Harvey Lehman, a psychologist, was a pioneer in that field as demonstrated in his book “Age and Achievement” published in 1953. Lehman studied the relationship between age and outstanding performance in 80 different fields including arts, politics, and sciences. And, he focused on the narrow age range category that represented the maximum average performance. By doing so, he found that for oil painting it was between 32 and 36 years old; for poetry 26 to 31, and novels 40 to 44.
Galenson criticizes Lehman’s study because he felt it focused on the wrong thing and the wrong number. For Lehman the most important causal factor regarding the age vs creativity relationship is the field of activity. In certain activities peak achievements are delivered at a younger age than in other activities. And, Lehman’s most important number is this narrow age range category showing a peak of superior production. But, this human performance data is not normally distributed with a single central tendency (like a Mean, Mode, or Median). It is most often bimodal (or trimodal) looking like a camel’s back with two humps with artists achieving great works early in their career; and others achieving equally great works in their later years. And, when Galenson looked at the entire distribution of such achievements, the narrow peak range Lehman focused on was not so meaningful. At times, it could easily have been overwhelmed by the aggregation of two or more other age range categories in later years.
Galenson found there was a lot more age-variation among the artists within a given field than there was variation between different fields (ANOVA concept). Thus, Lehman’s focus on the field was not so insightful. Galenson’s focus on the temperament and artistic approach of individual artists (conceptual vs experimental) was far more insightful on the relationship between artistic creativity and age.
Galenson finds that in general conceptual artists make their greatest contribution by their early thirties. Meanwhile, the experimental artists make their greatest contribution in their middle age and way into old age. And, that is true across all disciplines he explored. This does not contradict Lehman’s findings driven by field of activity alone. They just focused on different metrics.
Just as Nate Silver combined modern statistics with traditional polling to develop a superior political prediction method, Gleason combined a well- known artist categorization (Balzac already knew about conceptual vs experimental) with modern data analysis to derive a far superior model of age vs creativity relative to Lehman’s model.
The strength of Galenson’s model is due to its robust and innovative measurements. For modern painters he used several metrics including: 1) price of art work over time; 2) number of illustrations in French and English textbooks; 3) presence of art work in retrospective exhibitions; and 4) number of selected works in leading museums. Invariably, those very different metrics are surprisingly consistent. For instance, Cezanne’s art work show a peak price value when he was 67 years old (when he painted the specific art work). For Picasso this peak value is when he was 26 years old. The respective age vs. price curve graphs for Cezanne and Picasso (pg. 23 & 24) are spectacularly different. Cezanne’s looks like a fairly steady escalator with his art price rising ever higher as he ages. Picasso’s curve instead looks like a mountain that does peak at 26 and abruptly drops back down thereafter. The frequency of illustrations in both French and English textbooks also shows the exact same peak at 67 and 26 years old for Cezanne and Picasso, respectively. Cezanne and Picasso are the iconic experimental vs. conceptual artists (and Gleason spends much time comparing the two age vs. creativity curve). The other two metrics (showings in museum) are also very closely related to the first two. One can easily argue all those measures should be highly correlated as they are all self-reinforcing in a positive feedback loop. Nevertheless, the level of consistency between those metrics is stunning.
Galenson is aware that artistic temperament and approach is not strictly binary (conceptual vs. experimental); but is more on a continuum. He does much research and provides several examples using more granular categorizations adding Moderate vs. Extreme as category qualifiers to the original Experimental vs. Conceptual. He notes that within such categorization it gets tricky to differentiate the Moderate-Conceptual from the Moderate-Experimental. Meanwhile, the Extreme versions of both types are very readily differentiable. After much discussion, he concludes that the Moderate vs. Extreme nuance does not add much explanatory power to his binomial model.
Can artists change from one type of temperament to another? Apparently, it is very challenging to do so. Galenson uncovers that Edouard Manet changed from a moderate conceptual in his early years to a moderate experimental artist in his later years. He was successful in this shift in part because it was a “moderate” shift. On the other hand, Camille Pisarro shifted from an experimental Impressionist to a conceptual Neoimpressionist, and failed. He had to quickly reverse course and come back to his experimental temperament to regain his creative artistic bearing.
From his research, Galeson advances something that may come close to a universal cognitive principle. That is a conceptual artist may possibly morph into an empirical one with age. But, that the reverse is nearly impossible. This is because the uncertainty and complexity of an experimental artist who thinks inductively can’t readily change into the certainty and simplicity of a conceptual deductive thinker. Late in the book, Galenson concludes: “I believe it is likely that the distinction between experimental and conceptual innovators exists in virtually all intellectual activities.”
One of the most intriguing parts of the book is where Galenson uncovers his findings of “masterpieces without masters.” What Galenson means is that many second tier artists have produced winning first class art work. For instance, Serusier’s “The Talisman” is the most celebrated painting of his era (most frequent illustrations in textbooks, etc…). Meanwhile, Serusier is a very distant second to his 19th century contemporaries such as Cezanne, van Gogh, and Renoir. The latter three have a body of work that far surpasses Serusier in both quantity and quality. But, that does not preclude Serusier from having painted the number one painting of his era. Galenson explains this conundrum by Serusier being an archetypical conceptual coming up at an early age with a new style of painting that makes an immediate splash on the art scene; Yet, not doing much afterwards. This is unlike the mentioned masters who were experimental and thrived throughout their long career. By the same token, a conceptual body of work is often sparse so a stand-alone masterpiece more readily stands out. The body of work of experimentals is often vast. It also often includes coordinated series (Claude Monet’s paintings of haystacks being an example). In such context, an experimental painting does not so easily stands out as a unique masterpiece.
During eras of rapid artistic innovations, conceptual artists have an advantage over experimental ones. Galenson mentions how modern art developed through a succession of rapid movements chronologically from Impressionism, onto Neoimpressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and finally Abstract Expressionism. Except for Impressionism, all the other movements were created and dominated by conceptual artists. The rapid cycle of those artistic innovations sometimes did not allow experimental artists enough time to flourish at their slower pace.
In the second half of the book, Galenson leverages his model through different times and disciplines. He uses it to analyze the Italian Renaissance. Leonardo and Michelangelo were experimental artists. Raphael was a conceptual one. Interestingly, Leonardo and Michelangelo would implement their entire work themselves. Meanwhile, Raphael would develop the concept and then delegate various sections of his paintings to specialized painters/artisans. This is a common differentiation between the two temperaments (the experimentals doing it all themselves, the conceptuals delegating often extensively). In modern time, Andy Warhol (a conceptual) was famous for delegating extensively the actual execution of his paintings. That may be why he called his art studio “The Factory.”
Galenson uses his model to analyze modern sculptors, poets, novelists, and movie directors. And, he invariably uncovers the same patterns including: i) conceptuals achieving their most noteworthy works at a much younger age than their experimental counterparts; ii) the “masterpiece without masters” concept replicates itself across all different fields. Conceptual poets (including T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) make the vast majority of their best work before 40 years old. Meanwhile, experimental poets (including Frost and Stevens) do so after 50 years old. Conceptual novelists (including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway) wrote their best novel at 31 in average vs. 43 for their experimental counterparts (including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf). Conceptual directors (including Fellini, Welles) made their best film at 29 vs 61 for the experimental ones (including Ford, Hitchcock). Galenson also refers to a study of Nobel Prize winning economists and finds the same distinction between the conceptual early bloomers and the experimental late bloomers. For these economists, the conceptuals did their best work (most frequently cited) at an average age of 43 vs. 61 for the experimental economists.
Overall, this is an outstanding book describing a successful model in social science (a rare achievement in itself). I only hope Galenson eventually extends his analysis to include scientists (including both social sciences and hard sciences). This model is too interesting to stop now.