Where is the place for bold experiment? Yesterday, I wrote about structure in response to Michael Feingold's review of All This Intimacy at Second Stage.
I remember this story from Wired magazine last month about David Galenson, an economist who has come up with a new theory for discussing genius. He started by looking in the Art world and has since expanded to literature, science and economy.
Galenson has tried to quantify artistic success by looking at the history of Art auctions, museum collections, poetry anthologies and reviews. Then he plots the results against more data. Here is an outline of what he has found about genius:
it comes in two very different forms, embodied by two very different types of people. “Conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock
proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers.
The prime examples the article presents to delineate the two categories are Picasso and Cezanne. Picasso's most anthologized and collected pieces fall in the age range before he is 30. Cezanne's most admired works are some of the ones painted "the year he died at 67."
Picasso and Cézanne represent radically different approaches to creation. Picasso thought through his works carefully before he put brush to paper. Like most conceptualists, he figured out in advance what he was trying to create. The underlying idea was what mattered; the rest was mere execution. The hallmark of conceptualists is certainty. They know what they want. And they know when they’ve created it. Cézanne was different. He rarely preconceived a work. He figured out what he was painting by actually painting it. “Picasso signed virtually everything he ever did immediately,” Galenson says. “Cézanne signed less than 10 percent.”Experimentalists never know when their work is finished. As one critic wrote of Cézanne, the realization of his goal “was an asymptote toward which he was forever approaching without ever quite reaching.”
It is a fascinating article about creative process and it also brings up notable exceptions. Picasso, a conceptualist, peaked early, but then returned with Guernica later in life.
Michael Feingold in his review of All That Intimacy talks about the encouragement of artists as almost too mollycoddling. However as the article in Wired points out, we need to support, to some degree, talented artists who are experimenting, because some of them may not do their best work till later. However, Galenson is clear that his theory regards creative genius and does not support laziness:
Nobody would have heard of Jackson Pollock had he died at 31. But the same would be true had Pollock given up at 31. He didn’t. He kept at it. We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age.
Of course, not every unaccomplished 65-year-old is some undiscovered experimental innovator. This is a universal theory of creativity, not a Viagra for sagging baby boomer self-esteem. It’s no justification for laziness or procrastination or indifference. But it might bolster the resolve of the relentlessly curious, the constantly tinkering, the dedicated tortoises undaunted by the blur of the hares.