Creativity and Chronology, Rethought

January 9, 2006

By Kyle Gann

David W. Galenson's new book Old Masters and Young Geniuses (Princeton University Press) is an apparently unprecedented study of the relationship of age to creativity. Galenson, an economist with a yen for painting, charts out for many famous painters the age at which each one peaked creatively. His method, brilliant in its empirical objectivity if rather obvious in hindsight, is to rate each painting by three criteria: its top selling price, how often it is included in academic art textbooks, and how often it is included in retrospectives of the artist's work. He then correlates the paintings that rate highest in these regards with the ages at which they were painted. Thus we find that the most valuable and oft-cited of Picasso's paintings were executed between the ages of 20 and 29, and the most valuable of Cezanne's between 60 and 69. We even find that entire movements were populated by painters who tended to do their best work at certain ages. For instance, the abstract expressionists tended to peak later in life:

Mark Rothko, age 54
Arshile Gorky, 41
Willem de Kooning, 43
Barnett Newman, 40
Jackson Pollock, 38

than the pop artists:

Roy Lichtenstein, 35
Robert Rauschenberg, 31
Andy Warhol, 33
Jasper Johns, 27
Frank Stella, 24

Galenson's next step is to correlate these ages with everything that the artist ever said, or that is known, about his working methods and aesthetic approach. He comes up with an amazing consistency of correlations, and bases on it a theory of two creative types. While one might wish for a less ambiguous terminology, his terms at least possess the virtue of being non-evaluative: the Experimental Artist and the Conceptual Innovator. As detailed in dozens of examples, the Conceptual Innovator:

* tends to peak in his 20s or early 30s;

* produces one or two or three works well-known as his greatest or most influential;

* tends to do a tremendous amount of sketching and planning, finally executing the final work with great speed and a sense of finality;

* relies heavily on research, borrowing, and quotation; and

* achieves a conceptual redefinition of the art form in question without necessarily reaching new depths of expression.

By contrast, the Experimental Artist:

* tends to peak in his 40s or 50s if not later;

* develops steadily throughout his career, producing a consistent body of work in which no particular painting stands out as the greatest;

* figures out what he's trying to do in the process of painting, without following (at least successfully) a preconceived plan, and often continually revising afterwards;

* takes his material from personal experience or the environment around him; and

* expresses something deeply true about his world without necessarily transforming the genre he works in.

Picasso was the quintessential early-blooming Conceptualist, Cezanne the exemplary Experimentalist. Cezanne said, "I seek in painting"; Picasso replied, "I don't seek, I find." Cezanne's method was described thusly:

the ultimate synthesis of a design was never revealed in a flash; rather he approached it with infinite precautions, stalking it, as it were, now from one point of view, now from another... For him the synthesis was an asymptote toward which he was forever approaching without ever quite reaching it...

Picasso's career, by contrast, was a series of discrete discoveries; he made over 400 preparatory sketches for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, quickly brought the final painting to his image of perfection, and it became his most famous work.

Galenson has no expertise in music, he tells me, but he applies the archetypes as well to poets, novelists, and film directors. Conceptual Innovation can be seen in the reliance on quotation of T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland (his most influential work by far), Ezra Pound in his Cantos, Andy Warhol in his famous prints, and (my example) the collages of John Zorn. By contrast, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Robert Frost drew heavily on their environments and continued to develop their technique until the end. The Experimentalist Twain often found that his books would not progress with the plots he had planned, and he would have to take time away from them until they worked themselves out. Conceptualist E.E. Cummings was criticized for never having gone beyond the brilliant innovations of his earliest poems. Dickens, an Experimentalist, gave us pictures of life in Victorian England that are truer than history; Melville, relying on books on whaling rather than personal experience, turned our conception of the novel upside-down with Moby Dick at the age of 31. Conceptualists do not always receive early acclaim - Moby Dick was a financial disaster, not appreciated until after Melville's death. The two types need not lack affinity. The poet Robert Lowell, who did his greatest work in his last years, was a signal influence on Sylvia Plath, who pre-empted her own late period by committing suicide at 30. And so on and so on, with a wealth of well-chosen personal statements of artistic process.

I suggest applying this typology to composers with some caution. The issues may be different, who knows? But certain examples will spring to mind. We have some Conceptual Innovator composers with explosive early careers, forever best known for one or a handful of precocious early works: Stravinsky, Antheil, Cowell, Messiaen. Easier to call to mind are those Experimentalists who developed their music later in life, with no particular work standing out: Shostakovich, Sessions, Partch, Carter, Feldman. I'm tempted to type Ives and Copland as conceptualists, but the later date of some of their best works militates against it. Perhaps music has some aspects of technical acquisition and performance vicissitudes that require some alteration of the time line. It'll be fun to do some study and find out.

In any case, Galenson's book has achieved three objectives. It has created a new form of the always-appreciated parlor game of dividing artists into two types; it has drawn, with the most incisively empirical methods, two contrasted views of the creative process, with surprisingly bundled groups of attributes, deserving of voluminous further study; and it has proven irrefutably that the curve of creative potency over a lifetime differs tremendously for different individuals, with certain pattern types evident. We have new grounds for believing it naive to assume that the later work of a famous young artist will continue to be as profound, and likewise, to believe that an artist who hasn't evinced signs of greatness by age 40 may well still do so. Galenson has established, with an economist's objectivity, that these patterns vary with creative type; the evidence his fine book provides will help us gauge our expectations and perceptions accordingly.


Steve Hicken says: Thanks for bringing this to my/our attention, Kyle. It's very interesting and pretty encouraging, too.
KG replies: Yeah, reading such a mass of personal process reports by all these other experimental types, I began to relax about my own composing process, and think that maybe I could achieve better, or at least as good, results with less aggravation if I didn't drive myself so hard. You read a biography of a single artist and it doesn't really sink in, but seeing so many reinforcing comments in one book is therapeutic.

andrea says: now we just need the arts administration, record label, grant giving, ascap/bmi award giving folks to read this and reconsider their ageist methods for seeking out and financing interesting music. on second thought, forget it. i'll just have to remember to more DIY when i'm 60 than i am now. one can't depend on the establishment...

Paul Muller says: Interesting stuff. The more so because now there is scientifically based hope for us old guys.
Bach would certainly seem to fit the definition of Experimental Artist. Although his work was of very high quality throughout his career, he was always revising and reworking. His sevice to the Lutheran church would fit in also.
Just a quibble. I think Melville actually spent two years as a sailor on a whaling ship in his youth. The great thing about reading Moby Dick is the detail Melville brings to the everyday business of whaling in the 1840s.
KG replies: I know that about Melville, but Galenson emphasizes all the books that Melville quoted from in Moby Dick, making a kind of scholarly collage rather than rely entirely on his own experiences. You'll have to take it up with him.

Troy says: I wonder about all of the public persuasion factors (public acceptance being one of the measurements of an artist's achievements) and how it may be likely that the longer an artist creates, the greater the diversity of chance that his/her work will catch the collective unconscious of a particular time. This may somewhat offset the question/answer of whether an artist "refines" with age or is damned after youth.
KG replies: Hi Troy. I'm not sure it's public acceptance being measured, but that of art academics and curators. But it's an interesting line of thought.

patrick says: this is a tangent on the melville quibble, but some may be interested in the following current-author's melvillean dillemma:
as for the topic at hand, ive found all of my experience is a progression of development, indicating an experimentalist status, and have thought of this quite a bit, in the last several years.

Mark Staff Brandl says: Yeah -- a great post Kyle. Very interesting to contemplate. One strange addition to this would be the fact that "highly" expressive artists (Sturm und Drang types like the German Expressionists and the recent Neo-Expressionists) while usually claiming to be experimental, also seem to peak very young, following the pattern of the conceptual innovators. Yet they generally are not doing that.
You certainly give me hope, since I just turned 50 and seem to be beginning to "peak" (yet in a very pop-ish way?!!)
Keep up the good work here and in your art!
Best wishes from an ex-collaborator.

adam Forkner says: i second troy's notion that the longer an artist creates, the greater the chances that hir or her art will at some point sync up with greater cultural movements, thus giving the artist attention, accolades, money and through that new inspiration for further development
the subjust of your post makes me think about robert pollard, who's rock and roll career famously peaked way past the normal age.
i enjoy your blog. it is opening up a new world of sound and possibilities. thank you thank you thank you

Frank J. Oteri says: From my admittedly merely visual art enthusiast perspective, it strikes me as somewhat peculiar that Barnett Newman and Frank Stella are divided into two opposing camps. I always viewed them as part of the same stream. How are Stella's paintings from when he was 24 (the mostly black on black grids) pop whereas Newman's two color "onements" are AbEx?
Stella also had more than one artistic peak. The one that mostly defines the work he's been developing from for decades now was his break with minimalism around his 40th birthday (which resulted in something along the lines of a visual art version of totalism in music). Perhaps this means that it is possible to evolve from being a conceptual innovator into being an experimental artist... There might still be hope for some of us out there

Copyright 2006 by Kyle Gann

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