The many stripes of genius

According to art critic Roger Fry, what distinguished Paul Cézanne early on in his career from other artists of his generation was that he was a terrible draughtsman; or to put it more bluntly, he simply couldn’t draw. Although he spent years honing his technical skills as a painter, it wasn’t until his mid-60s that Cézanne’s talents finally evolved past the clumsiness that marred his early works, and it is the paintings he made later in life that accounted for his success and eventually established his reputation as an artist.

In stark contrast to Cézanne stands Pablo Picasso, whose career skyrocketed at twenty — a Parisian art dealer offered him a stipend immediately upon seeing his work — and declined gracefully as he approached old age. In today’s art market, an early Picasso now fetches four times as much as a late one, and a late Cézanne brings in fifteen times as much as one of his earlier works.

The oppositional trajectories of these two painters’ careers — and more broadly, the mechanics of creativity — is the subject of an article in this week’s New Yorker about David Galenson, a University of Chicago economist who has devoted his career to analyzing different types of genius, and moreover, how genius manifests itself over time. Using age and economics as variables, Galenson attempted to come up with a framework for how art is valued over time, and in the process, stumbled on the hypothesis that has since made him famous: genius operates on two radically different wavelengths.

Genius… 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. Galenson maintains that this duality – conceptualists are from Mars, experimentalists are from Venus – is the core of the creative process. And it applies to virtually every field of intellectual endeavor, from painters and poets to economists.

Like Alzheimer’s, Galenson believes that genius comes in two forms: early-onset, and late-onset. Aside from people like Picasso, who induce severe anxiety in everybody who hasn’t produced genre-shattering work by 25, genius also can culminate over time, meaning that most people still have time to confirm the expectations of their parents and elementary school teachers. I like Galenson’s theory. It’s reassuring, and makes me slightly less nervous about people my age who are writing for The New York Times and premiering films at Cannes.

One thing I can’t quite figure out though — the excerpt above didn’t come from Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece, it came from a July 2006 Wired article by Daniel Pink on exactly the same subject. I remembered the article from when it first came out, and it is, in my opinion, a better and more comprehensive piece. But why the renewed interest in theories of creativity?

Here’s a guess (and this is definitely a stretch, but suspend some disbelief for a minute): with the economic recession and the imperative of the banking system to “switch from being a raucous, entrepreneurial and aggressive industry into a dull, safe and conservative one,” renewed interest is being focused on creative industries, in part because they’re somewhat insulated from the tumult of global finance, and also because they represent a sector that can potentially produce lucrative, high level jobs (really, suspend disbelief). At least, this is the claim of Les Ebdon, a British professor who recently wrote an op-ed for The Guardian arguing that UK universities need to emphasize interdisciplinary — and specifically “Mickey Mouse” courses — in order to cultivate a creative class that can pave the way in global innovation. Personally, I don’t exactly see how taking classes on The Simpsons will end up producing much of anything, but I like Ebdon’s optimism nonetheless.

To stray a bit further, here’s an article by Richard Florida on the “creative class war,” and some thoughts about how creative innovation now originates in concentrated urban areas and ‘campuses’ (think Google). But again, this is nothing new. It was his childhood friend, Émile Zola, who instructed the young Cézanne on everything from budgeting to time management, and ultimately convinced him to move to Paris in the early stages of his career. 19th century Paris, 21st century Silicon Valley — just as genius can appear suddenly, climates conducive to it do as well. So perhaps with the crash of confidence as well as capital in the banking system, the creative sector, like the late bloomer Cézanne, will reemerge as the turtle at the end of the race.

~ by Jessica on October 15, 2008.

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