Old Masters and Young Geniuses

posted by Jason Kottke Aug 06, 2008

This short NY Times profile of economist David Galenson reminded me that I never shared Old Masters and Young Geniuses with you. The book was recommended to me by Malcolm Gladwell — which means that many of you can now form your opinion of it without even reading it — through a talk that he gave a couple of years ago. Gladwell also wrote an article for the New Yorker about Galenson’s work but it was rejected:

When Mr. Gladwell submitted an article about Mr. Galenson’s ideas to The New Yorker, he suffered his first rejection from the magazine. “You buy this Galenson stuff?” Mr. Gladwell recalled his editor saying to him. “What are you, crazy?”

But never mind all that, Old Masters and Young Geniuses is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in the past few years. I haven’t studied enough art history to know if Galenson’s thesis is correct, but the book presents an interesting framework for thinking about innovation and how to best harness your own creativity.

The main idea is this. Instead of people being super creative when they’re young and getting less so with age (i.e. the conventional wisdom), Galenson says that artists fall into two general categories:

1) The conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They have firm ideas about what they want to accomplish and then do so, with certainty. Pablo Picasso is the archetype here; others include T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells. Picasso said, “I don’t seek, I find.”

2) The experimental innovators who peak later in life. They create through the painstaking process of doing, making incremental improvements to their art until they’re capable of real masterpiece. Cezanne is Galenson’s main example of an experimental innovator; others include Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock. Cezanne remarked, “I seek in painting.”

Galenson demonstrates these differences through analysis of how often artists’ works are reproduced in textbooks, auction prices, and museum shows. The pattern is clear, although the method is less than precise in some cases and Galenson has since backed off his thesis somewhat. But the compelling part of the book is what the artists themselves say about how they work. The text is littered with quotes from painters, poets, writers, sculptors, and movie directors about how they perceived their own work and the work of their peers and predecessors. Their thoughts provide ways for contemporary creators to think about how their creativity manifests itself.

The transcript of Gladwell’s talk is a good introduction to there ideas. Galenson’s next book, And Now for Something Completely Different, appears to be available online in its entirety in a preliminary form. Much more information is available on his web site.