Apr 18th 2017

Creativity: Revolutions and Evolutions

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).


One reason why creativity is often falsely assumed to be restricted to conceptual innovation, and experimental innovation is overlooked, is that there is frequently a great difference in how conspicuously the two types of innovation arrive. Conceptual innovations often appear dramatically and suddenly, whereas experimental innovations typically arrive gradually and almost imperceptibly.

Conceptual innovations are often formulated and introduced suddenly and completely, and can consequently have an immediately revolutionary impact. Thus William Carlos Williams lamented that T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland “wiped out our world as if an atomic bomb had been dropped upon it.” When Citizen Kane arrived in Paris, 14-year-old François Truffaut instantly knew he had found his calling: “When I first saw Citizen Kane, I was certain that never in my life had I loved a person the way I loved that film.” Just months after the publication of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems, the critic George Steiner observed that they “have already passed into legend.” And the physicist Paul Dirac wrote of the impact of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, “I can’t describe it by other words than by saying it just burst upon us. It was a new idea, a new kind of philosophy, and it aroused interest and excitement in everyone.”

The drama of these innovations was heightened by the youth of their creators: Eliot was 34 when he published The Wasteland, Welles 26 when he made Citizen Kane, Plath 30 when she wrote the Ariel poems, and Einstein 36 when he completed the general theory.


Paul Cézanne in his studio at Les Lauves, 1904. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Many great experimental innovators have made no individual landmark works, because their careers are characterized by continuity, with no sudden leaps or discrete discoveries. Meyer Schapiro observed that exploration was intrinsic to every effort Cézanne made: “[His] method was not a foreseen goal which, once reached, permitted him to create masterpieces easily. His art is a model of steadfast searching and growth.” Clive Bell recognized that Cézanne considered all his works not as finished products, but as studies:

Every picture carried him a little further towards his goal – complete expression; and because it was not the making of pictures but the expression of his sense of the significance of form that he cared about, he lost interest in his work so soon as he had made it express as much as he had grasped. His own pictures were for Cézanne nothing but rungs in a ladder at the top of which would be complete expression. The whole of his later life was a climbing towards an ideal. For him every picture was a means, a step, a stick, a hold, a stepping-stone – something he was ready to discard as soon as it had served his purpose. He had no use for his own pictures. To him they were experiments.


Charles Darwin. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The psychologist Howard Gruber observed that there is widespread scholarly agreement that Charles Darwin’s development “was a true epigenesis: a series of structures with each phase growing out of the previous, always in the interaction with new circumstances provided by a changing scientific and social environment.” Michael Ghiselin contended that the subtle nature of Darwin’s scholarship has sometimes caused its strengths to be overlooked: “His manner of thinking gives rise to no obvious spectacle…Perhaps Darwin will always have most appeal to the connoisseur.” The geneticist Steve Jones emphasized the continuity of Darwin’s work: “His literary canon makes sense only when considered as a whole. At first sight its subjects seem disconnected – earthworms, inbreeding, barnacles, plant hormones, domestication, insect-eating plants, the expressions of joy or despair in dogs, apes, and men – but in truth all share a theme: the power of small means, given time, to produce gigantic ends.”



William Butler Yeats in 1933. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

William Butler Yeats labored for decades “to make my work convincing with a speech so natural and dramatic that the hearer would feel the presence of a man thinking and feeling.” T.S. Eliot wrote that “to have accomplished what Yeats did in the middle and later years is a great and permanent example…of what I have called Character of the Artist: a kind of moral, as well as intellectual, excellence.” Seamus Heaney considered Yeats “the ideal example for a poet approaching middle age. He reminds you that revision and slogwork are what you may have to undergo if you seek the satisfactions of finish…He proves that deliberation can be so intensified that it becomes synonymous with inspiration.” He held up Yeats and three other experimental poets as models of greatness in aging: “in certain great poets – Yeats, Shakespeare, Stevens, Milosz – you sense an ongoing opening of consciousness as they age, a deepening and clarifying, and even a simplifying…No poet can avoid hoping for that kind of old age.”

Young conceptual innovators are often brilliant and flamboyant, and their bold early achievements explode on their disciplines, creating instant controversy and excitement. In contrast, great experimental innovators tend to be diffident and cautious, more concerned with making further progress in their research than in attracting attention for what they have achieved. Their discoveries often emerge piecemeal and unobtrusively, with no single embodiment or announcement. The gradual and incremental processes followed by even great experimental innovators often causes the importance of their innovations to be overlooked.

In the introduction to his final book, the 72-year old Charles Darwin admonished a Mr. Fish, who had earlier rejected Darwin’s “conclusions with respect to the part which worms have played in the formation of vegetable mould, merely on account of their assumed incapacity to do so much work.” Darwin scolded Mr. Fish for denying that worms could be of much importance because of their presumed weakness and small size, and concluded that “Here we have an instance of that inability to sum up the effects of a continually recurrent cause, which has often retarded the progress of science, as formerly in the case of geology, and more recently in that of the principle of evolution.”  So too perhaps in creativity: extended intellectual evolutions may be no less important than sudden intellectual revolutions, but they are less conspicuous, and their consequent neglect may retard the progress of our knowledge.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example. 
Nov 13th 2018
Over the last ten years, research has demonstrated the importance of creative practice in the arts and humanities. They can help maintain health, provide ways of breaking down social barriers and expressing and understanding experiences and emotions, and assist in developing trust, identities, shared understanding and more compassionate communities. So, hopefully, this sidelining of the arts in health terms is changing.
Nov 13th 2018
I am here to sing Will Kemp’s [in the picture below] praises and review this new e-book because I have been studying with Will since January 2016, long distance but close in heart—Will lives in Britain and I live in the States.
Nov 13th 2018

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities

Nov 2nd 2018
Writing is such hard work that those of us who dabble in prose often dread looking at the “white bull” – Hemingway’s term for a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled up with our words. Will we defeat the bull today? It’s always a tossup. The stress and strain of writing perhaps explains why so many writers seek an outlet in the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Visual output satisfies the hunger to create, and, as a bonus, the art form is more free and spontaneous. Great writers have produced great paintings. Look at Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more interesting to me is the somewhat lesser phenomenon of pianists who paint. They are seeking the same release, the same soulagement, the same need to liberate themselves. 
Nov 1st 2018
Modern life does have many benefits, but when it persuades us to use transport, sit in a chair at work, or watch TV for extended periods, we increasingly have to turn to medicine for solutions because these habits are killing hundreds of millions of us each year. With 70% of people in the US on prescription drugs (50% in the UK), it seems that as lifespan inches upwards, disease is skyrocketing. The irony is that many advances in modern medicine are firefighting those very problems that modern life itself has created.
Oct 30th 2018
It’s important to note that all studies, including our own, only show an association between the herpes virus and Alzheimer’s – they don’t prove that the virus is an actual cause. Probably the only way to prove that a microbe is a cause of a disease is to show that an occurrence of the disease is greatly reduced either by targeting the microbe with a specific anti-microbial agent or by specific vaccination against the microbe. Excitingly, successful prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by use of specific anti-herpes agents has now been demonstrated in a large-scale population study in Taiwan. Hopefully, information in other countries, if available, will yield similar results.