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.

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