Hidden Genius

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).

Orson Welles was a flamboyant showman: Andrew Sarris observed that “Every Welles film is designed around the massive presence of the artist as autobiographer…The Wellesian cinema is the cinema of magic and marvels, and everything, especially its prime protagonist, is larger than life.” At 26, the conceptual Welles made his first movie – a deliberately revolutionary masterpiece, filled with conspicuous technical innovations. Citizen Kane ranked first, as the best movie ever made, in each of the five decennial polls of film critics made by Sight & Sound from 1962 through 2002.

In contrast, in 1968 Sarris observed that although Alfred Hitchcock was “the supreme technician of the American cinema,” the subtlety of his technique often caused it to be overlooked: “most American reviewers have failed to appreciate the Hitchcockian virtues of vividness and speed as artistic merits.” Hitchcock's goal was to administer what he called cinematic shock therapy – “getting the audience on the edge of their seats” by creating suspense. This required involvement: he wanted his audience to be participants, rather than merely spectators. Achieving this required the director’s technique to disappear: “the work of good technique is that it is unnoticed.” For much of his long career, Hitchcock was widely regarded as a commercially successful director whose work lacked artistic merit. This perception began to change in the 1950s, with the campaign of a group of young French critics who later became important directors. These sophisticated viewers considered Hitchcock a technical genius. In 1962, Francois Truffaut traveled to Hollywood and recorded 50 hours of interviews with Hitchcock that he published as a book. Truffaut regarded Hitchcock's films as a textbook for directors: “In Hitchcock's work a filmmaker is bound to find the answer to many of his own problems, including the most fundamental question of all: how to express yourself by purely visual means.”

Alfred Hitchcock
 
In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of critics - more than three decades after Hitchcock's death - Vertigo unseated Citizen Kane as the greatest movie ever made. Hitchcock directed Vertigo at the age of 59. He would not have been surprised at this appreciation of his late work, for he considered his career a steady process of improvement: he told Truffaut that “your evolution does follow a systematic pattern of constant amelioration from film to film.” Central to this was the development of a personal style, which “must be the result of growth and patient experimentation with the materials of the trade.” This required time and effort: “It takes so long, and so much work, to achieve simplicity.”

Hitchcock's case was not unique. Many experimental artists work long and hard to find new ways to express their perception of the world around them, and often wish to do this as simply as possible, to subordinate form to content. These artists seek to make an art that appears natural rather than artificial. And it is those who come closest to this goal, who succeed the most completely at creating art that conceals art, who are most likely to be undervalued.

Other examples abound. In 1877, when 36-year-old Auguste Rodin made his public debut by exhibiting The Age of Bronze, the statue was considered so lifelike that he was accused of casting it from life. Rodin’s avowed goal was to make sculpture “a close study of nature,” and he was both wounded and infuriated by this charge of dishonesty. A biographer explained that the critics’ difficulties with Rodin’s sculpture “stemmed from their inability to recognize a new style in which naturalism played a stronger role than the traditional symbolic propensities of sculpture” - in short, their judgment of an experimental work by conceptual criteria. But Rodin persevered, and succeeded in reviving the art of sculpture. His powerful new style achieved his goal of making style disappear: “There is no good style except that which makes itself forgotten in order to concentrate all of the attention of the viewer on the subject.”

Auguste Rodin, ca. 1915. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout his career, Robert Frost chafed at the widespread critical opinion that “my simplicity is that of the untutored child.” In 1922, T.S. Eliot casually dismissed Frost as a poet of “New England torpor.” Stung by Eliot's condescension, Frost responded that “the need of being versed in country things was far greater, and often harder to achieve, than the need of being versed in pseudo-intellectual myths and symbols.” But Frost would suffer for decades from the general perception of critics and scholars: “Eliot is the poet of complexity and allusion, whose work is bound up with the whole history of literature itself; Frost is the poet of simplicity and directness, who writes of apple trees and stone walls and leaf-covered roads.” Matthew Bolton observed that Frost in fact “mastered an art that concealed art,” and explained why his achievement has so often been overlooked: “The immediacy of Frost’s rhymes, rhythms, and images can lull a reader into thinking that Frost’s verse is somehow easier to write and to apprehend than the work of a ‘difficult’ poet such as Eliot…The simplicity of Frost’s work can lead some readers to adopt simplistic readings of his poems.”

Robert Frost, 1959. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

I have discussed Hitchcock, Rodin, Frost and other examples of hidden genius in a recent paper. These artists are linked by their experimental goals and methods. The technical mastery that makes art disappear has generally been the product of the late work of great experimental innovators. Rembrandt is a prime example. Scholars agree that he was greatest in old age, but struggle to articulate the subtle developments that allowed him to transcend the limits of his discipline. Ernst van de Wetering concluded that Rembrandt’s ability to create the sublime effects of his late works depended on “professional skill that can only be built up through endless practice from an early age on.”

 

Rembrandt, Self-portrait, ca. 1669. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Scholars of creativity have too often been beguiled and blinded by the spectacular pyrotechnics of brash young geniuses: Rimbaud, Jarry, Picasso, Welles, Godard, Plath, and Dylan trumpeted their early triumphs for all to see and hear. In contrast, the contributions of experimental old masters often arrive gradually and unobtrusively, late in their lives. And ironically, the very nature of their goals and methods often adds to their failure to gain critical recognition. As seen in the examples of Hitchcock, Rodin, and Frost, there has often been far from universal appreciation that great creativity can be the product of skill born of endless practice. The sensational innovations of conceptual young geniuses are more readily noticed, but scholars who seek to understand the true relationship between age and creativity must look beyond the obvious, recognizing that important innovations need not be blatant but can be subtle and unobtrusive. Only then can we correct the error of the longstanding belief that creativity is greatest in youth.

 

SSRN Link: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3110155

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Added 14.05.2018
During the first century of modern art, Paris was a magnet for ambitious artists from all over Europe. Remarkably, the current exhibition at Paris’ Petit Palais tells us that “Between 1789 and 1914, over a thousand Dutch artists traveled to France.” Prominent among these were Ary Scheffer, Johan Jongkind, Jacob Maris, Kees van Dongen. But of course most prominent were Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
Added 10.05.2018
The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.
Added 08.05.2018
The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.
Added 05.05.2018
 

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century.

Added 01.05.2018
Quote from the article: "Who is talking about how globalized the world was between 1880 and 1914 -- until war broke out and fascists subsequently determined the course of history -- and the parallels between then and now? Globalization always had a down side, and was never meant to last forever -- but the gurus chose not to talk about it. It is always just a question of time until economic nationalism reappears, but the gurus have done a poor job of addressing the nexus between economics and politics, and its impact on business, which is the real story."
Added 29.04.2018
"......if we did manage to stop the kind of ageing caused by senescent cells using telomerase activation, we could start devoting all our efforts into tackling these additional ageing processes. There’s every reason to be optimistic that we may soon live much longer, healthier lives than we do today."
Added 29.04.2018
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax in order to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own. New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Added 25.04.2018
Female doctors show more empathy than male doctors. They ask their patients more questions, including questions about emotions and feelings, and they spend more time talking to patients than their male colleagues do. Some have suggested that this might make women better doctors. It may also take a terrible toll on their mental health.
Added 25.04.2018
The English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is arguably America's first great landscape painter - the founder of the Hudson River School, the painter who brought a romantic sensibility to the American landscape, and sought to preserve the rapidly disappearing scenery with panoramas that invoke the divinity in nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings" is an astounding exhibition featuring a painter of extraordinary power and vision, underscoring his environmentalism and the deep sense of loss that pervades many works as he reflects on deforestation, the intrusion of the railroad, and the vanishing beauty of the untrammeled wilderness.
Added 23.04.2018
Quantitative evidence from three independent sources — auction prices, textbook illustrations, and counts of paintings included in retrospective exhibitions — all pointed to the fact that some important modern artists made their greatest work late in their careers — Cézanne, for example, in his 60s, and Kandinsky and Rothko in their 50s. But the same evidence indicated that other important artists produced their greatest work very early — Picasso, Johns, and Stella, for example, all in their 20s. Why was this was the case: why did great artists do their best work at such different stages of their careers? I couldn’t answer this question until I understood what makes an artist’s work his or her best.
Added 19.04.2018

People of all ages are at risk from diseases brought on by loneliness, new data has revealed.

Added 09.04.2018

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end.

Added 26.03.2018
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
Added 15.03.2018

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking.

Added 03.03.2018

A lack of essential nutrients is known to contribute to the onset of poor mental health in people suffering from anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and

Added 27.02.2018

Mindfulness is big business, worth in excess of US$1.0 billion in the US alone and linked – somewhat paradoxically – to an expanding range of must have products.

Added 23.02.2018

Reverend Jonathan Arnold, dean of divinity at Magdalen college, Oxford, has written about the “seeming paradox that, in today’s so-called secular society, sacred choral music is as

Added 16.02.2018

Orson Welles was a flamboyant showman: Andrew Sarris observed that “Every Welles film is designed around the massive presence of the artist as autobiographer…The Wellesian cinema is the cinema of magic and marvels, and everything, especially its prime protagonist,

Added 08.02.2018

Almost all of us have experienced loneliness at some point. It is the pain we have felt following a breakup, perhaps the loss of a loved one, or a move away from home. We are vulnerable to feeling lonely at any point in our lives.