Feb 16th 2018

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

Oct 16th 2018
One of the oldest Greek myths, the story of Pandora was first recorded more than 2,500 years ago, in the time of Homer. In the original telling, Pandora was not some innocent girl who succumbed to the temptation to open a forbidden jar......Pandora was deliberately devised to punish humankind for accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus. Essentially a seductive AI fembot, she had no parents, childhood memories, or emotions of any kind, nor would she ever age or die. She was programmed to carry out one malevolent mission: to insinuate herself in an earthly setting and then unseal the jar......With AI/machine learning quickly evolving into a “black box” technology, the symbol of Pandora’s sealed jar has taken on new meaning.
Oct 11th 2018
The Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is currently exhibiting a substantial selection of Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings, and prints – focusing on those works that reveal the story of “Britain’s Discovery of the Master.” Exploring the significance of Rembrandt to British collectors, artists, and writers provides us with the occasion to revisit some fifteen major oil paintings.....
Oct 10th 2018
On the fiftieth anniversary of Nicolas Garcia Uriburu’s first coloration, Buenos Aires’ National Museum of Fine Arts pays tribute to the landmark early accomplishment of its native son..........Uriburu’s role as an early environmentalist has never been appreciated outside of his native country. It is sad that this neglect was not remedied in his lifetime, but at least it should be done now; a full-scale retrospective of his pioneering work should be presented in the art world’s capitals, to inspire young artists.
Oct 2nd 2018
The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to two immunologists for their revolutionary approaches to treat cancer. James Allison, based in the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Tasuku Honjo, based at Kyoto University in Japan, led exciting and groundbreaking work on developing new types of immunotherapy that help our immune system fight cancer.
Sep 20th 2018
We all want other people to “get us” and appreciate us for who we really are. In striving to achieve such relationships, we typically assume that there is a “real me”. But how do we actually know who we are? It may seem simple – we are a product of our life experiences, which we can be easily accessed through our memories of the past. Indeed, substantial research has shown that memories shape a person’s identity......................But it turns out that identity is often not a truthful representation of who we are anyway – even if we have an intact memory. Research shows that we don’t actually access and use all available memories when creating personal narratives. It is becoming increasingly clear that, at any given moment, we unawarely tend to choose and pick what to remember.
Sep 20th 2018
The research, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, compared how much mothers reported using cleaning products with the rate of obesity in 757 children at the age of three. Faecal samples were taken from the infants at three to four-months-old and the researchers investigated associations between microbial changes and being overweight at age three. The researchers found a link between heavy use of cleaning products, microbial changes and children with a higher body mass index (BMI). However, higher disinfectant usage was also reported among households with infants who received antibiotics around the time of birth; who were exposed to cigarette smoke; or were delivered by caesarean section. The results may therefore reflect several interlinking factors. Obesity was less likely to occur in breastfed children, but breastfeeding was also linked to lower disinfectant usage, which makes it difficult to tease apart these two factors.
Sep 11th 2018
If there’s a story that unites success in Silicon Valley and the new economy that’s given us iPhones and Uber, it’s that geek innovators are rewarded. Engineer the killer app and the cash will roll in. Big brains mean a big pay day. It may be a new economy, but this is a very old mistake. The idea that those at the top of a business are the ones who should be celebrated makes little sense to anyone who actually works in an organisation like Tesla. They might be the ones who make the headlines, but it’s the ordinary employees who do the work and produce the value.
Aug 15th 2018
The ability to reverse ageing is something many people would hope to see in their lifetime. This is still a long way from reality, but in our latest experiment, we have reversed the ageing of human cells, which could provide the basis for future anti-degeneration drugs.
Aug 14th 2018
We all like to think of ourselves as morally sound individuals. However in doing so we often assume that morality is static – that we are consistently moral to some extent over time. In reality, research suggests that most of us will behave in contradictory ways and act both morally and immorally from time to time. Interestingly, when we think about our past moral actions, we are likely to engage engage in compensatory behaviour and act immorally going forward.
Aug 8th 2018
This year marks the hundredth anniversary since the death of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), two of Austria’s greatest artists. That same year, 1918, also saw the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following its defeat in World War I – the end, that is, of an entire era, of a world. Fin de siècle Vienna was a place of extraordinary innovation – in music (with Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School), in literature (with Modernists such as Robert Musil and Herman Broch), in science (with Sigmund Freud and the development of psychoanalysis), and, of course, the visual arts, with the founding of the Vienna Secession in 1897, whose first president was Gustav Klimt. In Vienna, the rupture caused by the war was total: the city became the archetype of “a doomed society, in which brilliant achievements glowed in the gathering twilight.”
Jul 24th 2018
A decade ago, as the scale of the disaster in Iraq began to sink in, American historians often compared the United States to ancient Rome. Both seemed to suffer from an imperial disease whose symptoms began with overreach and ended in collapse. This is a useful way for Americans like me to consider our troubles abroad. But when it comes to our democracy’s problems at home, the closer parallel is with 18th century Britain, the “mother country” from which the United States broke away in 1776. Britons of that time enjoyed many liberties unknown to their favourite bogeymen, the French. These freedoms had many roots, including the Magna Carta of 1215, the Bill of Rights from 1689 and various parts of English common law. Most Britons saw their country as God’s favourite and thanked their “Constitution” — a general term for established forms of law and government — for their rising glory. Yet for all the liberties it tolerated, that Constitution’s real goal was to shield wealth and privilege from popular demands.
Jul 17th 2018
There are two ways of tackling chronic lifestyle diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes: discover new drugs and treatments or persuade people to make positive lifestyle changes to avoid developing them in the first place. Health coaching is one of the most powerful ways of changing people’s mindsets for the long term. Practitioners are rapidly taking their place alongside executive coaches, life coaches and personal trainers as another means of making us better people through one-to-one improvement sessions.
Jul 16th 2018
Getting rid of loneliness is also about letting go of cynicism and mistrust of others. So next time you meet someone new, try to lose that protective shield and really allow them in, even though you don’t know what the outcome will be.
Jul 12th 2018
From the beginning Donald Trump’s administration has been marred by corruption and outright contempt for the rule of law – with the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey “because of the whole Russia thing”, and persistent efforts to undermine Robert Mueller’s Russia probe; with his refusal to divest himself of private businesses, his attacks on judges who rule against him, and much else besides. Trump’s shameless claim to unbounded executive power manifested itself recently in repeated calls to deprive unauthorized immigrants of their due process rights. The conditions in migrant detention centers are horrifying and photos from one facility in McAllen, Texas showed children being held in cages. According to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Facebook report, this border facility is an enormous warehouse “filled with cages. Cages for men. Cages for women. Cages for mamas with babies. Cages for girls. Cages for boys.”  Such an unconscionable state of affairs makes the current exhibition of Alberto Giacometti at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City all the more electrifying. The show features more than one hundred and seventy-five sculptures, paintings, and drawings, spanning more than forty years and across all the various media with which he worked.  
Jul 12th 2018
I sometimes meet with apologies from venues when a piano’s action may not be serviced to top form. I reply with a smile that such apologies are unnecessary, for in my youth I had to pull up as many keys as push down upon them when playing on battered uprights before elementary school children. In those days I played as often with my palms up as down, like a day at the gym dedicated to both push and pull. Once, however, just before a recital in a private South Carolina home, I encountered a woman whose main concern was – though my naked hands were plain before her – that I remove any rings I might be wearing before playing upon her piano’s vulnerable ivories.
Jun 12th 2018
Extract: “Nothing is beautiful except what is true,” Cézanne once said, “and only true things should be loved.” As the philosopher Jacques Derrida put it: “The truth in painting is signed Cézanne.” Perhaps it is this above all else that makes him the indispensible painter for our times, this era of so-called ‘post-truth.’ For Cézanne “painting was truth telling or it was nothing.” That is what it meant to paint from nature, to be primitive, to be free from all affectation, to be like those “first men who engraved their dreams of the hunt on the vaults of caves…” This is why we need to look and look again at Cézanne. And it is perhaps best that he has come to the National Gallery, to D.C., but a stone’s throw away from where truth is daily made a mockery of, and lies are proffered with breathtaking ease.
Jun 6th 2018
Extracts from the article: "Johnson and Johnson recently announced that it was halting a clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s drug after safety issues emerged. This latest failure adds to the dozens of large, costly clinical trials that have shown no effect in treating this devastating disease. The growing list of failures should give us pause for thought – have we got the causes of Alzheimer’s all wrong?".............."Another option is to look at the risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s. One of these is type 2 diabetes." ............"Testing these [diabetes] drugs in animal models of another neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease, also showed impressive effects, ............These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference. To see any protective effect in the brain in a clinical trial is completely new, and it supports the new theory that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are caused, at least in part, by a lack of growth factor activity in the brain. These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference."
Jun 1st 2018
Extract from the article: "The most common defense of truth is the pragmatic one – namely, that truth works; that true beliefs are more likely to get the job done than those that are not true. The pragmatic account of the value of truth is not wrong, but at the same time it is not enough. Truth is not valuable for solely instrumental or extrinsic reasons. Truth has intrinsic value as well. When we reduce the value of truth to instrumentality, it is a very short step to saying that we just want beliefs that work for us, regardless of whether they are true or not."
May 14th 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.
May 10th 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.