Apr 23rd 2018

The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity

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).


Some great artists are remarkably precocious: Cindy Sherman, for example, finished the famous Untitled Film Stills when she was just 26. Others, like Louise Bourgeois, are late bloomers. These differences don’t simply occur by chance.

In my first post, I described how I began studying the life cycles of modern artists. 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. Art scholars don’t treat this general question explicitly, but I found a simple answer implicit in their narratives of art history. Important artists are innovators who change the practices of their successors. Their most important works are those that present their innovations. With this recognition, I could pose the key question about life cycles more precisely: why do some artists innovate late in their lives, and others early in theirs?

I developed an answer to this question by doing detailed studies of scores of innovative modern artists. I discovered that there have been two very different types of artists in the modern era. The two types follow very different practices in creating their art, and have very different goals.

Experimental innovators are motivated by aesthetic criteria: their art is based on visual perception. Their goals are imprecise, so they work tentatively, by trial and error, frequently revising their paintings. Their uncertainty about their goals means that they rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single vague objective. They build their skills gradually, and their innovations generally appear late in their lives.

In contrast, conceptual innovators use their art to express ideas or emotions. Their goals are precise, so they can plan their works, and execute them systematically. Radical conceptual innovations decisively violate existing conventions, and the ability to do this is greatest before an artist’s habits of thought have become entrenched. The most important conceptual innovations consequently tend to occur early in an artist’s career.

Cézanne was an archetypal experimental innovator. As a mature artist he painted directly, without preparatory studies. He worked slowly, continually reworking his paintings in progress. He spent the last three and a half decades of his life pursuing a vague and elusive goal he referred to as realization. Just a month before his death, he reported to a younger friend that “I am always studying after nature and it seems to me that I make slow progress.” Yet he was frustrated, wondering in the same letter, “Will I ever attain the end for which I have striven so much and for so long? I hope so, but as long as it is not attained a vague state of uneasiness persists which will not disappear until I have reached port, that is until I have realized something which develops better than in the past.”

Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte Victoire, 1904, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte Victoire, 1904, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The irony of Cézanne’s frustration at the end of his life was that it was his most recent work that would directly influence every important artistic development of the next generation. The greatest artist who was influenced by Cézanne was the ambitious young Spaniard Pablo Picasso, who was an archetypal conceptual innovator. Picasso’s greatest single painting was executed in 1907, just a year after Cézanne’s death, when Picasso was 26. Based on more than 400 preparatory studies- the largest quantity of preparatory work ever made for a single picture — Les Demoiselles d’Avignon announced the arrival of Cubism, the most radical stylistic innovation of the modern era. The Demoiselles became the single most important modern painting- illustrated in textbooks of art history more frequently than any other work of the modern era. Picasso’s art was based not on perception, but on knowledge: he explained, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Other artists can similarly be divided into these two categories. Kandinsky and Rothko were great experimental artists, who made their paintings with visual goals, whereas Johns and Stella were equally clearly conceptual artists, who preconceived their paintings and executed them systematically. This difference in the life cycles of individual artists is of course a tendency rather than a rule: the careers of individuals are subject to many other influences, both systematic and fortuitous. Yet the forces underlying these patterns are powerful, and in studies of large numbers of artists they create strong correlations between conceptual innovation and early contributions, and between experimental innovation and late contributions. And these relationships are not restricted to painters: Cindy Sherman is a conceptual photographer, and Louise Bourgeois was an experimental sculptor.



Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”
Apr 1st 2020
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.