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

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.
Oct 18th 2018
Leaving a major political body is nothing new for mainland Britain. In 409AD, more than 350 years after the Roman conquest of 43AD, the island slipped from the control of the Roman Empire. Much like the present Brexit, the process of this secession and its practical impacts on Britain’s population in the early years of the 5th century remain ill-defined. As with the UK and Brussels, Britain had always been a mixed blessing for Rome. In around 415AD, St Jerome called the island “fertile in tyrants” (meaning usurpers) and late Roman writers portrayed a succession of rebellions in Britain, usually instigated by the army – many of whom would have been born in the province.
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.