Apr 26th 2014

Aging Gracelessly

by David W. Galenson

Dr. 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). David W. Galenson, picture aboce. Derek Walcott, picture in the text.
In the New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch laments a lost love -- the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Kirsch recalls his early infatuation: "It was not until I read 'The Waste Land' as a teenager that I began to think I might want to be a poet myself." Eliot's poetry was a challenge to the young writer, and consequently a spur to his early intellectual development. But as Kirsch matured, he realized that Eliot's vision was not only different from his, but unattractive: "Eliot's world came to strike me as too hermetic, too self-invented, and too limiting in its rejections." Today, Kirsch sees Eliot's poetry as the product of a young poet, appropriate above all for an audience of young readers: "I loved Eliot so much as an adolescent because he is, in some ways, an essentially adolescent writer;" Kirsch now considers "Prufrock" to be "the most perfect expression of adolescent anguish ever written," and the "Waste Land" "a kind of young person's performance." Kirsch still honors the greatness of Eliot, but he has now outgrown it: "There may be different kinds of greatness, suited to different phases of our growth."

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T.S. Eliot in 1920. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

A battalion of academic psychologists have declared that lyric poets peak young, and they are wrong. Some poets peak young; others peak late. The difference is not happenstance, but systematic: conceptual poets peak early, experimental poets peak late. Their creative peaks are different because their artistic goals are different, and the methods by which they seek them are different.

Conceptual innovations are often sudden and dramatic leaps into novelty, made by brash and daring young practitioners who are not constrained by long years of adherence to disciplinary conventions, nor burdened by deeply entrenched habits of thought. These leaps may appear elegant and brilliant in their simplicity to the like-minded, but to others they may appear superficial and simplistic. The poet Louise Glück once described her own early infatuation with Eliot: "I read this poetry for the first time as an adolescent. And understood it immediately, by which I mean I felt a connection to it. I heard the tone." But as an older poet, she could see that what had appealed to her as an adolescent was the adolescent quality of Eliot's work: "If there is a criticism to make, it may come out of that: not that the work is 'academic,' whatever that means, but that in the intensity and unchangingness of its emotion it is adolescent." An artist who is born middle-aged may in fact be a poet who never matures. Joyce Carol Oates made just this point about another great conceptual innovator: "[Sylvia] Plath's meticulously documented example suggests how precocity is not maturity, and may in fact impede maturity."

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Sylvia Plath in 1959. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Nor is this criticism unique to poets; it has equally been made of important conceptual practitioners of other arts. So for example when the novelist Henry James reviewed an exhibition of paintings by the precocious John Singer Sargent when the latter was just 37 years old, James observed that Sargent's recent work did not demonstrate development: "As he saw and rendered ten years ago, so he sees and renders today; and I may add that there is no present symptom of his passing into another manner." James was disturbed by Sargent's precocity, for "it offers the slightly uncanny spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn." James feared that Sargent would never achieve "the highest result...I mean the quality in the light of which the artist sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, discovers in it new things that were not on the surface, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, enlarges and humanizes the technical problem." In yet another art, and more bluntly, in an obituary of Ernest Hemingway, the novelist Alberto Moravia declared that throughout his life Hemingway had remained in an "infantile and precocious state of arrested development." Noting that Hemingway's important work was done when Hemingway was in his twenties, Moravia concluded that "he was incapable of developing or adding anything of value to his early, naïve nihilism." In more moderate terms the scholar Philip Young agreed, reflecting that nowhere in Hemingway "can you find the mature, brooding intelligence, the sense of the past, the grown-up relationships of adult people, and many of the other things we normally ask of a first-rate novelist."

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Ernest Hemingway in 1918. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

T.S. Eliot himself recognized that there may be an inverse relationship between early brilliance and ultimate achievement, in a speech he delivered in his own sixth decade:

We can also observe, upon a little conversance, that the plays of Christopher Marlowe exhibit a greater maturity of mind and of style, than the plays which Shakespeare wrote at the same age: it is interesting to speculate whether, if Marlowe had lived as long as Shakespeare, his development would have continued at the same pace. I doubt it: for we observe that those which mature very early do not always develop very far.
Eliot also recognized that the maturity of Shakespeare could best be appreciated by the mature reader: "No reader of Shakespeare...can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind."

Even the conceptual Eliot could recognize the maturation of the experimental Shakespeare, but Eliot nonetheless remained baffled by the ability of Shakespeare, or Yeats, to develop artistically as they grew older: "That a poet should develop at all, that he should find something new to say, and say it equally well, in middle age, has always something miraculous about it." Eliot's failure of comprehension is not surprising, for maturity is an experimental value, not readily understood by a conceptual artist. True artistic maturity does not arrive suddenly or conspicuously, but gradually and unobtrusively. So for example the critic Stephen Greenblatt observed that

Hamlet makes clear that Shakespeare had been quietly, steadily developing a special technical skill...The achievement was, in any case, gradual: not a sudden, definitive discovery or a grandiose invention, but the subtle refinement of a particular set of representational techniques.
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Robert Frost. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
For insight into the value of maturity in poetry, we can turn to the reflections of a great experimental poet, Robert Frost, in his own seventh decade:
Young people have insight. They have a flash here and a flash there. It is like the stars coming out in the early evening. They have flashes of light. It is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations. And it is the constellations that are philosophy.

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May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
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Apr 24th 2022
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Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn [1964], to be auctioned in May, 'among the most iconic paintings in history', " ------ "Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history,.... "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACTS:".....there is plenty of space to scale. For internet-based businesses, the addressable total market is often large. In many areas, such as software, it spans the globe. Chinese estimates indicate that the average distance between seller and buyer on e-commerce platforms is roughly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), compared to five kilometers for a traditional retail or service business." ------- "While the internet has removed many geographical barriers, high-growth companies cannot emerge just anywhere. In fact, though such firms can be found in more countries than ever, they remain concentrated in entrepreneurial hotspots. For example, of the 24 unicorns in Germany (as of March 2022), 17 are based in Berlin and five in Munich. Of France’s top 24 unicorns, 19 are based in Paris and one in a Paris suburb." ------ "Tech entrepreneurship has become global, but its beating heart remains local."
Mar 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: " We are supposed to be living in a post-ideological era, where everyone one is a cynic, not so gullible as to believe in anything anymore, least of all in the quaint notion of objective truth. This rejection of truth as such is among the great disasters to have befallen our relations with each other and between nations.  We appear to be beyond truth’s demise – we are now witnessing its unpleasant putrefaction and decay." ------ " If we want to grasp how ideology functions in America today, there is no better place to look than at the phenomenon of Trumpism. While he may be only a symptom, Trump himself is the quintessential embodiment of America’s moral and epistemic decline. " ------ "By its disavowal of truth and perpetuation of lies for the sake of self-aggrandizement, Trumpism represents an existential threat to this country and to the future of the Republic. It is a cancer that threatens whatever is good and decent in American life. " ----- "All they know is negative freedom – freedom from – but ignore the need for positive freedom, the freedom to… as in the freedom to flourish, to realize oneself in the world; to make and re-make oneself and the world through action."
Feb 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the decades since its inception, there has been heavy criticism directed towards the War on Drugs. These complaints include the increased incarceration rates, the increase in the number of prisoners in jail due to nonviolent offenses, uneven sentencing guidelines often based on the drug type and race, and suggestions of a racist component in terms of who was targeted by law enforcement. Various studies show that instead of reducing crime, the strict sentencing guidelines created more criminals and undermined many of the communities most strictly targeted by law enforcement. Long sentences for non-violent offenses made it difficult for those released to find work and weakened their bonds with family and their broader community."
Feb 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "......... there are countries that have had a relatively high number of infections but which have still managed to keep their death numbers low – countries like Japan. It’s had 17,612 infections per million people yet only 146 deaths per million. This is despite almost one in three people in Japan being over the age of 65 and so at greater risk of severe COVID (the average age of people dying from COVID is over 80). What has kept the death rate there down? A recent Japenese study has proposed an answer. It reports that the risk of people dying of COVID in Japan is related to the microbes present in their guts. "
Jan 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Then there was a revolution. In 1964, Bob Dylan created a new kind of popular music. The simple, clear love songs ...... were replaced by complex and opaque lyrics, filled with literary allusions and symbolism. Dylan rejected the role of craftsman: "I'm an artist. I try to create art." Nor were his songs intended to be universal: "My songs were written with me in mind." "
Dec 13th 2021
EXTRACT: " We all know that Father Christmas would struggle to deliver presents to everyone around the world without the help of his magical reindeer. But why were they chosen to pull the sleigh rather than any other animal? It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job. Here are five reasons why."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Planting more forests is a potent tool for mitigating the climate crisis, but forests are like complex machines with millions of parts. Tree planting can cause ecological damage when carried out poorly, particularly if there is no commitment to diversity of planting. Following Darwin’s thinking, there is growing awareness that the best, healthiest forests are ones with the greatest variety of trees - and trees of various ages."
Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."