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

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."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."