Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Cycles of Artistic Creativity

David W. Galenson

(Princeton University Press)

Did Sylvia Plath deprive us of decades of great poetry by dying young? Why do early Picassos bring higher prices than later ones, but late Cezannes fetch more than early ones? Why did the American Film Institute name none of John Ford’s films when giving him a Life Achievement Award in 1973, and named only Citizen Kane when giving Orson Welles his award two years later? What has Maya Lin sculpted lately? Why doesn’t Huckleberry Finn have a decent ending?

University of Chicago economics professor David Galenson thinks he can shed light on these questions and more. In his new book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, he presents hard evidence for the long-held notion that creative people come in two basic types. No, not crude versus subtle or traditional versus innovative. Rather “young geniuses,” who draw mainly on ideas, and “old masters,” who draw mainly on experience. T.S. Eliot, who was studying philosophy at Harvard when he wrote the allusion-packed “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” is a prototypical young genius. William Carlos Williams, the practicing physician who wrote “No ideas but in things” and thought Eliot’s work barely qualified as poetry, is a classic old master.

By quantifying artists’ reputations Galenson risks offending purists, but he isn’t trying to devalue or debunk the act of creation. He just wants to show that it can be studied by counting–provided that you count the right things. A busy economics major in college, he took a modern-art survey course for a break, which got him wondering: why do museums usually give pride of place to the youthful work of some artists and the later work of others? He went on to publish articles and books, including Traders, Planters, and Slaves: Market Behavior in Early English America, but in 1997 he returned to his question about artists. Soon he was deep into finding numerical ways to roughly approximate the consensus of informed opinion–not his own–on artists in different fields (though he’s done more research on painters than others). He compared the auction prices for early and late works of prominent modern painters. He tallied the number of times their names came up in textbooks. He listed works top curators chose to display. He noted which poems were most often anthologized. And so on.

If creation (or informed judgments of it) were totally idiosyncratic he might have found no patterns at all. If creativity depended on wisdom and experience he might have found that it generally rises with age. If it were instead a product of youth he might have found an early peak in all the arts. Some psychologists have theorized that every form of art has its own “peak age,” in which case he might have found different ones for painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, and filmmakers.

But he found none of these things. Instead, across the board there was a bimodal distribution: in each medium some artists peaked early, others late. And when Galenson lifted his eyes from the numbers to the artists’ own statements, methods, and life stories, he found that the age difference reflected two profoundly different approaches to almost everything.

Artists in the first group, cocksure young geniuses, get a concept, execute it pretty much as they conceive it, and are done. “I have never made trials or experiments,” Picasso said in 1923. “Whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said.” Ask them why they put a line here and not there, and they can tell you. They’re sprinters, tend to do their best work early, and usually are remembered for one masterpiece above all others. (At the extreme, Andy Warhol hired people to execute his ideas, since in his view thinking them up was the only creative part.) Picasso, Plath, Hemingway, Welles fall into this category.

Artists in the second group, old masters, usually do their best work late. They’re as tentative as the young geniuses are dogmatic. They worry endlessly that they might be on the wrong track or that they’ll die before they get wherever they’re going. They’re rarely sure what they’re going to do or when a particular piece is finished, sometimes painting over their own work or returning to a published book to rewrite parts of it. They find their way by constantly revising. “In order to be successful,” wrote Paul Klee in 1909, “it is necessary never to work toward a conception of the picture completely thought out in advance.” Having someone else execute their work would be like hiring an assistant to chew their food. Over their typically long careers it’s hard to single out one masterpiece. Think Monet, Frost, Dickens, Hitchcock.

These are two species, not two stages. Young geniuses may grow old, but they hardly ever turn into old masters. Some do manage to reinvent themselves pretty well in later life (Picasso), some less well (F. Scott Fitzgerald). For any creative person, there’s likely to be a correlation between how you work, your philosophy of work, and when in your life you do your best work. Unfortunately, Galenson doesn’t explain why most of us never manage to produce anything lasting at any stage of life.

Like any generalization having to do with people, these categories are useful tools, not ironclad truths–not every artist fits perfectly. Mark Twain, for instance, is a typical old master, except that he produced one masterpiece that outshines his other work. Galenson mentions other apparent exceptions–Monet’s early innovation, Lichtenstein’s relatively late innovation–but he argues that a broad view of these artists’ careers shows that they do fit into his scheme. Though Galenson quotes critics and artists who anticipate or hint at his thesis–Balzac, Faulkner, Stevens–he’s had little feedback from art historians over the years. “It is unfortunate,” he writes, “that scholars of art have not followed [their] lead.”

Some people may think that being an old master means being an old fogy. But Rodin, a sculptor of the old-master type, showed “a willingness to break with basic conventions of monumental sculpture [that] made Balzac a seminal contribution to modern art”–at the age of 58. And Monet was as much a tradition breaker as Picasso, though he took a different route.

Galenson would like to apply this notion to other types of intellectual work and even to different learning styles. In the meantime he has some advice for the creative types: Both kinds of creators have transformed painting, sculpture, film, novels, and poetry. Don’t try to be what you’re not. Self-awareness may enable you to work with rather than against your natural style. Young geniuses might emulate Picasso by posing new problems for themselves to help them stay out of a rut. Old masters shouldn’t bother–for them a rut may be a learning experience.