Sunday, September 10, 2006

Genius: What Have You Done Lately?

David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, has developed a new theory that there are two fundamentally different approaches to creative genius: conceptual innovators (young geniuses) and experimental innovators (old masters). His recently released book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press), relates his path to this thought-provoking hypothesis.

How did an economist come to develop a theory about creativity? Galenson had previously researched the relationship between age and productivity in Colonial America, but after purchasing a painting and researching whether or not it was a good deal, he started investigating art prices as compared to the age at which the artist was when the piece was created. Seeing a pattern start to develop, he studied artist life cycles and which pieces of their work were considered important, and correlated everything he discovered into this new dual-model of artistic genius. He decided to apply the same methodology to poetry and other literature, music, architecture and filmmaking, coming up with the same results.

The Conceptual Innovators tend to do their breakthrough work when they are young, as evidenced by such geniuses as Pablo Picasso (invented Cubism with Les Demoiselle d’Avignon at age 26); F. Scott Fitzgerald (wrote The Great Gatsby at age 29); Wolfgang Mozart (composed The Marriage of Figaro at age 30); Maya Lin (designed the Vietnam War Memorial at age 23); and Orson Welles (made the film Citizen Kane at age 26).

The archetype of the conceptualists are the Experimental Innovators who, working by trial and error, make their major contributions late in their careers. Examples of this type of genius include Paul Cezanne (painted Chateau Noir at age 64); Mark Twain (wrote Huckleberry Finn at age 50); Ludwig von Beethoven (composed Symphony No. 9 at age 54); Frank Lloyd Wright (designed Fallingwater at age 70); and Alfred Hitchcock (filmed Vertigo at age 59).

It would be interesting to apply this theory to graphic design and photography. Who would your candidates be?

What Kind of Genius Are You?” by Daniel H. Pink, WIRED, July 2006.
“The Theory of Creativity,” by Doug White, HOW, August 2006.


Blogger marydorsey said...

Conceptual: Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucas Samaras, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Heinecken, Lee Friedlander, Man Ray (for starters)

Experimental: Jerry Uelsmann and montages, Ansel Adams and Zone System, Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand (....)

10:20 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Why can't someone be both? Does he mention that as a possibility, or is someone usually one or the other? Surely there are those out there who have been ground-breaking throughout their life.

3:25 PM  
Blogger mary said...

I actually cut off the last paragraph of my review. Galenson addresses this somewhat and recognizes the limits of this theory. After all, Picasso painted Guernica at age 56, and many geniuses have died young, so we don't know what they could have accomplished.

At the end of both articles, Galenson is advocating that it is probably more of a continuum. He believes that all creative people fall somewhere along a continuum, from extremely conceptual to moderately conceptial to moderately experimental to extremely experimental. Conceptual artists/designers like to plan ahead and work from abstract principles while experimentalists like to jump in and start working on a problem, seeing where it goes. Usually people of one type do not work well with those of the extreme. He acknowledges that people can change over their career, but thinks it is extremely difficult to do.

Next question: Where do you think you fall within this creative continuum?

3:43 PM  
Blogger marydorsey said...

I would really like to be conceptual but I'm afraid I'm experimental!

I agree most artists are both and somewhere in between!

9:35 PM  
Blogger Professor Melis said...

I too wish I could be conceptual, but have a feeling I'm experimental (if I can call myself a genius at all!), though I like the idea of there being a continuum best. I have done some things quite early for my age, but all are more radical on a personal level than on a creative/conceptual/as-amazing-as-inventing-cubism level :-) One interesting side note comes from the "women in art and art history" class I took in college. Our book talked about the usual notion of "genius" as being one that demends the sort of training historically less likely to be available to women and the sort of dedication to work-only (no family) historically less likely to be chosen by women. So on that level, I again applaud the idea of multiple notions of what makes a genius, rather than only Mozart.

2:41 PM  

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