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Published by EH.NET (May 2006)

David W. Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. xv + 233 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 0-691-12109-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert B. Ekelund, Jr., Department of Economics, Auburn University.

David Galenson has repeated the hypothesis he examined in Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art (2001) — that some great artists did path-breaking work at early ages while others created seminal art only later in life. This time, however, sculptors, poets, novelists and movie directors are said to be included in these two cohorts.

At base, Galenson believes that he has found a “new understanding of the life cycle of human creativity.” The basis of this new understanding is set out in Chapter 1 of his book. Again, as in virtually all of his previous and contemporaneous work, Galenson bifurcates art and other creative endeavors into two types — the “experimental” and the “conceptual.” According to the author, experimental innovators “repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error.” The epitome in the world of art, according to Galenson, is Paul Cezanne. In contrast, the conceptual artist makes “innovations motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions,” with goals stated precisely before an image or “process” is produced. After this, their role is essentially finished. Lots of advance planning goes into this esthetic and Pablo Picasso is offered up as an exemplar of this type of artist. Galenson then argues that experimentalists produce their “most important ideas” late in their careers, while conceptual artists get to the same point much younger in their careers.

In Chapter 2, Galenson presents what he calls “evidence” for the above proposition(s). He examines auction prices and age-price profiles, textbook illustrations, museum collections and retrospective exhibitions for Cezanne and Picasso. Galenson then maintains (with good reason) that a binary division of the theory above will not do because there are “continuous” variations in art practitioners — “extreme and moderate.” With admittedly interesting and carefully selected anecdotes, the author further amends his initial proposition. Now, Galenson conjectures, “it might be hypothesized that extreme conceptual artists will tend to achieve their major contributions earlier in their careers than any other type of innovator” (p. 55, emphasis added) and, further, that “it may be possible for conceptual artists to evolve gradually into experimental ones, [but that] it is not likely that experimental artists can change into conceptual ones” (p. 60). There are, as Galenson tacitly admits, many exceptions to his theory.

Chapters 4 and 5 tackle, respectively, the implications of his theory (or theories) and its application to Old Master works. The globalization of modern art is caused, he argues, by the increasing dominance of conceptual art in the post-World War II era. The era of “isms” and experimental art was a product of the increasingly abstract art developing in Europe and America in the era of Abstract Expressionism and European modernism. The author concludes that “the dominance of conceptual approaches to fine art in the recent past has clearly served to accelerate the spread of new artistic ideas” (p. 93). Old Master painters, however, do not escape Galenson’s attention. Here he purports to show (given reproductions of their works in textbooks on art history to show “peak value”) that in three out of the ten of the most reproduced paintings the artists were “conceptual” and were below 30 years of age (one, Vermeer, was 29). For the remainder, alleged to be “experimental,” however, only three were 46 or over and three were in their thirties. One artist, Frans Hals, skews the data with age given at 79/84. The issues are “How old is old” and how can a sample of 9 artists tell us anything about the distinction Galenson is attempting to draw?

Chapter 6, the unique part of the book, pushes the distinction between conceptual and experimental innovators into other realms. Using highly selected individuals, quotations and interpretations, Galenson examines seven sculptors and eight poets, authors and film directors. Consider some of Galenson’s observations. With respect to writers: “Conceptual writers are more likely to base their works on library research and to strive for precise factual accuracy, whereas experimental writers typically rely on their own perceptions and intuition” (p. 134). Conceptual film directors, using the same logic, “often avoid linear narrative and conventional story lines” (p. 150), while experimental directors stress the importance of telling a story with a clear narrative. Distinctions such as these are so fuzzy and the samples used to produce credence for them so small that almost any close and selected biographical synopsis could produce any desired result.

Galenson reveals a certain depth of erudition and research in all this. Unfortunately there is no theoretical or empirical foundation to the main argument. There is no clearly demonstrable distinction between conceptual and experimental thought processes in art, music or any other kind of creative activity. Cherry-picked quotations and exhibitions aside, Galenson has not clarified the argument that creative thinkers can be dichotomized into seekers and finders. Anyone who has known a working artist (or poet) would recognize that these two processes are not divisible and, indeed, are often inextricably intertwined within the same work.

Measurement, if one can call it that, consists of anecdotes that Galenson selected to support the dichotomy. For example, age distributions of artists clearly matter if one is to use ex post rationalizing of peak valued work. Some artists die young, others do not. Most Old Masters had far more limited life spans, making peak value productivity a logical impossibility at older ages. Highly selected samples of artistic works do not help his argument either. There are many “great film” lists. Virtually all put The Godfather and Raging Bull on or near the top of the list. But Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese, clearly experimental directors in Galenson’s scenario, were only 33 and 38 at their executions. Consider another example. Was W. A. Mozart “conceptual” or “experimental” and would he have produced “peak valued” work had he composed to seventy years old? The point is that Galenson’s samples are simply inadequate. These and many other factors have an effect on outcomes. Plentiful exceptions to the experimentalist/older-conceptual/younger theory make the theory unbelievable. An added complexity to the theory of “extreme” and “moderate” does nothing to untangle this false dichotomy.

It may well be that there are different forms of creativity and that, in general, some genre of conceptual — often coupled with a “con” — art has replaced earlier forms. But in the art world there are other and likely better explanations than an artificially divided creative impulse. Post-World War II demand factors with lightening-fast taste changes is one reason and the use of “art as an investment” is another. These factors clearly have had an impact on auction prices, museum exhibitions and the “story” of art. The new seventh edition of the best-selling Jansen’s History of Art: The Western Tradition illustrates how the story of art history can be retold and retold in multiple ways and with different illustrations and emphases. The increased pace of conceptual artistic endeavor may also have much to do with the incentives of abstract artists in particular and the vastly lowered transactions cost in artistic “communications” of all types.

Galenson’s book, to be fair, is entertaining and informative in its own way and the study of factors affecting creativity is interesting. Unfortunately his study of bifurcated creativity will require a well-executed theoretical and empirical study to make any of his conclusions believable.

Robert B. Ekelund, Jr. is Edward and Catherine Lowder Eminent Scholar (Emeritus) in the Department of Economics at Auburn University and Acting Director, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University. He is the author of numerous papers on political economy, including studies in the Journal of Cultural Economics. He is the author of fourteen books, including The Marketplace of Christianity (MIT Press, forthcoming 2006) and is an amateur artist.