Peaking early or climbing slowly

Back to the bibliography for my book. Today: David Galenson, “Old Masters and Young Geniuses.”

Folks, this is an important book. Notice I did not say “riveting” or “thrilling” or “entertaining”. It’s short and academic, not for the beach. But let me say it again: It’s important.

Galenson has looked into the life cycles of creative types. And he has found something. Gaze at this table for a while and try to figure out why these artists are split into two columns:

Painters
Picasso Cézanne
Munch Pissaro
Braque Degas
Derain Kandinsky
Lichtenstein Pollock
Rauschenberg de Kooning
Warhol Rothko
Poets
Eliot Frost
Pound Lowell
Cummings Stevens
Authors
Fitzgerald Dickens
Hemingway Twain
Joyce Woolf
Melville James

On the left are what Galenson calls “conceptual” types. They are the “young geniuses”.

  • They tend to succeed early in life, in their twenties or thirties, with huge breakthroughs of the imagination.
  • They have a big idea, then execute it boldly.
  • Their youth and inexperience, rather than hurting them, helps them because they don’t let the complexity of life experience confuse them.
  • They often cannot follow up later in life with more success.

On the right are “experimental” types, the “old masters”.

  • They tend to succeed late in life and gradually build toward a legacy.
  • They don’t have one big idea, but try things out, refine their craft, work hard, learn and discover.
  • They get better with age and experience, because they incorporate the complexity of life into their art.
  • They often succeed right up to the end.

By now, you will have figured out how this plays into my book. For some of the young geniuses, early success is an impostor, as Kipling would say, while for some of the old masters, early failure is an impostor.

Which type are you?
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9 thoughts on “Peaking early or climbing slowly

  1. Did Galenson find any creative types who began as young geniuses and ended as old masters? Or did all fall into one of the two categories?

    Can one sustain intense creativity over a lifetime?
    Whose lives are evidence of such creative longevity?

  2. Cheri, Galenson’s answer is No. Ie, he did not find any young geniuses that turned into old masters, and that’s the big insight in his book.
    They seem to be two separate personality types. One or the other.
    One FINDS a big idea and executes it, the other SEARCHES for one, never finds it, but in the process leaves something great.
    I forgot some other categories: Among directors, Orson Welles was a conceptualist, Hitchcock an experimentalist.
    I’m still trying to digest all this. If you can think of some other lives that might challenge his theory, let me know…

  3. So 1 hit wonders are more than a musical phenomenon.

    I bet if this theory holds it would an easy algorithm to create to estimate the ‘worth’ of directors based on past experience that would yield a much better model for future box office results.

  4. Did Galenson touch on any of the composers of the European classical genre?

    One thinks of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Mozart was a “young genius”, but his compositions still got progressively better until he died. Had Mozart been allowed to grow old, he may well have become an “old master”.

    Beethoven and Brahms would have been comparatively late bloomers who ended as old masters.

    How about pop musicians? John Lennon………..?

  5. Galenson did not. I suspect that’s because he concentrated on lives whose trajectory he could quantify

    (How he did that is quite ingenious: For the painters, for example, he took the auction prices of their paintings at different ages of creation, plus the frequency that specific paintings are depicted/cited in art history books. This yields Picasso “peaking” at 26, Cézanne at 67, the year he died.)

    That said, I’ve been thinking about your examples. Mozart is in a tragic category that includes Alexander the Great and Raphael (and John Lennon, arguably): They died too early. They were “saved by the clock.”

    In Alexander’s case, I’m convinced that, had he lived, he would have been a disappointment. He was a great hero, but he fought only second-class enemies (whereas Hannibal met his match, Scipio, in one of the few times in history when TWO certifiable geniuses met in battle.) Alexander apparently wanted to conquer Carthage next, and I think he would have failed.

    Mozart, of course, seemed to be getting better when he died. Beethoven… Now THERE’s a man who made breakthroughs, and at very different ages. By “reinventing” himself? I’ll keep pondering this one…

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