Thinking about the process of being an artist and a writer: Lessons from David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses

David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity is the rare academic book that’s also useful for artists—most academic books are as useful for artists as syphilis is for prostitutes (the metaphor is intentionally gross, as it’s designed to express the artist’s reaction to turgid academic books).* This long quote encapsulates Galenson’s main point:

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experimentation, and the other conceptual execution.

Artists who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goals.

In contrast, artists who have made conceptual innovations have been motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can usually be stated precisely, before its production, either as a desired image or as a desired process for the work’s execution. Conceptual artists consequently often make detailed preparatory sketches or plans for their paintings. Their execution of their painting is often systematic, since they may think of it as primarily making a preconceived image, and often simply a process of transferring an image they have already created from one surface to another. Conceptual innovators appear suddenly, as a new idea immediately produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. Because it is the idea that is the contribution, conceptual innovations can usually be implemented immediately and completely, and therefore are often embodied in individual breakthrough works that become recognized as the first statement of the innovation.

Malcolm Gladwell steals much of Galenson’s work for his article “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” I say “steals” because Gladwell’s treatment doesn’t go very far beyond Galenson’s. That might be overwrought, but I still find it mostly true. Gladwell, however, does cite Galenson, which is how I found Old Masters.

I tend more towards the experimental mode: I rarely feel that I’ve succeeded, per se, although I am committed to finishing works—largely because I’ve discovered that finishing is essential to any artist, and one way to separate posers, of whom there are many, from people with real potential is to see if they have something they can show: a story, a picture, a song, whatever—no matter how bad. Then see if they produce something else. I also often repeat themes about growing up, the possibility of real friendship (especially between men and women), the power and estrangement of metaphor, and how to have an artistic temperament that nonetheless is rigorous and interested in understanding the world. I think so, anyway, although it’s naturally hard to judge one’s own works: perhaps someone else would derive different ideas.

I do, however, “tend to make specific preparatory sketches or plans” when I write, more so than I used to, but I’m not bound by them and those plans tend to be discarded about midway through a novel. Some writers apparently make very elaborate plans that they then simply execute, and I am not one, and I do feel very much like I am in “a process of searching” and of discovery, with the discovery being quite pleasurable. In most of my novels, I want to tell a story—I am not as interested in being able to express or communicate “specific ideas or emotions.” Emotions are the reader’s responsibility. Most of the time I start with characters and/or situations and want to see what might happen when those characters or situations develop. Writers who seem highly conceptual and not very interested in narrative, like Joyce, Pynchon, Morrison, and DeLillo are in turn not very interesting to me; they seem bloodless and dull, whatever their virtuosity with language. Unfortunately, they also occupy the academic high ground at the moment, perhaps because their methods and output lend themselves more easily to abstruse literary articles.

Writers like Robertson Davies, Elmore Leonard, (parts of) Tom Wolfe, and (parts of) Francine Prose are of much more interest. Someone like Philip Roth falls in the middle, but to me many of his novels become dull when their characters get bogged down in family or identity or political dilemmas (think of Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater). In addition, there are very few writers whose entire oeuvres I like (Davies is an exception); most of the time I like particular books, or one or two books. Umberto Eco’s novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum have not been matched, not even close, by anything else he’s done; ditto for Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, or Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Empire Falls. Martin Amis seems to me to be at the peak of his powers with Money, and nothing else he’s written that I’ve read has the same appeal.

Galenson also sees conceptual innovators as tending to peak when they’re younger. I wonder if this is also related to something Doris Lessing discussed in her Nobel Lecture:

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: “Is she good-looking?” If this is a man: “Charismatic? Handsome?” We joke, but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year’s time what he or she is thinking: “This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

Some much-publicised new writers haven’t written again, or haven’t written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: “Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don’t let it go.”

Perhaps this happens chiefly because the feted young writers are conceptual innovators who have run out of concepts they wish to explore. If I have eventual fame and critical praise—not likely, and not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but the idea arose in the course of writing this—I don’t think it would affect me very much. I would still probably spend a lot of time reading and writing, and going running, and so on. I don’t think I’d want to buy a boat, or believe the flattering lies I’d sometimes hear, or perceive myself as literature’s New Jesus.

It’s also possible that artistic innovators are becoming relatively older than they once were, thanks to increases in the artistic search space. Benjamin Jones sees this happening in scientific and technical leaders in “Age and Great Invention:”

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. Using data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, I find that the mean age at which noted innovations are produced has increased by 6 years over the 20th Century. I estimate shifts in life-cycle productivity and show that innovators have become especially unproductive at younger ages. Meanwhile, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age.

It’s also not clear or obvious to me about the extent to which cultures and societies affect artistic and technical innovations. I do suspect the Internet allows these to spread more rapidly, but beyond that somewhat obvious point I don’t have any other useful, or possibly useful, observations. There’s a strong artistic culture of borrowing and adapting ideas that pays off, especially for Galenson’s conceptual innovators, and it may also pay off for his experimental innovators, who can more easily access works and ideas to react against in creating their own works. It does seem like artists are very good at “questioning, experimenting, observing, associating and networking,” to use Steve Lohr’s phrase, with that last one being associated with broader fame and the dissemination of one’s ideas to others. Galeson even mentions this:

Rapid borrowing and utilization of new artistic devices, across ever wider geographic areas, has become increasingly common in recent decades, in which conceptual approaches to art have predominated. One indication of this progressive globalization of modern art is that art historians are finding that they are no longer able to divide their subject as neatly along geographic lines as in the past.

But I suspect I don’t like conceptual visual art very much: most of it looks facile and superficial to me—exactly the claims that Galenson said tend to be made against such art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was particularly disappointing: a lot of supposed artists there were trying to be sexually shocking, but they still have nothing on what one can find online. A lot of their stuff also simply seemed random. An iMac or a C-class never seem random. Perhaps modern artists only have to please a small coterie of art insiders, while industrial designers have to please people who want to see and use beautiful, not random.

Another note on art and age: Many people who are programmers / hackers make their greatest technical contributions when they’re young—think of Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds (who created the operating system that bears his name in 1991, while he was a 22-year-old student), Mark Zuckerberg, or the general cult of the young hacker genius. This might be because computer programming is a relatively young field, and it’s still relatively easy for people without a lot of formal training to make major contributions to it at an early age. There are also other effects related to Moore’s Law, the Internet, and so on, but I still find the young age of many major contributors intriguing. It’s possible that people in their 40s or older have made major contributions that I’m simply not aware of, and that the press has an obsession with youth that means I’m drawing on unrepresentative sample because the examples I can come up with are only the salient ones.

Galenson shouldn’t be considered the final word in artistic methods or outcomes, and he knows that his binary is not absolute (“it may be useful to consider the experimental-conceptual distinction not simply as a binary categorization, but rather as a quantitative difference. In this view there is a continuum, with extreme practitioners of either type at the far ends, and moderate practitioners of the two categories arrayed along the intermediate positions of the scale”). Nonetheless, Galenson offers a useful framework for considering how different people with different sorts of artistic temperaments tend to work. I would also add that he can only categorize artists who have actually finished work. Those who start many works and finish none presumably never achieve the fame that would be necessary for him to discuss.

Many artists probably don’t need or want a meta-awareness of their processes. Still, I don’t think anyone who is any kind of artist fails to think at all about how they do what they do, or how their processes might affect their outcomes. Some, however, publicly say that they just follow their feelings, or that they go into a kind of trance. When artists say things like that, they’re probably being partially truthful, but they could start asking: where do feelings come from, and how do I translate feelings that begin as chemicals or electrical impulses in the brain to colors or words? What’s the nature of the artistic trance? But they don’t ask those questions, or, if they do, they don’t share the answer publicly. That’s okay, but it strikes me as deliberate mystification (they’d probably see my relatively high level of awareness as false, as a set of intellectual pretenses masquerading as method).

Nor is one kind of artist necessarily better than the other: notice that I have said I have tendencies towards being experimental more than conceptual, but that doesn’t mean I would denigrate conceptual artists.

Other interesting moments from Old Masters:

“[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.”

“What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.”

“Experimental movie directors typically stress the importance of telling a story, with a clear narrative. They generally consider visual images the most important element of a movie, with the script and sound track used to support the images. Many experimental directors specifically state that their primary goal is to entertain the audience, and they often take commercial success to be a sign of their achievement of that goal. Experimental directors typically aim to make the technical aspects of their movies unobtrusive, for they usually believe that the purpose of technique is to create an illusion of reality.”


* Galenson also wrote Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, which might be interesting to visual artists; I haven’t read it, because I don’t find paintings and other non-cinematic forms of visual art compelling for consumption, let alone production.

4 responses

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  2. Another distinction could help explain the phenomenon: process-centric vs. payoff-centric. Or, as one ad slogan reads: “We don’t just design pretty. We design well.” Artists that have a clear vision of what they want to achieve on each project have a different relationship with failure. Failure to them is a very well-defined event. The singular goal was not reached. For “young geniuses” who have, in their minds, never known failure, a dry spell is hard to weather. Artists that are highly attuned to the process see failure mostly as a series of little missteps that inform and guide them in refining the process itself. The potential pitfall to this kind of approach is that the artist may be caught in a rut for too long. Sometimes impatience is a good thing. Refining one’s process may not be as important as going after the right goal.

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