Paul Graham and the artist

Paul Graham’s new essay “Before the Startup” is as always fascinating, but Graham also says several things that apply to artists:

The way to come up with good startup ideas is to take a step back. Instead of making a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, turn your mind into the type that startup ideas form in without any conscious effort. In fact, so unconsciously that you don’t even realize at first that they’re startup ideas.

The same is true of ideas for novels, which often come from minute observations or moments or studies of character. They often don’t feel like novels at first: they feel like a situation (“What if a guy did this…”) and the full novel comes later. Artists often work at the margins.

He also writes in a footnote:

I did manage to think of a heuristic for detecting whether you have a taste for interesting ideas: whether you find known boring ideas intolerable. Could you endure studying literary theory, or working in middle management at a large company?

This may be why I and perhaps many other grad students find grad school worse as time goes on, and why MFA programs have been growing. Too many critics have ceased focusing not on how “to be an expert on your users and the problem you’re solving for them”—or, in this example, “readers” instead of “users”—and instead focus on straight forward careerism, which rarely seems to overlap with what people want to read.Paul Graham and the artist

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — Mason Currey

Daily Rituals is charming, and almost every entry feels like the right length; if anything, I would have liked each to be slightly longer, perhaps because the quirks and weirdnesses of the famous artists described provide justification for the quirks and weirdnesses of non-famous artists.

daily_ritualsThe answer to the title is “divergently,” but with some patterns. Many like walks, routines, and stimulants. Exasperation with TV is common, and even the non-writer artists tend to read. Many artists also exasperated lovers and spouses through their compulsions and tics. Given the low remunerative value of art and the low probability of success through recognition, being an artist is a compulsion for many of those described within—Currey even uses the word in his description of Patricia Highsmith: “Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable.” Daily Rituals may be best read by anyone romantically entangled with or biologically related to artists, as well as any artists who want to justify their own weird predilections. I love it when people explain myself to me.

Currey wants to answer questions like, “are comfort and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?” But they don’t have answers, because artists work in all sorts of places in all sorts of ways. It’s like asking about alcoholics: people who really want to drink will drink in elegant bars like Pouring Ribbons or chug Natty Lites in a dark Chinatown alley. Most might prefer the former to the latter but will settle for the latter when necessary. Currey also writes:

“The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices.

Most of the artists in here establish routines whenever they can, much like the writers in Writers on Writing. The number of people who need routine, who need defaults, speaks to its utility, among artists or anyone trying to accomplish a task with an artist’s dedication (like entrepreneurs, who might be the artists of the modern age). Distraction might also be handier than ever, giving rise to essays like “Disconnection Distraction:

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

If you get into that habit, you’ll be well-informed on unimportant news and less likely to make the thing that becomes the news. One question you might ask is: “Are you reading or making the news?” Aim for the latter. The former isn’t wrong, exactly, and it’s worth reading a lot, but as a secondary, not a primary, activity. Reading the news on the Internet or checking e-mail are especially dangerous in this regard because they can feel like working though they’re not.

I mentioned the compulsive aspect of art. That reappears again and again. Currey writes of Simone de Beauvoir that “when she took her annual two- or three-month vacations, she found herself growing bored and uncomfortable after a few weeks away from her work.” Long, pointless idleness is is boring, like binging on TV, but that’s because most artists seem to like what they do, or like it like an addict likes. Voltaire’s secretary “estimated that, all told, they worked eighteen to twenty hours a day. for Voltaire, it was a perfect arrangement. ‘I love the cell,’ he wrote.”

Such stories may be why, in Currey’s words, “Looking at the achievements of past greats is alternately inspiring and utterly discouraging.” The line made me laugh because of the juxtaposition of opposites, but also because he’s expressing a fundamental truth: if you look at the work as work, it can be “discouraging,” since so many artists do so much of it, but if you look at it as an extended form of play, it should be “encouraging.” It should also be “encouraging” because you can do it too—if you want to. Which means the limiting factor between you and art is you—which oscillates back to discouragement.

Still, Daily Rituals is at its heart a manual for dealing with and/or understanding someone with an artistic disposition, which might be described as imagination and execution. A surprisingly large number of people seem to imagine that being an artist is all about the “imagination” part and not much at all about the execution part; wandering around coffeeshops, bars, and parties, doffing a funny hat, and making enigmatic pronouncements is not the majority of what being an artist, broadly defined, is about. It’s about results, and Daily Rituals is about getting them and enabling the conditions necessary to get them. “Necessary” is the key word: a condition may be necessary but not sufficient, and it’s possible to treat a daily ritual as an empty ritual with no real output.

There are also a fairly wide range of ways to succeed. Some artists do spend a lot of time drunk or at parties. At least one prefers to work hungover, which would make me crazy. The artists appear approximately split between those who like noise and those who prefer quiet. I’m among the latter and can barely believe that anyone really gets anything done in noisy coffeeshops, tapping on laptops, but enough successful writers have testified to the contrary that I’m forced to believe them. The fundamental idea remains, however, that artists are artists because of their output. That’s it.

Some passages in Daily Rituals are funny; you wouldn’t expect this book to be a comedy and yet I laughed frequently. Two examples:

[John Cheever] had what appears to have been an unusually robust sex drive (the actress Hope Lange, who had a brief affair with Cheever, said that he was ‘the horniest man [she] ever met’) combined with frequent bouts of impotence, probably brought on by his alcoholism but no doubt made worse by his sexual guilt and a frequently rocky marriage. All of this was distracting from his work, especially since Cheever placed a high value on the salutary effects of erotic release. He thought that his constitution required at least ‘two or three orgasms a week’ and he believed that sexual stimulation improved his concentration and even his eyesight: ‘With a stiff prick I can read the small print in prayer books but with a limp prick I can barely read newspaper headlines.’

or:

The German poet, historian, philosopher, and playwright [Friedrich Schiller] kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom; he said that he needed their decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write.

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.

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.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier — Edward Glaeser

When I lived in Seattle, I was driving a friend home when she said she didn’t like all the new buildings because they pushed poor people out of the city. I was confused by her argument and that building more housing units will make it easier for poor people—any people, really—to afford to live in the city, but she argued that wasn’t true because the existing buildings were “worse.” But that doesn’t matter much: if a given parcel of land goes from having four units on it to four hundred, that’s vastly more supply. The conversation’s already low level of intellectual content degenerated, but I thought of it as I read Triumph of the City, which gathers a lot of useful information about cities and what they offer in one place. Yes, the title is overwrought, but the content is useful, and I especially noticed this, about Jane Jacobs:

Because she saw that older, shorter buildings were cheaper, she incorrectly believed that restricting heights and preserving old neighborhoods would ensure affordability. That’s not how supply and demand work. When the demand for a city rises, prices will rise unless more homes are built. When cities restrict new construction, they become more expensive.

It’s basic supply and demand, but, from what I can tell, relatively few cities actually discuss supply, demand, and housing costs—which is unfortunate given the extreme costs of many desirable cities that offer intensive knowledge spillover effects. If how we live affects what we think and how we think, we should pay a lot of attention to how we live. Yet few of us do, though more of us should. Triumph of the City is the kind of book unmoored young people and people contemplating career changes need to read, because where you live affects so much of how you live. This part speaks to a dilemma I’m facing:

In the year 2000, people were willing to accept lower real wages to live in New York, which means that they were coming to New York despite the fact that higher prices more than erased higher wages. It’s not that New York had become less productive; the city’s nominal wages, which reflect productivity, were higher than ever. But housing prices, fueled by the robust demand to live and play in the city, had risen even more than nominal earnings. If housing prices rise enough relative to nominal incomes, as they do when cities become more pleasant, then real incomes can actually fall during a period of great urban success. Manhattan had changed from a battlefield to an urban playground, and people were willing to pay, in the form of lower wages, for the privilege of living there.

I’m likely to move to New York and live for at least two years. Which raises questions: am I willing to “accept lower real wages” because of the housing cost increases? How valuable is “an urban playground?” Perhaps not valuable enough to keep me there. I love New York and just wish I could live there. L.A. has similar problems, and I have some friends who want to leave Tucson—for which I blame them not at all—and are contemplating where to go; based on their disposition and temperaments, Seattle or Portland would be obvious choices. They’re much less expensive, and moving to either will probably result in an increase of 10 – 20% in real income terms, as Virginia Postrel shows in “A Tale of Two Town Houses.” (Glaeser speaks to L.A., too, however indirectly: “Cities grow by building up, or out, and when a city doesn’t build, people are prevented from experiencing the magic of urban proximity.” L.A. has replaced proximity with traffic.)

And there tend to be clusters of artists and other creative types in cities that offer dense environments, not totally dysfunctional politics, and cheap housing. The 1920s Paris immortalized by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and recently recreated in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was such a place; today, as Glaeser says, “Restrictions on new construction have ensured that Paris—once famously hospitable to starving artists—is now affordable only to the wealthy.” It’s a useful reminder that you can’t beat economics with raw policy alone, and so many articles about rising rent prices or changing demographics utterly fail to connect housing costs with the needs of the poor outsiders who will one day start startups or be artists (for a recent, positive example, see Megan McArdle’s post “Empty Apartments, Stupid Laws“).

Artists simply can’t afford Paris anymore, and New York is becoming expensive too.

The really famous, important parts of the world—New York, London, Tokyo, Beijing—are important because of what large networks of hundreds of millions of people have done with and to them. They’re not intrinsically important because of the land they occupy. Cities that want to emulate their example and distinguish themselves from surrounding suburbs and rural lands need to build up, not out (or not at all). New York’s housing prices are so high because lots of people want to live there—because it’s awesome. As Glaeser shows, we should want them to be able to live there, too. But we often can’t.

This doesn’t just hurt us as individuals, or economies composed of people who can’t live in spaces where they connect with one another: it also hurts the environment because: “Traditional cities have fewer carbon emissions because they don’t require vast amounts of driving. [. . .] Department of Energy data confirms that New York State’s per capita energy consumption is next to last in the country, which largely reflects public transit use in New York.” And:

Good environmentalism means putting buildings in places where they will do the least ecological harm. This means that we must be more tolerant of tearing down the short buildings in cities in order to build tall ones, and more intolerant of the activists who oppose emissions-reducing urban growth.

But I think he misses something here: for a lot of people, environmentalism is just a pose, a way to show they care—provided it doesn’t harm or affect their life in some immediate, substantial way (those of you firing up your e-mail clients to send me angry missives should hold off: this applies to lots of other subjects too, like religion). So the people who claim to be environmentalists are really claiming that they want you to think they care about the environment, and that’s a cheap stance until people start to complain about construction noise, or loss of a neighborhood’s dubious “character,” or whatever other excuse comes up. As Alex Tabarrok says in Launching The Innovation Renaissance, one major, underappreciated problem the U.S. faces is the sheer number of veto players who can affect any building project at any scale. Glaeser is in effect pointing to a single facet of this general principle.

In essence, there’s too much regulation of what happens in most cities. For example, take parking policies: if people (especially those who claim to be environmentalist) want good public transportation, one useful strategy is to raise the real cost of cars, which is an especially good idea because Free Parking Comes at a Price. And that price is innumerable underutilized parking spaces. I see this price every day in Tucson, where miles and miles of land are given over to hideous parking lots that make walking virtually anywhere impossible.

One interesting missing piece: a concrete theory of why cities offer the advantages they do. We have lots of indirect information showing the advantage of cities, combined with some theories about why they offer the things they do, but little else. Steven Berlin Johnson is similarly indirect in Where Good Ideas Come From; like Triumph of the City, it’s a fascinating book (and he speaks to cities as innovative environments in it), but it also has this gap that I don’t know how to fill. Perhaps no one can at current levels of technology and understanding.

A lot of the prose in Triumph of the City is uninspired, and occasionally garbled, like this: “Urban proximity enables cross-cultural connection by reducing the curse of communicating complexity, the fact that a garbled message increases the amount of information that is being transferred.” But the density of ideas makes up for the weakness of the language, and Glaeser is also a native economist, rather than a writer.


Here’s Slate’s (positive) review. I don’t think I’ve read any negative reviews; if you’ve seen any, post a comment.

Life: Critics and artists edition

Stolen from Terry Teachout:

“A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence. A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.”

Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides)

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