The dark art of creativity: Galenson’s book Old masters and young geniuses

For all our worship of creativity, and the accompanying profusion of self-help books on how to stoke your creativity, on the whole we seem to have but a slight understanding of how the creative process works, and even worse, it is shrouded in bizarrely mystical beliefs. Whether your parents resurrect the painterly ambitions of your great-grandparents to explain your hard-won abilities, or whether like F. Scott Fitzgerald you’re convinced you only have a finite amount of magic juice allotted to you, the land of creativity is strewn with wild speculation and ritual-based advice that leaves us feeling like we must belong to some shady sort of cult that must make regular and prompt sacrifices to muses.

Muse (Wiener Kore) by Samantha

But fear not, creative ones! For academic investigation has come to our aid to explore the creative output of our forefathers and to begin to make sense of how and when people produce important creative works. Economist David Galenson has written an insightful book that observes the correlation between creativity and age, and comes to a surprisingly simple but generally neglected conclusion. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity (2006) suggests that there are two dominant types of creative agents, and that because their motivations are starkly different, their approaches also differ markedly. This difference is most clearly observed in the life cycle, with one group demonstrating sudden and early success, and the other group building a career slowly and incrementally, and remembered for their mature work. Noting this distinction means that you can navigate the torrent of advice you will receive on your self-directed career as an artist, and determine what really applies to you and what doesn’t. Know thyself.

Galenson connects creativity to innovation, and I think this is an important point to consider. The mere ability to draw something convincingly is not sufficient; the same as playing a violin piece adeptly is musically skilled, but not especially creative. To create is, of course, to bring something into being, and the heroes of art have all, like gods, brought some new configuration into existence, rather than simply proven the skill of their hands. Galenson (p. 2) writes strongly about the ability to influence others in our field: whether as scholars, poets, filmmakers, or painters; our creativity is measured by the impact it has on others working in the same domain as us. Galenson (p. 2) is adamant that this is how artistic worth is measured: ‘the importance at issue here is not the short-run interest that gains an artist immediate critical or commercial success, but the long-run importance that eventually causes his work to hang in major museums and makes his contribution the subject of study by scholars of art.’

 John Keats (Bright Star)

Where previous studies have observed that lyric poets, for example, peak in their youth—engorged by youthful passions and first tastes, delirious with life—Galenson (p. 173) argues that such simplistic average-taking (such as Harvey Lehman’s ‘ “the maximum average rate of highly superior production” of lyric poems occurred at ages 26 to 31’) unhelpfully ignores the accomplishments of older poets. Instead of trying to fit all important poets, or all important artists, into a single age cluster, Galenson (p. 173) looks rather at the diverse spread of success over the lifetimes of a number of twentieth century painters and sculptors (and later poets, authors and film-makers) and describes two trends: some have early success and others have later success. And very different motivations drive the artists of each age group.

Galenson partitions them into the experimentalists and the conceptualists. His later description of them as inductive and deductive workers respectively is also very helpful (p. 185). The experimentalists work largely perceptively: ‘motivated by aesthetic criteria’ (p. 4). With uncertain goals, experimentalists explore, relying on their physical experience of the world around them, searching, focusing on learning and process over producing polished and finished works. In fact, they often have difficulty considering works finished, returning to them years later and continuing where they left off, or simply discarding them, as Cézanne did, strewing his unhappy attempts across the landscape and rarely signing them. These artists often pursue a single motif throughout their whole career, doggedly trying to get to the bottom of something, to resolve a single problem that pervades their entire life.

Conceptualists are ‘motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions’ (p. 4). Working systematically, from studies and meticulous planning stages, the final work is merely the execution of a clearly-defined process with a clear final image in mind. These are the artists to whom lightning bolts of inspiration arrive, and who feel themselves conduits for higher creative powers. Ideas and emotions drive their work. These artists quickly synthesise new ideas and experiences and see clearly how to represent them, and move on easily to other projects.

Galenson (p. 5) sums up these opposing forces in the archetypes of Paul Cézanne, who said, ‘I seek in painting,’ and of Pablo Picasso, who countered, ‘I don’t seek; I find.’ He takes great pains to emphasise that ‘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’ (p. 4). Being a young genius has no particular advantage over being an old master, argues Galenson (p. 185-6); rather, the implication is ‘that aptitude and ambition are more important factors in allowing people to make contributions to a chosen discipline than the ability to think and work in any particular way, either deductively or inductively.’ And this difference is not simply one of method, but also a more fundamental difference in why the artist works the way she does (p. 166).

Experimentalists are less motivated by expression, but driven rather by perception and sensory stimuli. They connect with the physical world and attempt to record this profound non-verbal contact. Conceptualists, rather, have something to say, something to impose on the world, or inner turmoils to offload on their audience. Understanding this difference in motivation is enough to help you see flaws in the way people approach you and your work, rather than assume that flaws are inherent in your work. ‘What are you trying to say in your work?’ is at once a thoroughly misdirected question to demand of an experimentalist, and the experimentalist who realises that she need not construct an arbitrary autobiographical element to her work is suddenly freed of a theoretical burden. In a world biased towards the conceptual mode of working, an experimental painter is under constant pressure to defend the conceptual underpinnings of her paintings, when in truth there may simply be none.

House in Provence, by Paul Cézanne

The experimentalist, further, is under great pressure to exhibit, while generally feeling that she is making slow progress, if any at all. ‘Many experimentalists have been excessively cautious to show their work,’ Galenson (p. 183) writes. The antidote, he suggests, is ‘to recognise,’ as Cézanne did, that slow progress is nonetheless progress,’ and that ‘unresolved works are not necessarily unfinished, and that even unfinished works can contribute new ideas or approaches to a discipline.’ Competing with conceptual artists can be disastrous, though the delayed and gradual appreciation of experimentalists’ work can be disheartening in the short term. Experimental artists would do better to follow a logical progression in the tasks they set themselves, gradually growing their expertise, trusting that they can look forward to an enviable mastery as they age and gain experience.

Conceptual artists, meanwhile, must contend with the fading of their powers with the accumulation of experience, which dulls the youthful exuberance and shock of the new that spurs them to sudden and piercing insights. As T. S. Eliot (Galenson, p. 170) declared in 1940, ‘It is my experience that towards middle age a man has three choices: to stop writing altogether, to repeat himself with perhaps an increasing skill of virtuosity, or by taking thought to adapt himself to middle age and find a different way of working.’ Conceptual artists need constant change and renewal to be able to make insightful connections, or else they risk stagnating.

Edouard and Marie Louise Pailleron, by John Singer Sargent 1881

Henry James (Galenson, p. 168) wrote a particularly revealing review of John Singer Sargent when the latter was thirty-seven years old: though praising his lucidity and clarity of purpose, he worries that Sargent has already plateaued. He commented that Sargent’s show ‘offer[ed] the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn. … May not this breed an irresponsibility of cleverness, a wantonness, an irreverence?’ James fears that Sargent will not go on to reach ‘the highest result: … the quality in the light of which the artist sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, discovers in it new things that were not on the surface, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, enlarges and humanises the technical problem.’ Galenson checks his facts and finds that most of Sargent’s important works were, in fact, completed before the age of thirty. Great ability and early success may be enough for your purposes. But for the conceptualist to continue productively well into old age, she must adapt and constantly set herself new challenges.

If there are two broad modes of working creatively, there can be no one pattern of advice to heed for artistic success. And yet you need not take up arbitrary talismans or leave it up to chance. The arts, asserted Roger Fry (Galenson p. 171) in 1933, ‘have such a crying need for systematic study in which scientific methods will be followed wherever possible, where at all events the scientific attitude may be fostered and the sentimental attitude discouraged.’ Studies such as Galenson’s can help us sift our way through the mud and be surer of our footing. Whether we work conceptually, or experimentally, or somewhere along the spectrum, we can rest firmly in our own goals and intentions and give ourselves the greatest opportunity for success—for the genuine respect of our fellow artists, and the esteem of art lovers and scholars of the future.


Samantha Groenestyn


Galenson, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University: Princeton, NJ.