Why is it that some creators flare out early like great shooting stars? And why do others grow continuously, often realizing their greatest powers later in life? Those questions are asked and researched in David Galenson’s quite amazing study, Old Masters and Young Geniuses (Princeton University Press, 2006).
Galenson straddles the discipline of artistic history and economics, the later being his own formal area of training. His book addresses the question of early and late creativity by quantitatively analyzing artists most prodigious eras of life; when were they referenced, purchased and recognized most? The conclusions are graphic and stunning. Regardless of the form of artistic expression – visual art, sculpture, poetry, novels, music – these artistic creators tend toward either early explosions or gradual maturing and later flowering. Why?
As Galenson identified who was who in terms of early and late he simultaneously probed their artistic methods. They fell more or less into two camps, the “conceptual” artists – those who developed their art with big ideas, model-shifting concepts and techniques, and the “experimental” artists – those who refined their technique over long periods of time, never considering their work finished, always striving for the next improvement.
Many conceptual artists peak early and, after expressing their unique ideas, have little left to say later. Examples of conceptuals would be Picasso, Warhol, Fitzgerald and Plath. They left their mark and left it early and they never matched their early fame later in life, if indeed they had a later life. In contrast to those, the experimentals matured and grew and often had their greatest and best-known contributions later. Examples of experimentals would be Haydn, Monet, O’Keeffe, and Frost.
Conceptuals often have an great idea and implement it. When they do they are done. Experimentals discover what they are creating in the act of creating it.
My favorite story of an experimental was Georgia O’Keeffe. It is said that she painted her own front door twenty times. She did this not because it was the most interesting subject or because her fame rested on some new technique. She did it because the next time she painted it she might get closer to perfection than the last.
Conceptuals tend to be boundary breakers; they achieve fame by challenging the boundaries and throwing it out there. Experimentals tend to be more cautious, never considering their work complete. They often rework their creations over and over. Whereas Melville created Moby Dick, a masterpiece, early and never exceeded that piece with anything else, Twain, Woolf and Dickens matured and continued to create their greatest works late. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in a flash as a young man, a remarkable achievement he would never exceed and Hemingway never wrote a great book after age forty. But Twain spent ten years writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and it wasn’t published until he was fifty. And he never considered it finished.
Of course, cinema was included. Conceptual directors often minimize plot and amplify technical innovations. So Orson Welles broke new ground with blockbuster Citizen Kane very early and accomplished little of note afterwards. On the other hand old master Alfred Hitchcock rose to fame late, self-describing directing expertise as something that develops slowly and naturally. He invariably honored the narrative line, image and the perceived impact on the audience. Psycho is the perfect example. Like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, other old masters, the story should be universal, compelling and grow in importance as time passes on.
As I reflected on this magisterial study I asked myself parallel questions about creating, writing, leading, preaching and growing in faith. In my experience some religious leaders are very much like the conceptuals; they tromp onto the scene and their fame lasts a few minutes. What they have to offer, say and do has a very brief shelf life. What they earlier said in some brilliance is frequently repeated in different forms the rest of their lives. The “old masters” of religious life tend to recreate themselves, refining and remaking their art and expression into later age, motivated by an internal sense of never having arrived. It is this self-knowledge of being on the unending journey, the inextinguishable fire of creativity, that keeps them fresh and offering their best until late in life.
It is now, after spending a year reading the works of Thomas Merton, that I realize he was an old master. He was an experimental, a mystic who was never done. It is so easy to try to box Merton in: Oh, he was a Catholic and stuck in that mythos; Oh, he contradicted himself; Oh, he talked about community but wanted to be a hermit; Oh, he used the pen in the service of social activism but wasn’t really out there in the fray. If Merton were a conceptual, a person who had his one or two or three great ideas you could critique accordingly. But he was not. He was an experimental who was never done, a man and mystic who continued to sharpen his pencil on a page and faith and practice that was never finished.
That’s the kind of person I want to be.