Myths about Art, Age, and Genius

David W. Galenson, a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” writes an interesting piece in Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook Section. Here are five myths he debunks:

1. Only young geniuses produce great innovations.

   

Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Rimbaud, Orson Welles and Bob Dylan all revolutionized their artistic disciplines before they turned 30. They were archetypal young geniuses. But Paul Cézanne, Mark Twain, William Butler Yeats, Alfred Hitchcock and Irving Berlin made equally important contributions to the same art forms, and they all produced their greatest work at 50 or older.

The differences between these artists’ creative life cycles are not accidental. Precocious young geniuses make bold and dramatic innovations — think of Picasso’s cubism — and their work often expresses their ideas or feelings. Wise old masters, on the other hand, are experimental thinkers who proceed by trial and error. Their work, such as Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” often aims at realistic representations of what the artists see and hear.

So how did the young geniuses upstage the old masters? The word “genius” is derived from the Greek word for birth, and since the Renaissance philosophers and critics have associated creative genius with youth. Mature artists are no less important than budding ones, but the gradual innovations they make over a lifetime are less conspicuous than sudden breakthroughs. The subtle craftsmanship of old age attracts less attention than the pyrotechnic iconoclasm of youth.

2. All great innovators produce timeless masterpieces.

Because young geniuses tend to be conceptual thinkers, they often create iconic individual works. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which he painted at 26, appears in more than 90 percent of art history textbooks published in the past 30 years. Georges Seurat‘s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte,” which he finished at 27, appears in more than 70 percent.

For mature artists, on the other hand, discoveries evolve over years instead of exploding onto the scene in a single masterpiece. Thus no single painting by Cézanne or his friend Claude Monet appears in even half of art history textbooks. Yet no one would question their place among the greats.

3. Successful artists always plan their works in advance.

Young conceptual artists formulate an idea, then plan its presentation. Picasso made more than 500 preparatory drawings for “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and 32-year-old James Joyce outlined “Ulysses” so he would not have to write the chapters in the order in which they would appear in the book.

Older experimentalists, on the other hand, value the discoveries that come through the process of creation. They try to avoid preconception. In his most sophisticated years, Cézanne never made preparatory drawings for his paintings. Virginia Woolf, who worked until her death at age 59, acknowledged that she wrote with no plan at all so that each day produced surprises. Twain also struggled to chart plot lines, and he twice abandoned “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in frustration. Even when he finished the book after nine years of work, Twain considered it unresolved. The last paragraph alludes to a sequel, which he later only attempted to write.

4. Great artists produce multiple innovations.

One-hit wonders are not unique to rock music. Many important artists produced just one great idea, and in almost every case it came when they were young. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, originally designed for a class she took as a college senior, appears in 16 of 40 art history textbooks published since 1990 — a number matched by only one other work by an American artist during the 1980s, Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc.” The radical minimalist form of Lin’s creation changed memorial architecture forever. It also made her famous. Yet she has produced no other significant innovations, and none of her subsequent work appears in any of those textbooks.

Literature also has its roster of one-hit wonders. Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road” when he was in his 20s, J.D. Salinger wrote “The Catcher in the Rye” at 32, and Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” at 34. Ralph Ellison produced “Invisible Man” and Joseph Heller, “Catch-22,” before turning 40. It wasn’t old age that doomed these artists to be known for a single great work, but rather their fixed habits of thought. They got stuck in a rut. After making an important discovery early in their careers, conceptual thinkers should follow the Monty Python theorem: “And now for something completely different.”

5. Today’s frenetic art world demands that artists mature early.

The impatient Internet age rewards flashy visual artists such as Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Tracey Emin, who became famous at a tender age and rich soon thereafter. But some of today’s greatest artists are nonetheless experimental old masters. The painter Brice Marden, who had a retrospective exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last year, is 69, and has produced his greatest work in the past two decades. The sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who currently has a retrospective exhibition at London‘s Tate Modern, is 95. She did her greatest work after 80.

There are also important experimentalists at work in other fields. J.M. Coetzee, who did not begin writing fiction until he was 30, won the Booker Prize for novels he wrote at 43 and 59. Philip Roth won a Pulitzer Prize for “American Pastoral,” which he wrote at 64. And Clint Eastwood, who directed his first film after turning 40, won Oscars for movies he directed at 62 and 74. Today’s culture, with lightning-fast transfer of information and correspondingly short attention spans, clearly favors conceptual innovators who quickly produce new ideas. But these artists all show that perseverance remains a valuable asset: Tortoises can sometimes still win out over hares.

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