Tuesday, August 29, 2006

David Galenson on Genius: Two Types?

"A Youthful-Looking Experimentalist"

A young man named "Nathaniel" who is studying literature and has recently started his own blog happened to read my entry on "Prodigies" and post a comment:
I think you might be interested in a story Wired did last month called "What Kind of Genius Are You?" It's basically a comparison of two styles of creative achievement: the conceptualist variety that hits people when they're young, but exhausts itself early (examples are Picasso and Ezra Pound); and the experimentalist type that's slow to mature and rises "asymptotically" (the article points to Cezanne and Robert Frost here).
Nathaniel was right -- I was interested. I've passed the link on to others, including the novelist Olen Steinhauer over at Contemporary Nomad, who found the article "[r]eally interesting," probably because he and the other nomads and blog readers had been discussing whether or not Orson Welles was a genius, a discussion triggered by an LA Times article, "Delusions of genius," by Richard Schickel, who argued that Welles was no genius because:
...he could not submit his wayward spirit to institutional discipline.... The rebel pose makes for fine romantic copy, but the fact is that genius in the movies is the antithesis of genius as Welles flightily defined it. It is akin to an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Every great director I've ever known spends months in the editing room, more months on the dubbing and scoring stages, driving themselves and everyone around them crazy with their slavish devotion to detail. When they're not doing that, they're wheedling money out of their backer or fending off suggested improvements. It is how great movies are made.
I didn't enter into this debate over Welles's putative genius because although I've seen and appreciated Welles's great film Citizen Kane, I've never been a Welles fan. I remember too clearly those commercials that he did for Paul Masson Winery back around 1979, authoritatively intoning:
"Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time."
Welles sounded convincing, but he was a talented actor, so of course, he sounded convincing, but it's still a ridiculous thing to say.

But I digress. My point was about the two types of genius that Nathaniel indicated, the conceptual and the experimental. The article to which he linked, "What Kind of Genius Are You?," was written by Daniel H. Pink about the Chicago economist David Galenson, who has worked out a theory of genius in his recent book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006):
What he has found is that genius -- whether in art or architecture or even business -- is not the sole province of 17-year-old Picassos and 22-year-old Andreessens. Instead, it comes in two very different forms, embodied by two very different types of people. "Conceptual innovators," as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there's a second character type, someone who's just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group "experimental innovators." Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers. Galenson maintains that this duality -- conceptualists are from Mars, experimentalists are from Venus -- is the core of the creative process. And it applies to virtually every field of intellectual endeavor, from painters and poets to economists.
Note that Welles makes the cut and is classed among the conceptualists, which suggests that Richard Schickel is a bit one-sided in his criticism because he faults Welles for not fitting a category of genius that sounds more like Galenson's experimentalist sort.

Anyway, these finding by Galenson are fascinating -- and his conclusions cohere with my own impressions over the years about two different styles of learning -- but I wonder if some geniuses might encompass both conceptualist and experimentalist styles and thus constitute a third category. Milton, for instance (whom, you may recall, I've occasionally blogged about), strikes me as fitting both categories. He showed extraordinary ability from an early age and wrote some excellent, groundbreaking poetry as a young man and would have been remembered as a great literary figure even if he had died young, but because he lived on to an old age and wrote the epic Paradise Lost, he's remembered for that work of genius more than for his youthful ones.

So ... perhaps Galenson still could do some experimental tinkering on his conceptual scheme...



At 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oops, Eshuneutics, I should have waited. I deleted your second comment, i.e., the repeat, only to discover that you'd deleted the first.

I hope that you have a copy, for the critical remarks that you made were excellent.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, I managed to recover your post in my email file.

Comment by Eshuneutics:

What a flawed article! Milton faults the model, as you rightly point out. But the article really shows what happens when individuals tamper in areas--statistically--and really do not know what they are looking at.

“People in this group created their most valuable works in their youth…” That possesses an in-built problem to begin with…how do you know what is “valuable work”? To establish that you would require a highly formalised and validated view of aesthetics. Such does not exist. Taste, as Carey, has demonstrated is a slippery area. I could argue that “Songs of Innocence and Experience” show Blake’s genius. I could argue that his genius rests with the philosophy of “Milton”. I can make Blake fit either category, as I choose.

“Art history textbooks presumably reflect the consensus among scholars about which works are important.” The key word is “presumably”…a very dangerous inclusion. No, art books reflect the theories that writers want to argue and this will make their inclusions highly subjective. No objective standard here, I’m afraid.

“Once again, conceptual poets like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Plath, each of whom made sudden breaks from convention and emphasized abstract ideas over visual observations, were early achievers.” Really, take those one at a time. Plath was an early achiever because she committed suicide. Who knows what might have happened had she decided otherwise. Not the wisest of examples. Eliot’s genius was “Prufrock”. Not “Four Quartets” then? They are equally radical, surely…certainly according to the Eliot experts I researched under. This is my earlier point about taste rather that critical opinion making judgements. And Pound. Not true in any manner whatsoever. Pound did not place abstractions over visual observation. He was an Imagist, the visual vortex was primary to all poetry, he argued, because it attacked dead abstractions (the main reason the Pound and Eliot were anti-Milton). The whole of his Cantos rely on visual discrimination. Pound published much in his early years, but the greater output was in his later years. His creative output did not stop at 40 (though that is probably where Galenson gives up being able to read Pound!) And the total break from poetic convention came with The Pisan Cantos when Pound was 60! Pound, of all poets, was not an “early achiever”.

Apart from these errors, theoretical and critical, he has no educational model to support his theory. You might have the Asperger individual as a model for genius, someone who has a refined level of functioning in one cognitive area—say, mental recall and Mathematics. S/he will be an early achiever. You might have the Multiple-Intelligence individual as a model for genius—say, Mathematics, Art, Language, Science, a Da Vinci. S/he will be a late achiever because ideas are always evolving. And that word would be my final objection to Galenson's concept. The genius does not have a period of “valuable work”. As Pound would have told him, the word genius comes from the root “to beget”, implies to“make Cosmos”, to seed—like Milton—evolving continuously. It is also interesting that few female writers and artists occur in Galenson's list. And had they been included, well, more anomolies would appear: HD, Sarton, Hepworth,
...they, like Milton, evolve.


At 8:44 PM, Blogger amba said...

Well, you sure are one kind or the other! Or both!

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Amba, I just noticed this comment after responding to your comment on my 'review' of Steinhauer's novel. But thanks for dropping by this post, too.

Anyway ... if you're asking whether or not I'm a genius, the answer is surely no. I've done nothing that would warrent that compliment.

I'm a slow learner and not particularly good at abstract thinking. I do have the ability to plod along, but the only thing that I can do fairly well is write.

Still, thanks anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Colin Stewart, thanks for the comment.

This remark was intriguing:

"In analyzing painters, Galenson finds the same patterns in auction prices, in art-history texts and in museum retrospectives."

This is interesting,and notable for the fact that the pattern occurs in three distinct areas, but I wonder if this holds over time. Aesthetic judgements change as styles come into and go out of fashion. Has Galenson done diachronic studies or only synchronic ones?

I'm asking sincerely, for I really know almost nothing about this matter.

Jeffery Hodges

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