Interview: David Galenson

Pondering the nature of artistic genius, a social scientist finds that creativity has a bottom line

For his new book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, economist David Galenson conducted a study of artistic greatness. Darren Braun (

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University of Chicago economist David Galenson recently conducted a quantitative study of artistic greatness. His findings appear in his Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.

What are the two life cycles?

There are two very different types of artists, which I call Old Masters, who work by trial and error and tend to improve with age, and conceptual people, or Young Geniuses, who generally do their best work early in their careers.

How did you measure creativity?

For painters, I looked at auction prices for their works and at art history textbooks and museum retrospectives. In almost all cases, the largest number of an artist's paintings included in textbooks and retrospectives were painted at the same age that his or her works brought the highest prices at auction. For Cezanne, auction prices are highest for works made in the last year of his life, when he was 67. For Picasso, the highest prices were for works he did at age 26. The age at which Cezanne paintings were most likely to appear in textbooks was when he was 67. For Picasso, it was age 26. In the two artists' most recent retrospectives, Cezanne's best year was age 67. Picasso's was 26. I've done this analysis for several hundred artists.

Who fits the Old Masters profile?

Cezanne, of course, but also Rembrandt, whose work got greater and greater to the very end of his life. Louise Bourgeois is an Old Master.

And the Young Geniuses?

In addition to Picasso, Raphael and Vermeer were Young Geniuses. Most important artists working today--Cindy Sherman and Damien Hirst--are also Young Geniuses.

How come?

In modern art, both critics and collectors have recognized that innovation is the key to value in art. Still, there will always be the Cezannes of the world, though we may not know who they are until they are in their 60s or 70s or 80s.

How will we recognize them?

Other artists will tell us. Cezanne became important after he died because Matisse and Picasso had begun to use his work. It's not curators, it's not critics, it's not the public, it's not collectors who find great artists—it's other artists.

What's the difference in how Young Geniuses and Old Masters think?

Conceptual people—the Young Geniuses—emphasize the new idea, and plan their work very carefully. They often say that the execution is perfunctory. Indeed, in today's world, some of the greatest conceptual artists don't even execute their own work—they have it made by other people. But the Old Masters are never entirely sure what it is they want done, so they couldn't possibly have anybody else do it. Cezanne couldn't have said to somebody, "Go and make a painting for me."

Are you an Old Master or a Young Genius?

I'm certainly not a Young Genius; whether I become an Old Master is yet to be seen.

So there's hope for late bloomers?

Yes, but you don't want to compete with conceptual people. They leap from topic to topic. Many Old Masters feel pressure to compete with them by changing subjects, which is a tremendous mistake.

As a potential Old Master, do you expect that the next thing you do will be even better?

I don't know. The people who do better and better work are people who are never satisfied. Cezanne would say, "I think I've accomplished something," but then he would immediately add: "But it's not enough."

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