Econ applied to art

By Daniel Gilbert

Consider Picasso, Gaugin, Degas, Cézanne. At what stage in their lives did they produce their most important work? With his answers to these questions, economics professor David Galenson has sparked controversy among art historians and gained increased attention from multiple academic disciplines.

Galenson’s theory is based on the assumption of two different personalities. The “conceptual innovator” type breaks with existing tradition, taking a leap into the unknown at an early stage in his or her development. The other personality, the “experimentalist,” proceeds by trial and error, perfecting his or her work with ever-increasing knowledge and skill.

Galenson laid out the framework for his theory on the patterns of creativity in Painting Outside the Line, a book he muses “no one knows about,” due to its harsh reception from the art history world. Galenson is dismayed by the reluctance of art historians to accept his systematic approach as a unique and useful analytical tool within their field.

“I’ve taken art history courses, I’ve taken literature courses. I never imagined that I would have anything to tell an artist or a writer that they didn’t already know. But now I think I do,” Galenson said, grinning.

By analyzing the nature of creativity, Galenson offers a new perspective on the vision of the artist and the scope of his or her work. Conceptual innovators think deductively, according to Galenson, learning the rules and then changing them. “They can innovate their whole lives, but never so radically as their first major work,” Galenson said. “The innovations get smaller and smaller as habits of thought become more ingrained in the individual.”

On the other hand, Galenson says, the experimentalists achieve greatness precisely by making small changes. Experimentalists apply their greater knowledge to every work they produce. “Ultimately they never achieve a masterpiece, because their work never ends.”

Disappointed by the art historians’ rejection of his theory, Galenson is reaching out to other academic disciplines in hopes of spreading his ideas. In a paper he wrote on literature entitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator: Measuring the Careers of Modern Novelists,” Galenson found a useful application of his theory to some writers. For example, T.S. Eliot is a conceptual innovator, as are James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Others who have produced their most important works later in their lives, such as Robert Frost, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, are experimentalists.

“Some say Fitzgerald deteriorated because he drank,” Galenson said. “Well Faulkner drank, too. The difference is Fitzgerald knew his best work was behind him.” Of the two types of individuals, Galenson considers himself an experimentalist, which gives him a good deal of satisfaction. “I lose arguments all the time to lucid 20-year-olds,” he admitted.

But Galenson’s research has led him to mistrust precocious talents, whose brilliance often dims as a function of time. “If you’re an experimental thinker, you can get better and better at what you do, if you push yourself. I know that I am doing the best work of my life right now, and the more I know, the better I appreciate the work of others, and the more interesting my own work becomes,” Galenson said.

Though Galenson’s intellectual sympathies lie with the experimentalists, he offers empirical career advice for young conceptual innovators: “Don’t get into a rut,” he said. “Work on a problem in which your past work will not influence you.”

Galenson said his work is not strictly about art, literature, or economics, but about observing patterns and applying them to achieve a richer understanding of all subjects. “The goal is to make sense out of things, to learn something about how others think and how you think yourself,” he said.