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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Late Bloomers

"Why do we equate genius with precocity?"

In his recent collection of previously published essays from the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell investigated this topic in "Late Bloomers." His essay was inspired by a book by David W. Galenson titled "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity."

Galenson, an economist with a passion for art, spent ten years crunching the numbers and quantifying the relative success of established artists in different phases of their careers. What resulted was something approaching a unified theory of art and an objectification of the creative modes of engagement. He believes that artists/creators fall into two main camps: Conceptual and Experimental.

Along the way Galenson debunks the theory that suggests different types of artists produce their best work in a defined age period: e.g. poets and mathematicians when very young, philosophers when they are much older.

For Galenson, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne are poster children for his theory. Picasso was the quintessential prodigy. He had a clear vision of his work early on, and pursued his art with energy and un-waving confidence.

Cézanne on the other hand was the classic late bloomer. He spent his entire life developing his technique. It finally came together near the end.

To investigate Galenson's theory, Malcolm Gladwell visits two well-established American writers (Ben Fountain and Jonathan Safran Foer) to investigate this theory, observe their personalities, and to see how they live. What he found was quite revealing.

One of the traits of the Conceptual type is a high degree of energy. They typically achieve greatness and success early in life. These individuals are not as dependent on background research or investigation for their work. Their relationship to their art is visceral, spontaneous, and immediate. They work quickly, with the fire of inspiration and discovery. According to Gladwell, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer is such an individual, and he falls into the Conceptual type classification.

The other genus of creativity is the Experimental artist. These individuals obsess about their work, do extensive research, continually hone their skills, and agonize about every step along the way. They tend to have a long trajectory - often revising their previous efforts and building upon them. They view art as an extensive life-long process that unfolds over many decades of exploration and laborious experimentation. Late bloomers are perfectionists.

While Gladwell does not explore artists working in the field of music, my mind naturally wandered into the domain of musical composition. How would the two definitions of creative type (Conceptual or Experimental) fare when applied to composers?

I do believe that the craft of musical composition is somewhat unique compared to many other disciplines. It seems like visual artists, writers, mathematicians and scientists peak early. And yes, while there is a list of child prodigies and precocious composers throughout history, many composers remain active well into their golden years.

Recently composer Elliott Carter celebrated his 101st birthday, and many people (but not all) believe that he has done his best work late in life. The same case could be made for Verdi, Strauss, Sessions, Boulez, Messiaen, etc (you can add your own favorites to this list). But it's not simply a matter of age, or the ability to attain it with enough sound mind to be rational and productive.

Malcolm Gladwell has a deep appreciation for both types of creative artists. The end-of-the-day results from either camp are formative. Yet I detect a sense of sympathy, respect, and awe regarding the struggles of the Experimental type of artist. They have more hurdles to hop over. Author Ben Fountain quit his job as a real-estate attorney in Dallas to pursue writing. It took him 18 years before he had his first breakthrough while his wife supported him. Being a late-bloomer has its consequences.

The Experimental artist, writer, or composer is an accidental miracle of sorts. If it were not for the blessing and protection of generous patrons and supporters (implicit or explicit), we'd never experience their work. For them to evolve to the stage where they can finally produce mature fruit, someone along the way bought them lunch, paid for an exhibition, or stood by their side. Late bloomers are not late starters, inherently lazy, or hopelessly inefficient. They just take longer to get the job done.

Fortunately, the results are well worth the wait.