Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Picasso

I mentioned a book a few posts ago that I wanted to talk about in more depth. David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses offers a very useful “map” through the historical survey of the visual arts. Galenson is an economist, not an art historian, but his passion for art runs deep. By being something of an outsider, his approach presents a method that brings more clarity, not less, to the complex story of creativity and artistic temperament.

It might seem far fetched to assume that someone who analyzes the prices of paintings at auction as a function of the age of the artist when the work was created could be on the right track. But that is just back up to a very readable treatise. Stated simply, Galenson has divided modern art into two types of artists—the “Old Masters”, or his better term, Experimentalists, and the “Young Geniuses”, or Conceptualists. The former include Cezanne, Giacometti and Titian, artists who just kept working at their vision, steadily, and whose work gets better over time. They are very aware that there is no “answer” but only approximation of their vision. The latter category, which includes artists like Warhol, Picasso, Duchamp and Stella, are artists who reach their apogee of success when they are young. They are more interested in a breakthrough, a shift in thinking. It is the idea that is their contribution, not the painterly process. Galenson calls the first “aesthetically motivated experimentation” and the second, “conceptual execution.”

Galenson’s prime example of idea-driven art is Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. According to historian William Rubin, Picasso made more than four hundred studies for the painting, “a quantity of preparatory work…without parallel, for a single picture, in the entire history of art.” It was the idea, not the aesthetic exploration that drove its creation.

For a number of well-defended reasons, Galenson explains why art history has been dominated by the Conceptualists, particularly since Duchamp and Picasso. While both approaches are valid, the Conceptualists get ten times the airplay compared to Experimentalists. And given that most artists I know fall into the second category, this book offers validation for a way of working that is often overlooked or dismissed.

But it isn’t just the molifying aspects of Galenson’s thesis that made this book so readable and worthwhile. Galenson provides what Daniel Pink audaciously (and perhaps just a little tongue in cheek) refers to as a “unified field theory of creativity.” I came away with more respect for my own way of working as well as a kind of reverence for the mystery of the process itself. While not a sappy guy, Galenson approaches creativity with a palpable sense of awe.

Similar sentiments about the book have been expressed by fellow artist Jordan Wolfson:

Okay, that being said – and I’ve got nothing against the Conceptual on face value – it’s the raging glorification of it and the neglect of the Experimental as a symptom of our corporate culture that is the real crux of the problem – when I think of what it is that I find a desire to say it has to do with the essential nature of the Experimentalists’ endeavor. There is something inherent in that murky, plodding along that touches something ultimately more real and more powerful than what a Conceptualist approach can accomplish. There, I’ve said it. But I mean no fight. What I mean is that when we get very close to what is –there is no thinking, there are no concepts. When we slow down and become intimate with the experience of life – we are aware without words, without ideas. While the realm of thought is extremely necessary for all sorts of things, like writing and reading these words, like creating all sorts of things like bridges, buildings, vaccines, whole wheat bread, a nice linen jacket, to mention just a few things – remaining in the realm of thought and not venturing into the wordless experience of being, of silence, of stillness – this cuts us off from the deepest aspects of ourselves, of what it is to be human. A conceptual approach might point to the idea of being, the idea of silence or of stillness, but the resonance of such a work of art, it’s energetic presence, remains in the vibration of thought – we “get” the idea – our minds might get a kick from it, but our hearts remain unmoved. In order for our hearts to be moved a different order of resonance needs to be present – the work of art needs to embody an energetic presence that can only occur when the person creating the piece leaves the realm of thinking and takes the risk involved in allowing something larger and unknown to occur, of taking the risk of allowing oneself to enter something larger and unknown, of allowing the work to move into the unknown – then it is the energy of life itself that enters the making, the alchemy, and when there is enough heat transforms the material into an embodiment of being. Then there is real presence. Then our hearts are moved as well as our minds stirred. It is not the idea of the energy of life entering the equation – it is life-force itself. But this can only happen when one opens to what is not known. And that is why as influential as Duchamp has been to the art of the last half a century, it is Morandi’s still-lifes that touch my soul, that bring tears to my eyes, that remind me of what may be possible as a human being. I look to Titian.