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Monet at Giverny

In her New York Times review of the new book by Nicholas Delbanco, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, Brooke Allen makes it clear that she, like me, was excited about the topic. Making art when you are older: What shifts? What shows up? What happens to our expression as we age?

While Allen wasn’t satisfied with Delbanco’s undertaking (and put a call out for someone to take on the topic and do it up right), her review is full of memorable commentary. She includes reference to a famous poem by Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom With Time,” that speaks to what can happen, how there is a “distillation, a new intensity, a sloughing off of excess and ornament in favor of deep essentials”:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

Delbanco’s book questions why some artists continue to produce great work in their later years (such as Matisse, Monet, Picasso) while others hit a high point when they are young and then give in to the slow entropic demise of growing old. This old vs new productivity was the topic of a fascinating book by David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Galenson is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and his approach to the topic is quantitative and linear. It is a valuable lens on a topic that still, in my opinion, is full of mystery and the unanswerable.

A passage from Allen’s review is worth keeping in mind:

Delbanco treats his material in anecdotal fashion and draws few conclusions from his research, though clearly some generalizations can and must be made. Look at Michelangelo’s half-finished “Slaves,” apparently struggling to escape their blocks of marble; Titian’s “Death of Actaeon”; Verdi’s “Otello”; Liszt’s “Czardas Macabre”; Francis Bacon’s minimalist late works. All these suggest that the aesthetic of old age involves a slimming down and stripping away. Delbanco does remark on this syndrome in individual cases: he is surely correct to emphasize, for instance, Monet’s “Nymphéas” and the other late-period Giverny works, in which, “if his vision now was less than ­­20-20, what he trained himself to paint had an inward-facing coherence that outstripped mere accuracy.” He discusses the same qualities in “The Winter’s Tale” (though Shakespeare, dead at 52, was not quite old even by 17th-century standards): “The late plays,” Delbanco observes, “are less sequence-bound or yoked to plausibility. It’s as though the peerless artificer has had enough of artifice.”

This is true, and Delbanco offers one intriguing explanation. In youth, he posits, “it’s the reception of the piece and not its production that counts. But to the aging writer, painter or musician the process can signify more than result; it no longer seems as important that the work be sold.” It is a profound observation; with time and age, the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward. But this is surely not the only reason for the concentrated effect of late style. The simple specter of mortality must count for something: as Samuel Johnson remarked in a different context, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” And then there is the radical shifting of perspective and values brought about by age, something to which people past their 50th birthdays can attest. Delbanco quotes Carl Jung: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

I was so struck by Allen’s phrase, “the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward.” That’s a shift I can attest to.

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.