Jan. 24, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 8

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    Economist quantifies successful careers in art from masters to modern geniuses

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    A new book by David Galenson, Professor in Economics and the College, could profoundly influence the study of art history by making the case that creativity follows a pattern––even among modern art’s geniuses and masters.

    “There are very clear and systematic patterns in the lives of art’s geniuses,” said Galenson, who believes his book Painting Outside the Lines challenges a long-held belief by artist historians “that creativity cannot be quantified, that great artists are isolated geniuses with nothing in common.”

    Galenson used regression analysis––a standard tool for the study of labor economics, but a revolutionary approach to the study of art––to address an age-old question about human creativity: Why did some of the world’s greatest artists produce their most important work when they were young and innovative, while others produced their life’s work when they were old, often penniless, after years of painstaking study?

    To understand the prodigy vs. late-bloomer phenomenon, Galenson evaluated the life cycles of 125 of the most innovative French and American artists of the late 19th and 20th centuries. In his analysis, he used auction prices to estimate the relationship between the value of each artist’s work and the artist’s age at the time the work was made. From this relationship he then calculated the age at which the artist produced his most valuable work. Finally, he scoured biographies of each artist’s life, learning about their working methods.

    After a three-year quest, in which he reviewed more than 26,000 auction prices, Galenson made three chief insights into the relationship between artists’ working methods and life cycles:First, artistic prodigies are conceptual innovators. Pablo Picasso’s most important work, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” was produced when he was 26. Georges Seurat was just 27 when he finished his pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jette.” And Andy Warhol was in his early 30s when he introduced the use of pop-art silk screens. “Artists who achieved early fame usually succeeded so quickly because of a radical, conceptual breakthrough,” Galenson said.

    The prodigies also shared a common “deductive” creative process. “A conceptual artist, of which Picasso is the archetype, will typically envision the entire process before lifting a paintbrush and will go about preparing detailed sketches and plans.”

    Secondly, art’s late-bloomers, those artists whose greatest achievements occurred later in their life cycle, are experimental innovators. Unlike the prodigies, the old masters employed an “inductive” process. Paul C»zanne took more than three decades to master his brushstroke, at 67 and near death. Mark Rothko’s most valuable works were finished in his mid-50s. Most of the abstract expressionists achieved their peak innovations after age 40. In each case, Galenson shows, these painters painstakingly refined their techniques, by trial and error, only gradually rejecting past traditions. “The inductive methods followed by experimental innovators make their work resemble those of more concrete, empirical disciplines,” Galenson said.

    Thirdly, Galenson found epochal trends in the link between innovation and age. “Eras in which artists produced their best work late in their lives seemed to be followed by those in which artists peaked relatively young.” For instance, on average, the leading American artists born between 1900 and 1920 produced their leading works after their 50th birthdays. Artists born between 1920 and 1940, however, produced their most valuable works, on average, before they turned 30.

    In the 1950s, there was a switch from the experimental approach of the abstract expressionists to the conceptual approach of the next generation, producing a sharp decline in the age at which artists could produce their most important work. Galenson demonstrates a similar late-bloomer-followed-by-prodigy pattern among French painters. “Clearly, this is the nature of innovation,” Galenson said. “The young artists flourished in periods when the old order was being challenged.”

    Galenson’s findings of artists’ ages and innovations have been published in the American Economic Review and have been widely praised by fellow economists, including Nobel laureate Gary Becker, University Professor in Economics and Sociology. “This is beyond merely a study of artists. It’s a study of the marketplace,” said Becker.

    But Galenson said his purpose is not to draw new insights into the marketplace. He likens his discovery to that of artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge, which argued that Renaissance and early modern artists used predecessors of the camera to produce their paintings. Like Hockney’s work, Galenson believes the use of quantitative methods can “revolutionize our understanding of modern art.”

    Art historians, however, have been less enthusiastic about his findings. Two years ago, Galenson sent his work to numerous art history journals. “They wouldn’t even referee my findings,” he said. Furthermore, some art historians have been openly hostile to his work. When asked about Galenson’s work, Robert Storr, curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, said: “We’re not a labor force. That’s the problem. An artist’s success,” Storr said, “is completely unquantifiable.”

    Galenson finds that kind of response similar to the charge of “economic imperialism” of social historians and sociologists who bristled at the quantitative work of University economists Gary Becker and Robert Fogel in the 1960s. But he maintains that his market-based quantitative findings are sound. “I hope this book will encourage art scholars to use social scientific methods. This demonstrates the power of using quantitative and qualitative evidence to study art history,” said Galenson.

    For Galenson, the qualitative work was equally important. “This work wouldn’t have any value if the most valuable pieces of art were not the most important,” said Galenson. “But they were.” To ensure that market prices were, in fact, a worthy measure of a work’s importance, Galenson checked with art historians and reviewed textbooks and museum exhibitions. His analysis: Art historians and the marketplace are overwhelmingly in agreement. “This should not be so surprising in light of the sophistication of most wealthy art collectors.”

    Though art historians are skeptical of any patterns among artists, Galenson said, the irony is that the very notion of the solo genius is what made his study of patterns possible. Art historians, who glorify the singularity of the artist, have, in turn, created an enormous amount of literature on the working methods of artists. “Whenever I needed to find out the methods of an artist,” said Galenson, “descriptions were readily available.”