We saw Malcolm Gladwell talk at Columbia on Tuesday. He’s the author of Blink and The Tipping Point and he’s a staff writer at the New Yorker. He spoke about different types of genius. I’ve tried to recreate his main points from memory, so I apologize in advance if I’ve remembered things incorrectly.
His talk was about the artists Picasso and Cézanne. An economist named David Galenson did an analysis of the market value of paintings of these great artists and concluded that they represented two distinct types of genius. Picasso did his greatest work in his youth and then not much of worth after that, while Cézanne did little or nothing in his youth and then produced amazing things in his fifties and sixties. He looked at other painters and they also seemed to fit into these two distinct groups - the young prodigy and old late-bloomer. Not only can they be differentiated by their ages, but also by their styles. The Picasso’s have a clear direct vision that they can explain to you before they start painting. They are conceptual. They know exactly what they want their art to convey and they can execute that vision. Cézanne’s can’t tell you how they work or what they’re trying to convey. If you follow their work over time, you don’t see a clear thread, but rather a hodgepodge of experiments, one of which eventually works and propels them to fame. These quotes seem to delineate the difference.
I seek in painting. – Paul Cézanne
I don’t seek; I find. – Pablo Picasso
Gladwell discussed Galenson’s research into this phenomenon and expands it into other creative areas, bringing out some other entertaining comparisons.
|The Eagles||Fleetwood Mac|
|Orson Welles||Alfred Hitchcock|
|(I can’t remember his example here)||Mark Twain|
Some of the examples were a bit contrived and the idea that all genius fits into two categories is simplistic, but Gladwell went on to make some interesting observations. The Cézanne examples blow away the myth that all genius happens in youth. That point alone satisfied me since it allows me to explain why I haven’t become famous yet. There is a separate type of creative process that seems to benefit from, or even require, long hard experimentation. Gladwell’s thesis is that our society is biased to favor the Picasso type genius and that the Cézanne type will no longer be able to flourish. Both, he asserts, are valuable to society.
Take pharmaceutical development, he says. In the old days (or even in the present day), drug development was trial and error. You’d run a bunch of compounds against a disease and see what worked. Explaining why it worked is left as a postscript, sometimes never to be answered. He mentions that to this day we don’t truly understand why Tylenol works, yet it clearly has helped millions of people. In the future, and in some cases today, we’ll be able to identify specific genes which are responsible for a disease. Targeting those genes will treat the disease. If two entreprenuers ask you for money and one says he’s got a specific gene that he can target while the other says he’s got some smart scientists who are going to create a bunch of compounds and hope for the best, most people would be more willing to fund the first startup. But, if all of our society is aimed that way, then we’ll miss out on some important breakthroughs, that only a Cézanne-type effort would find.
It’s a very interesting thesis, but I’d be concerned about solutions that purported to give support to pre-Cézanne’s in the hope that a Cézanne would develop. What if a major ingredient in the development of a Cézanne is the struggle. The persistence despite failure. The ability to maintain passion over long periods of time. The ability to delay gratification, to be forced to experiment. What if we had made Cézanne comfortably wealthy in his youth. Would he have continued on his path to greatness? Would his later work have been as remarkable?
Without question, there is a bias towards Picasso in our society. It’s basically a bias towards short term results. I’m just not sure its much different than it was historically, nor that providing support to find/grow Cézanne’s would be beneficial. It might actually be harmful.
Here are some great links that I found along the way. Thanks to Gladwell for such a stimulating presentation (and to the Columbia Arts Initiative for presenting it free!)