Age, genius, and great art

Since the days of the Romantics, youthful inspiration has long been associated with artistic genius and the production of great work. Talented young artists are seen as iconoclasts rebelling against the idols of generations past, and are expected to produce their greatest and most significant work early in their careers. Older artists seen as wedded to the ideas and aesthetics of generations past, and it is often assumed that their best work is behind them.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell draws on the work of the University of Chicago economist David Galenson on the question of the relationship between age and the production of great artistic work. In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Galenson offers a comparative discussion of Picasso (an early bloomer) and Cezanne (whose artistic success only came much later in life), and concludes that Picasso’s path to greatness is by no means the only way for an artist to get there.

Cezanne, Self-Portrait with Rose Background c. 1875

Cezanne, "Self-Portrait with Rose Background" c. 1875

With Gladwell’s article in mind, I was also struck by a recent Pitchfork interviewwith the guitarist and songwriter Marnie Stern, in which she discusses the significance of the fact that she didn’t put out a debut album until after the age of thirty. In the world of popular music, that’s nearly a decade behind schedule for a recording debut—most musicians and bands get their start by their early twenties at the latest. Even more than in most fields, there’s a very strong expectation in popular music that only the young will produce great work, and that aging only reduces the power and relevance of a musician’s output. Young bands have the greatest energy and freshest ideas, and tend to create their masterworks only three or four albums into their careers (if not sooner). After that, many musicians settle in for years or even decades of comfortably retreading the same ground, never again recapturing the fire of their earlier innovations and accomplishments.

The case of Marnie Stern, then, is certainly unusual in popular music—especially given that her new sophomore release, the verbosely titled This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, only confirms her status as a unique and dazzling talent. Her first album, 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm, succeeds largely on the strength of Stern’s idiosyncratic and head-spinning fretwork: on song after song, she unleashes avalanches of notes, while all the same sounding very little like guitar gods past. On This Is It…., the adventurous guitar playing, harsh sonics, and rhythmic complexity of her previous album remain, but this time she adds a healthy dose of tunefulness to the mix. Stern has arrived on the indie rock scene as a fully-formed talent with a unique and compelling vision—an achievement that, by her own account, she simply could not have managed when she was younger.

When asked by the Pitchfork interviewer if she felt “there was an advantage to having your first record come that late,” Stern answered:

Of course. I don’t know about for other people, but I know for me, I mean, I had material for all those years and certainly wasn’t anywhere near up to par. I think it takes a long time to find your voice. A really long fucking time to figure it out. And plus, I don’t know, I guess it’s different for everyone, but it’d be hard to tap into a really honest place when you’re really young….And how brave you are. Because that’s the other thing. The only things I like to listen to are things where risks are being taken. I think that’s the only thing that pushes you to the next place, when you do things that are out of your comfort zone.

Stern didn’t emerge out of nowhere at the age of 30; instead, she devoted countless hours over a period of years to an intense and serious exploration of who she was as a guitarist, songwriter, and creative person. She was unsatisfied with the the work she was producing when she was younger, and also felt that she hadn’t yet “found her voice.” If she’d attempted to make a go at a music career in her early twenties, she would have lacked both the self-knowledge and the technical skill that play significant roles in making her music so successful now that she’s in her thirties.

Marnie Stern, This Is It....

Marnie Stern, "This Is It...."

In popular music, the norm is for an artist to follow a pattern of development that matches David Galenson’s description of a “Young Genius”—someone who, like Picasso, bursts onto the scene early in their 20s, and produces their greatest and most significant work in the years immediately following. Marnie Stern, on the other hand, would seem to be a closer match for Galenson’s “Old Master” category: artists who labor for years or decades to find their voices, and rarely enjoy their greatest accomplishments until much later in life.

For Galenson and Gladwell, it’s not just that “Old Masters” bloom later; rather, their entire approach to creativity is fundamentally different. In his New Yorker article, Gladwell establishes a contrast between the fiction writers Jonathan Safran Foer—who wrote his highly successful first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, at the age of 19—and Ben Fountain, whose debut story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was published when he was 48. According to Gladwell, Foer writes quickly and passionately when inspiration takes him, and finds it difficult to comprehend how a writer could work doggedly at researching and re-working a piece of writing over a long period of time. Fountain, on the other hand, worked on his fiction for 18 years before he saw publication and success, and sees writing as a slow and laborious process of careful thought and self-discovery. Fountain, in fact, will sometimes write as much as 500 pages of drafts in order to produce a single short-story. Much like Stern, Fountain’s success did not depend on a burst of youthful energy, but instead on many years of devoted research, reading, exploration, and hard work.

Quoted in Gladwell, Galenson notes that, for artists like Cezanne (or Fountain, or Stern), creativity takes a very different form than it does for a Picasso:

They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings.

On a personal level, I find it much easier to identify with Fountain, Stern, and Cezanne than with Picasso or Safran Foer. When I read about Fountain’s 500 pages of work for a single short story, I sighed in recognition: I tend to write at least ten or fifteen thousand words for every thousand that actually make it into a completed draft of a short story. Also like Cezanne or Fountain (and perhaps like Stern), I don’t tend to view my creative work in conceptual terms—my creative energy instead comes from the process of exploring themes, language, and characters in the hope of coming to some kind of greater understanding of the world and of fiction itself.

That said, Galenson’s categories do seem like something of an oversimplification. No doubt there are many artists who fail to fit into either the “Young Genius” or “Old Master” mold. One example that comes immediately to mind is Philip Roth: his debut short story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959) earned him widespread critical acclaim, and positioned him as a young rising literary star. But his next few novels were far less successful, and he seemed to struggle to find his voice until the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). And Roth wouldn’t write several of his best novels until the 1990s. The pattern of his career doesn’t match either of Galenson’s categories. (Though he is a good fit for one of the Galenson’s characteristics of an “Old Master”: Roth has consistently, even obsessively, revisited similar themes, ideas, settings, and characters throughout his career.)

Gladwell’s article also alludes to another factor in artistic development without fully engaging it: questions of class and financial support. While Ben Fountain struggled for the better part of two decades to produce his first good fiction, his wife, a successful lawyer, offered him both financial and moral support. And as Gladwell does point out, Cezanne had a string of famous patrons during his very long artistic apprenticeship. Not all artists are nearly so fortunate: in fact, it would seem likely that many people who might have one day created great works instead end up unable to practice their art in any kind of sustained manner because they simply don’t have the kind of support that would free them to devote the necessary time and energy. It’s hard to labor through years and years of disappointment when you have to pay the bills, take care of the kids, mow the lawn, and put dinner on the table every night. Very few artists will be so lucky as to find themselves a good patron.

Gladwell didn’t address the class and gender issues underlying the economic realities of artistic production. In music, for example, no doubt part of why the “Young Genius” model has taken such hold is because the demands of establishing a music career are easiest for young men of a middle-class (or better) background to manage. It’s hard to (for example) raise a family while you’re broke all the time and need to devote your time to the exhausting grind of touring, as well as to the late-night partying and socializing that’s necessary for networking your way into the music scene. Older musicians are bound to have a harder time living up to these kinds of expectations. And it’s far easier to choose to place yourself into poverty for a few years if you know that you can always get a “real” job someday (thanks to your college degree), and that if you really get in trouble, your middle-class (or richer) parents will always be there to bale you out.

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1 Response to “Age, genius, and great art”


  1. 1 Mike on the road November 5, 2008 at 1:53 PM

    Wonderful article and served up with great pictures!

    I think that to today there are so many ways to support oneself so that one can pursue their dreams. I think of snowboarders.

    I have kids who love to snowboard. I also did a few venues between 1990-1992 when snowboarders were not wanted on the ski hills here. What learned from snowboarders is this: They will take any job that gives them money so they can plan to travel and snowboard. So if one has a degree in Engineering and doesn’t want to, or like to do this job, then why not get a job as a plumber and live at a ski resort like a professional snowboarder I know who lives in Breckenridge, Colorado, and old mining town with a great ski resort, and snowboard all day long? Live without material possessions that are not necessary. Focus on the dream. This is the modern day action plan for anyone that wants to do what they love and forget all the rest.
    Simple!!!??? Depends on how much you really want your dream.


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