April 24, 2008

Cezanne vs. Picasso vs. Gladwell

I was going to comment on a recent lecture New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell gave to a conference of math teachers on how some students are like Picasso and everything comes quickly to them, while others are like Cezanne, where it takes them a long time before they become geniuses.

I came up with a theory about why he chose those particular analogies for math students, but then Google showed that in reality he's been wedging Picasso v. Cezanne into just about any of his recent speeches, no matter what the subject: oldies Classic Rock (see, the Eagles were like Picasso, while Fleetwood Mac was like Cezanne); American health care policy ("Gladwell: Health-care system needs Cezanne, not Picasso or Michael Moore"); and how to run your corporate R&D department ("Is Your Company a Cezanne or a Picasso?")

Nice work if you can get it!

The back story is that Malcolm developed his latest crush on a professor, U. of Chicago economist David W. Galenson, and wrote an article about Galenson's theory that there are two types of artists: quick-blooming conceptualists and slow-blooming experimentalists. Gladwell's article was evidently so silly that, despite Gladwell's huge popularity, the New Yorker rejected it, so Gladwell has been recycling it in speeches.

Enough about Gladwell. Let's take a look at Galenson's website:
"When in their lives do great artists produce their greatest art? Do they strive for creative perfection throughout decades of painstaking and frustrating experimentation, or do they achieve it confidently and decisively, through meticulous planning that yields masterpieces early in their lives?

By examining the careers not only of great painters but also of important sculptors, poets, novelists, and movie directors, Old Masters and Young Geniuses offers a profound new understanding of artistic creativity. Using a wide range of evidence, David Galenson demonstrates that there are two fundamentally different approaches to innovation, and that each is associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over a lifetime.

Experimental innovators work by trial and error, and arrive at their major contributions gradually, late in life. In contrast, conceptual innovators make sudden breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, usually at an early age. Galenson shows why such artists as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, C├ęzanne, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, and Alfred Hitchcock were experimental old masters, and why Vermeer, van Gogh, Picasso, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, and Orson Welles were conceptual young geniuses. He also explains how this changes our understanding of art and its past.

Experimental innovators seek, and conceptual innovators find."

Galenson has supposedly collected a lot of quantitative information on sales prices and the like to determine when various artists peaked That kind of thing is always fun. (Although, I haven't actually seen his data. Commenters pointed me toward graph guru Edward Tufte's site -- he has read Galenson's book but didn't see any sales price data in it. Auction price data sounds like the kind of thing you'd have to massage a lot to make usable, adjusting for size of paintings and market levels, which means you could also massage it into giving the results you wanted if you weren't careful with yourself.).

That's not a bad little dichotomy, but it's more useful in comparing disciplines -- theoretical physicists tend to be young when they make their breakthroughs and historians tend to be old when they write their big books summing it all up, such as Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, published when he was 94.

In other professions, it's mostly cost that drives peak ages: architects tend to be old when their most famous buildings are built because buildings are too expensive to be entrusted to whippersnappers. In contrast, great three chord rock songs are written by young men because it barely costs anything besides time, when they have all the time in the world.

But back to Galenson's central interest: art. There are of course, obvious limitations on his quantitative approach: there's not exactly an active market in Michelangelo's masterpieces. ("Sheldon Adelson bought the Sistine Chapel today for $18.1 billion from Larry Ellison, who paid only $15.3 billion for it in 2006. Adelson says the Sistine Chapel will serve as the lobby of his new Vatican Vegas Hotel & Casino, which he's opening on the Strip in 2010.")

I haven't read Galenson's book, but his own blurb for it isn't confidence-inducing. Why is Michelangelo an "old master" rather than a young innovator? He carved his Pieta before he was 25 and his David, the most famous sculpture of all time, the most stunning single objet d'art I've ever seen, before he was 30. On the other hand, he painted the Last Judgment in the Sistine chapel when in his sixties and redid the architecture of St. Peter's when in his seventies.

How can we account for this incredibly long and productive career?

Because he was Michelangelo.

This is a little like asking how Ted Williams could hit .388 with power and walks when he was 38 years old. It's because he could hit .406 with power and walks when he was 22. And vice-versa. He was Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of his generation.

Bill James had a nice little graph about the basic reason why some baseball players had long careers and others had short careers. Here's my version of it:

The horizontal axis is age, the vertical axis is a made-up measure of player value to a major league team. The purple line at value 10 is how good you have to be to be a starter in the big leagues.

So, Lance Long, the red line, is such a hot-shot prospect that he gets a few major league at-bats in September when's 18. He cracks the starting lineup at 21. He peaks at 27 like the average ballplayer, and he stays a starter through 39. He spends 40 as pinch-hitter and tries one more season at 41, but retires in May.

The career of Sid Short, the green line, follows almost exactly the same arc but most of it is spent in the minors or on the bench simply because he's not as good as Lance Long. He has a nice big league career, starting in the majors from 24 through 31, but as his body deteriorates, he's on the bench, then back to Triple A, then maybe bouncing around a Mexican league before he faces the inevitable and calls it quits.

Now, there are other factors that affect a player's career arc. For example, all else being equal, a smart player like Pedro Martinez is more likely to outlast a dumb player like Pedro Guerrero. A fast player at age 20 is more likely to find some place in the lineup at age 35 than a moderate-speed player who may be too slow by 35 for the big leagues. With alcoholics, not surprisingly, the second half of the career tends to be disappointing compared to the first half (e.g., Eddie Matthews, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx)

Injuries obviously play a role, but once again they interact with talent. If you are Ernie Banks, two-time MVP power-hitting shortstop, and you permanently hobble yourself mid-career, they switch you to first base. If you are a journeyman with the same injury, though, they might find you an assistant coach job in the minor leagues if they're feeling benevolent.

With artists, the single biggest variable is age of death. For example, two of Galenson's young bucks are Vermeer, who died at 43, and and Van Gogh, who died at 37.

In one of his papers, he writes:

"There have been two very different life cycles for great artists: some have made their greatest contributions very early in their careers, whereas others have produced their best work late in their lives. These two patterns have been associated with different working methods, as art's young geniuses have worked deductively to make conceptual innovations, while its old masters have worked inductively, to innovate experimentally. We demonstrate the value of this typology by considering the careers of four great conceptual innovators - Masaccio, Raphael, Picasso, and Johns - and five great experimental innovators - Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Pollock."

Okay, but Masaccio, who introduced perspective to painting in Florence in 1425 died at 27 and Raphael died at 37. Maybe Masaccio just was in the right place at the right time, although people who know far more about art than I do assume he would have had a long, tremendous career if he'd lived. If Masaccio had lived, a decade or two later, he might have been the first great Italian to use oil paint, and then he'd be so famous today as the most revolutionary painter of all time that he'd be one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And there's nothing in Raphael's character that suggests he was a one-trick pony. If he'd lived a long time, he'd probably have had a career like Titian's, only even better.

Finally, there's the historic shift at the beginning of the 20th Century from fine art to what Paul Johnson calls "fashion art." Raphael was the epitome of the fine artist, whose skills were objectively superior. Jasper Johns is the epitome of the fashion artist who figures out the next wave of fashion and cashes in big time.

Johns had the first show of Pop Art in 1958. See, he'd figured out that collectors were bored with Abstract Expressionist paintings. They wanted to buy paintings that were, at least, pictures of something. But the reigning dogma of the 20th Century was that paintings that used perspective, that created an illusion of 3-d space, a window into a made-up universe, were a fraud. A painting was just a flat surface with paint on it. You shouldn't make up a little story about what was happening in it: "Maybe Mona Lisa looks both happy and sad because ..." No! It's just a flat thing with paint on it.

But, still, pure abstraction was kind of boring ...

In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe summarizes critic Leo Steinberg's epochal explication of what Johns had "accomplished."

"The new theory went as follows. Johns had chosen real subjects such as flags and numbers and letters and targets that were flat by their very nature. They were born to be flat, you might say. Thereby Johns was achieving an amazing thing. He was bringing real subjects into Modern painting but in a way that neither violated the law of Flatness nor introduced "literary" content."

Trust me, if Raphael had felt like painting a flag, it would be a better flag painting than any by Jasper Johns.

Finally, back to Picasso and Cezanne. How is it that Cezanne's paintings from the last decade of his career are his most expensive today, and Picasso's paintings from the first decade of his career are the most expensive? Well, it was basically the same decade -- the first of the 20th Century. That's when the Big Switch happened, so the most historically important paintings from both Cezanne and Picasso come from almost the same time.

What happened in the first decade of the 20th Century was that after 475 years, people were getting bored with perspective; and painters were increasingly worried about photography. Pretty soon, those bastards would have color film and then you could take pictures that looked like what Jan van Eyck was doing in the 1430s in the Low Countries when he got perspective from Italy and oil paint from Norway. And then who is going to hire a painter?

This led to the happy ending of Cezanne's life. Cezanne could never quite get the hang of perspective, which had been the basic barrier to entry for professional painters since the 15th Century. All of his pictures just kind of looked "off." Normally, people who tried their hand at painting but couldn't master perspective gave up and did something else with their lives. It's like a professional baseball player who can't hit a 90 mph fastball or a singer who can't stay on key -- they're best advised to go get a real job and most of them eventually do.

But Cezanne was a dogged sort, who really loved painting, even if he wasn't very good at it. So, he kept at it and at it, and he actually got better at the other stuff, like color.

Eventually, though, people in the art business, like young Picasso, decided "Who cares about perspective anymore? It's been done." And they looked around for a role model to give some credence, some sense of historical development to this new fashion, and, there was poor old Cezanne, still hard at it. And, you know, if you kind of squinted and ignored the fact that his paintings looked out-of-kilter, they were pretty good! And, in fact, since paintings had been in-kilter since Masaccio, but now the damn photographers were just pressing a button and making in-kilter pictures, you could argue that Cezanne's out-of-kilterness made his poor old paintings not just good, but great! (That was the point, of course -- the art world wanted paintings that you wouldn't get unless you'd heard the theory already. Everything else could be left to photography.)

So, what does Cezanne have to do with math students? Maybe if some kid just doesn't have the knack for the Quadratic Formula, he should just keep plugging away until the Quadratic Formula goes out of fashion!

P.S. -- This issue of measuring quality by sales price, box office revenue, or other volume per unit has some subtle problems, even beyond the issue of crassness.

Just assume for the moment that money really does equal artistry. The problem is that artists frequently change the scale of the unit they work on and their rate of production over their careers.

For example, movie director David Lean's career very neatly segments into two periods. He made 11 films between 1942 and 1955, most of them modestly scaled, such as Brief Encounter. He then switched to directing ambitious epics filmed on location: Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter, and A Passage to India. Thus, he completed only five more films over the next 30 years.

You can see the methodological problem in determining what was the peak period of his career, right? On any per unit measure these latter films average higher, whether box office or Academy Award nominations or critics' Top 10 lists. But they only came out once per six years, while the earlier films came out five times as often. Waiting five years for Lawrence of Arabia was probably worth it, but how about waiting 14 years for Passage to India?

So, a better solution than Galenson's attempt to measure prices or box office per individual painting or film is to aggregate over a period of time, such as per year.

Another issue is how high or low do you set the bar. For example, with Lean, if the measure is set very lofty, such as asking 100 leading film experts to name the Single Greatest Film Ever, then he'd probably only get votes for Lawrence. If you set the bar pretty low, such as, "Was it worth releasing the film in the theatres?" then his per year productivity was higher in the first part of his career. So, some mixture of measures would be best.

By the way, there are a few kinds of artists whose unit of scale doesn't change over time, such as Norman Rockwell, who painted 321 Saturday Evening Post covers over 47 years. But, I suspect that even Rockwell's rate of output change over the years.

Syndicated cartoonists are among the few artists whose scale and rate stay constant. For example, around 1972, I read all the annual Charles Schulz' Peanuts collections in order. By my juvenile judgment, he consistently improved up through 1968, his peak, but fell off in the three following years. I don't know if other people would agree with my impressions, but the point is that you could run a fair experiment.

Syndicated daily cartooning is a tough job. Thus, you see odd careers arcs like Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes, who was probably the best cartoonist in America from 1985-1995, but virtually disappeared into retirement a dozen years ago at 37 rather than try to maintain his sterling quality at the same killer pace.


Anonymous said...

Check out Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte for a brutal evisceration of Galenson's work.

Anonymous said...

The insight is useful as a starting point for thinking about the careers of artists; but the data he amasses are faulty.

One example: this business about Alfred Hitchcock as a late bloomer and Orson Welles as a "young bloomer." Both were great from the start and continued great for decades.

Hitch made breakthrough films in his late 20s - part of the reason why the British press at the time dubbed him "The Young Man with the Master-Mind." Orson Welles directed great (though largely unseen) films in his 50s.

Welles's young curve peaked with "Citizen Kane" at age 25 while Hitchcock's young curve peaked with "The 39 Steps" at age 35. Welles's old curve peaked with "F for Fake" at age 57, while Hitchcock's old curve peaked with "Psycho" at age 60.

As Steve pointed out, you can't go on receipts as a measure of artistic greatness. If you do that, you will rate The Rolling Stones higher than Chopin.

(Btw, that's a peculiarly American standard of judging greatness, isn't it? How much dough was he pulling down? In other words, popularity proves worth. This is American because it's democratic: the mob in its vast numbers is regarded without question as the arbiter of all things.)

Jose said...

Edward Tufte has a disquisition on the silliness of Galenson's aregument here.

That anybody would take Gladwell seriously is a mystery to me. When he's right, he's trivially so, when he's not trivial, he's quite obviously wrong and out of his depth...

But there are times where celebrity trumps logic or accountability.

Anonymous said...

Steve, once again you've shown how insensitive you are. Don't you understand what he's trying to say? He's saying, some are slow learners but that's OK. They may become geniuses later on. How do you know for sure that they won't? Who can tell, after all? ("Can we actually know the universe? My God, it's hard enough to find your way outa Chinatown" -- Woody Allen.)

Maybe all those kids who still can't read at the 8th grade are just, well, "seekers?" (See, I myself feel today kinda like a "seeker" -- knowing I got out of the bed on the wrong side. I know I'm seeking my glasses, but I just can't find them, nor can I remember why I was seeking them in the first place.)

Why are you so insensitive to the fact that Gladwell can't disown his own reasoning any more than he can disown Erskine Caldwell or Imglad Wellhowboutcha (an Indonesian voice artist that can imitate cuckoos in the chord of Cb7#11 in solo and a capella)?


Anonymous said...

Rembrandt.... Sylvia Plath: the man must be a tit to think... oh why bother? Tit, tit, tit, tit, tit.

Glaivester said...


Actually, Orson Welles last role was a pretty good one, too - a death star-sized Transformer who ate planets.

Unknown said...

It's like the tortoise and hare fable, except in this version everybody can be a winner at the finish line. One thing that really bothers me is the "you can be anything" philosophy given enough effort.

I once worked with a woman who was built like a linebacker, as was her little girl, who was enrolled in dance classes. It was obvious that she probably clomped around the dance studio like a Clydesdale among the lithe girls and was no doubt ridiculed. A better option for her would've been softball or the hammer throw (or shot put or discuss).

Anonymous said...

What about guys like Raymond Chandler? Or Dashiell Hammett? Both couldn't work in their original professions, so switched to writing at a late age (relatively). They fit neither model.

Anonymous said...


I enjoy the ax you grind for fool Gladwell almost as much as the ax you grind for cool Obama. The vacuous quality of their ideas and the chum swilling eagerness of the boobs that uncritically lap them up must be a 150 proof shot of inspiration for you. You are a thinking man's loser and I admire the integrity you display by refusing to spin the truth for gain and favor.

Anonymous said...

Gladwell : public intellectual

Obama : transcendent politician

meep said...

Well, it's definitely true that it takes longer for some students to get some concepts than others. Abstraction doesn't come at the same speed for everybody.... but as Gladwell doesn't want to admit, for some people, it comprehension never comes at all, no matter how good the education you throw at them.

And you know what, Malcolm? That's okay. It's okay that I will never be able to slam dunk or hit a hole-in-one. It's okay that some people can't read Chinese (whether their native language or not.) And it's certainly okay that most people won't get calculus. They don't need to.

But no, math is the ruler by which worth is measured, evidently. Low ability in math keeps people out of certain lucrative jobs, which is true. My lack of athletic ability or good looks keeps me out of certain lucrative jobs as well, and I'm not crying over that.

But of course, if he admitted that, nobody would be interested in paying his speakers fee. Carry on, I guess.

Anonymous said...

"Enough about Gladwell."

Are sure, Steve? Because you can keep talking about Gladwell all you want. It's plain you want to.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that the only subject the New Yorker has so far taken seriously enough to reject Gladwell's pretentious wind-bagging on is art. Now if Gladwell is foolish come up with a botched analysis of the maturation of cartoonists, a topic the New Yorker really knows well, he really risks becoming persona non grata for a while.

Anonymous said...

It should be mentioned that Gladwell clearly has a higher IQ than Steve, thus explaining his superior socioeconomic status (i.e, he doesn't need to beg for money from his readers like Steve.)

Anonymous said...

abe wrote:
It should be mentioned that Gladwell clearly has a higher IQ than Steve, thus explaining his superior socioeconomic status (i.e, he doesn't need to beg for money from his readers like Steve.)
Just like Gallileo was clearly in the wrong because the much more powerful church said so. Might/wealth/popularity makes right, I take it?

Anonymous said...

Vintage Sailer, and why Steve is a major intellectual and Gladwell is a corporate sellout.

Anonymous said...

Might/wealth/popularity, in the medium in which both Sailer and Gladwell are engaged--are probably a function of intelligence. The fact that Sailer is so concerned with Gladwell is a testament to his apparent need to tear down someone clearly superior to him at his own game. Yea, Gladwell's article got rejected (I wonder how many articles are rejected by the New Yorker) where as Sailer couldn't keep his gig at UPI. I wonder what's more pathetic.

Anonymous said...

With artists, the single biggest variable is age of death. For example, two of Galenson's young bucks are Vermeer, who died at 43, and and Van Gogh, who died at 37.

Plath, another of his "young bucks," died at 30.

If he wanted to make this point he would have done well to substitute Emily Dickinson for Sylvia Plath. They both peaked in productivity at 30, but Dickinson went on to live for a few more decades afterwards, still writing, but producing nothing like what she did in her most productive 2 to 3 years.

Anonymous said...

Abe - Gladwell is a corporate toady (or arse licker as we would say over here in the UK), he tells smug people what they want to hear, there is always a market for that.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, Steve. If it weren't for your need to write about HBD, I think you'd be cleaning up writing magazine articles like this, fluently arcing from Renaissance painters to baseball hitters.

Your description of Cezanne's difficulty with perspective reminded me of this poem by the great Stephen Crane:

There was a man with tongue of wood
Who essayed to sing,
And in truth it was lamentable.
But there was one who heard
The clip-clapper of this tongue of wood
And knew what the man
Wished to sing,
And with that the singer was content.

- Fred

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Steve. Gladwell takes examples to far. And anyway, taking samples of rare, idiosyncratic artistic pioneers, isn't going to tell you much about anything.

Though I'm sure he makes it entertaining enough.

Anonymous said...

"...where as Sailer couldn't keep his gig at UPI. I wonder what's more pathetic."

Socrates couldn't keep his gig at Athens, either.

Anonymous said...

There is such thing as a seeker. Abraham Lincoln said that even as an adolescent, he had a passion or obsession for rolling an idea around in his head ("quartering it north, south, east, and west") until he could put it in plain and simple terms and felt he really understood it. He described himself as slow to learn and equally slow to unlearn.

The problem is not the "seekers." The problem is the kids who just do not give a damn about knowledge. The kids who would rather shoot hoops than crack a book.

There is a big difference between actively, slowly seeking to understand, and refusing or failing to learn while teachers fruitlessly drill information.

Anonymous said...

"Rembrandt.... Sylvia Plath: the man must be a tit to think... oh why bother? Tit, tit, tit, tit, tit."

I don't know dearime. Maybe he's a prick like.... Unlike you, I'll refrain from a chorus.
Actually I think Austen, Emily Dickinson, George Elliot or a Bronte would have been a better choice representation of female genius.

Thursday said...

Your theory assumes that Cezanne actually isn't very good. While he certainly does have his flaws, I'd say he actually does deserve his rep.

Anonymous said...

RE: glaivester

The bashers are out when Welles is about!

What about Hitchcock's dreadful promo for "The Incredible Shrinking Woman"?

Both men did all sorts of commercial trivia to keep up the shop and the bank account. Stuff they didn't write or direct, like your example. Welles did a number of beautiful voice-overs and short story readings around the time of "The Transformers"; why not refer to those instead?

Have you seen "Chimes at Midnight"? Wonderful - and it was made 25 years after "Citizen Kane."

Anonymous said...

Father Coughlin was a better analyst than Steve is - because Coughlin pulled down more dough. I fully expect Abe to genuflect to Coughlin. Not.

What type of person worships money and multiculturalism? This type sets the tone of America' culture of falsehoods and death, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I've never been as fond of the visual arts as of music. However, even I can recognize that there is real talent involved in painting up through the early part of the 20th century at least. Most of what passes for art these days can most charitably be described as "crap".

However, there is something about painting and such which is different than music. If it were discovered that some particular painting - Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" for example - were not painted by Van Gogh but by someone else, I suspect that it's value, in dollars I mean, would plummet. But if it were discovered that Beethoven's 5th symphony were not composed by Beethoven, but by some unknown admirer of him, it would still be played just as much.

The provenance of a painting has much more to do with its perceived worth than is the case with music. That's reflected even in the way that it's presented. An art exhibition is usually of the form: The works of this or that artist, or paintings by artists of this or that particular school, rather than just: here's a bunch of pretty pictures. A classical concert however, is quite often a grab bag - a symphony by Mozart, an overture by Mendelssohn, and then some big concert piece by Rachmaninov or Ravel.

Anonymous said...

It should be mentioned that Gladwell clearly has a higher IQ than Steve, thus explaining his superior socioeconomic status (i.e, he doesn't need to beg for money from his readers like Steve.)

Correct. Gladwell is smart enough to tell elites what they want to hear, while poor dumb Steve keeps harping on unpopular truths.

Anonymous said...

I believe that that analysis of Schulz's career is generally agreed with. Christopher Caldwell had a good article back when Schulz retired (and then almost immediately died)

I believe even Richard Weaver, in his attack on modern art in Ideas Have Consequences, conceded that Cezanne was the one modern artist who had genuine talent. I'm not very familiar with his work myself, however.

Glaivester said...

david -

The bashers are out when Welles is about!

David, you misinterpreted me. I wasn't intending it as an insult.

I have the entire original Transformers cartoon series on DVD, as well as both the tape of the movie (although I think I lost it), the DVD, and the 20th anniversary special edition DVD.

I actually admire Welles for his final role, although I am aware that msot people think that playing a character on the cartoon show that was my absolute favorite as a child is a low role.

I think that Wells (wherever he is now) should be proud of having played Unicron.

ricpic said...

Pisarro puts both Picasso and Cezanne to shame. But nothing wierd about him so of no great interest to the cognoscenti.