Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Never too late

Brash young genius isn't the only creative force. Time and experience, trial and error are just as likely to rock the world.

January 30, 2007|David W. Galenson and Joshua Kotin | DAVID W. GALENSON is an economist at the University of Chicago. JOSHUA KOTIN, a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago, is editor of the Chicago Review.

AT 76, CLINT EASTWOOD is making the best films of his career. "Letters from Iwo Jima" has been nominated for four Academy Awards -- including best picture and best director. ("Flags of Our Fathers," which Eastwood also directed last year, received two nominations.) New York Times' film critic A.O. Scott recently named him "the greatest living American filmmaker." Such accolades are the latest development in Eastwood's creative ascension. Two years ago, his "Million Dollar Baby" won best picture and best director, a repeat of his success with "Unforgiven" at age 62 -- his first Oscar after making movies for more than 20 years.

Sculptor Louise Bourgeois is 95. Later this year, she will be honored with a retrospective at London's Tate Modern museum. Last November, her "Spider," a sculpture she made at the age of 87, sold at auction for more than $4 million, the highest price ever paid for her work and among the highest ever paid for the work of a living sculptor.

Is such creativity in old age rare? Eastwood and Bourgeois often are considered anomalies. Yet such career arcs -- gradual improvements culminating in late achievements -- account for many of the most important contributions to the arts. That our society does not generally recognize this fact suggests that we're missing a key concept about creativity.

We often presume creativity is the domain of youth, that great artists are young geniuses, brash and brilliant iconoclasts. Arthur Rimbaud, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Orson Welles, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jasper Johns all revolutionized their artistic disciplines in their teens or 20s. (Picasso, for example, created the first cubist paintings at 25, and Welles made "Citizen Kane" at 25.) These artists made dramatic, inspired discoveries based on important new ideas, which they often encapsulated in individual masterpieces.

But there's another path to artistic success, one that doesn't rely on sudden flashes of insight but on the trial-and-error accumulation of knowledge that ultimately leads to novel manifestations of wisdom and judgment. This is Eastwood's and Bourgeois' path -- and it was the path for a host of other artists: Titian and Rembrandt, Monet and Rodin, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, Mark Twain and Henry James, Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop, to name a few. (Twain wrote "Tom Sawyer" at 41 and bettered it with "Huckleberry Finn" at 50; Wright completed Fallingwater at 72 and worked on the Guggenheim Museum until his death at 91.)

Paul Cezanne is the archetype of this kind of experimental innovator. After failing the entrance exam for the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he left Paris frustrated by his inability to compete with the precocious young artists who congregated in the city's cafes. He formulated his artistic goal, of bringing solidity to Impressionism, only after the age of 30, then spent more than three decades in seclusion in his home in Aix, painstakingly developing his mature style trying to represent the beauty of his native Provence. Finally, in his 60s, he created the masterpieces that influenced every important artist of the next generation.

Frost also matured slowly. He dropped out of Dartmouth and then Harvard, and in his late 20s moved to a farm in rural New Hampshire. His poetic goal was to capture what he called the "sound of sense," the words and cadence of his neighbors' speech. He published his most famous poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," at 49.

At 63, Frost reflected that although young people have sudden flashes of insight, "it is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations. And it is the constellations that are philosophy."

These two creative life cycles stem from differences in both goals and methods. Conceptual innovators aim to express new ideas or particular emotions. Their confidence and certainty allow them to achieve this quickly, often by radically breaking rules of disciplines they have just entered. In contrast, experimental innovators try to describe what they see or hear. Their careers are quests for styles that capture the complexity and richness of the world they live in.

The cost of ignoring Cezanne's example is tremendous -- and not only for the arts. Our society prefers the simplicity and clarity of conceptual innovation in scholarship and business as well. Yet the conceptual Bill Gateses of the business world do not make the experimental Warren Buffetts less important. Recognizing important experimental work can be difficult; these contributions don't always come all at once. Experimental innovators often begin inauspiciously, so it's also dangerously easy to parlay judgments about early work into assumptions about entire careers.

But perhaps the most important lesson is for experimental innovators themselves: Don't give up. There's time to do game-changing work after 30. Great innovators bloom in their 30s (Jackson Pollock), 40s (Virginia Woolf), 50s (Fyodor Dostoevsky), 60s (Cezanne), 70s (Eastwood) and 80s (Bourgeois).

Who knows how many potential Cezannes we are currently losing? What if Eastwood had stopped directing at 52, after the critical failure of "Firefox," his 1982 film about a U.S. fighter pilot who steals a Soviet aircraft equipped with thought-controlled weapons?

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|