Conceptual art vs. craftsmanship

October 17, 2009

In a New York Times op-ed piece, author Denis Dutton contrasts the relatively recent conceptual approach to art with ancient traditions of craftsmanship, which he admires.

Dutton’s thinking about conceptual-vs.-crafted artistry differs from David Galenson’s conceptual-vs.-experimental approach, but the two approaches have some similarities. Like Galenson, Dutton has an eye on the art market.

Galenson thinks that the success of conceptually innovative art is based on the structure of the modern art market, while Dutton expects conceptual art will lose its appeal. Dutton writes:

”The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art … on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons.

Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets.

Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.

Denis Dutton is a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He wrote “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.”

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At long last, Malcolm Gladwell on innovation

October 17, 2008

Picasso and CezanneThe long-awaiting article by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell about David Galenson’s theory of innovation finally appeared in the magazine’s Oct. 20 edition and online.

The article focuses primarily on experimental innovators, who tend to do their best work later in their careers. The piece is called “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?”

Three excerpts contain lessons that Gladwell draws from Galenson’s discoveries:

Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life.

But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else—that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.

Early in their careers, experimental innovators may be distinguishable from people who will never succeed, Gladwell says:

On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.

Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.)

Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to acccept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?

And in conclusion:

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others.


Marc Andreessen explores age and achievement, needs more info

August 24, 2007

Marc AndreesenIn his blog, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen has started to explore the topic of age and the entrepreneur. He has begun with research from 1988 by psychology Prof. Dean Simonton at UC-Davis, which concludes that productivity declines from a peak near the beginning of a career — the basic pattern for conceptual innovators.

In the process of collecting data, I hope that Andressen will acquaint himself with the more recent work by economist David Galenson at the University of Chicago that also finds a second pattern — experimental innovators whose achievements increase with age and peak later in their careers. This second pattern appears in many — perhaps all — fields, including painting (Cezanne), poetry (Frost), film making (Hitchcock), etc., as regular readers of this blog have heard, probably ad nauseam.

By lumping the two types of innovators together, as Simonton and other researchers such as Harvey Lehman have done, they let the experimental pattern get lost in the overall average. As a result, they wrongly conclude that innovators overall tend to peak early in their careers, when that’s only true for some.

Andreessen, by the way, seems to fit the pattern of a conceptual innovator. He wrote the Internet browser software Mosaic, the basis for Netscape, at age 21 as an undergraduate in Illinois.


Scott Berkun on innovation — I’d give his comments a B

July 17, 2007

Scott BerkunFormer Microsoft innovator Scott Berkun, author of “The Myths of Innovation,” has some noteworthy observations about young geniuses and older experimenters in a recent interview in the “How to Change the World” blog from former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki.

His observations are interesting, but would be more useful if they incorporated insights that David Galenson brings to the discussion.

On experimentation: Berkun sees experimentation as a supplement to the conceptual approach, which often be, of course. He doesn’t describe it as an approach that can stand on its own: “The best bet is to be an experimenter, a tinkerer—to learn to try out ideas cheaply and quickly and to get out there with people instead of fantasizing in ivory towers. Experience with real people trumps expert analysis much of the time.”

On age: Berkun believes that innovation declines with age, which tends to be true for conceptual innovators but not for experimental innovators. His explanation is that older people tend to shy away from the risks that innovation entails.

“Innovation is difficult, risky work, and the older you are, the greater the odds you’ll realize this is the case. That explanation works best. Beethoven didn’t write his ninth symphony until late in his life, so we know many creatives stay creative no matter how old they are. But their willingness to endure all the stresses and challenges of bringing an idea to the world diminishes. They understand the costs better from the life experience. The young don’t know what their is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier to try crazy things.”

Readers’ comments on the interview are also interesting. They touch on the works of James  Burke and Clayton Christensen on innovation and Frank Lloyd Wright as aging innovator.


Unaware, but battling hard for aging innovators

June 12, 2007

BachIn his recent Financial Times article “Better great than never,” Christopher Tyler fights against the notion that only the young are innovative. It’s a battle that can be fought and won again and again, I suppose.

Tyler and his interviewees show no awareness of the work of David Galenson, so the piece comes across as a bit half-baked, without much insight into why innovations happen when they do.

It’s valuable nonetheless. Although Tyler does little more than list artists, scientists and inventors and their ages when they produced great work, his list is an impressive one. He starts with contrasting composers and poets:

Meteoric young Mozart is worshipped while staid old Bach is merely revered, though Bach’s youthful improvisations on the organ shocked his Lutheran congregations. Shelley and Keats, dead by 30, shine more lustrously than old Wordsworth – although it was Wordsworth who was mainly responsible for the Romantic movement.

He touches on the step-by-step methods of experimental innovators, without labeling them as such:

Innovation demands more than enthusiasm. Progress in science is not so much revolutionary as incremental. ”You need knowledge before you make a breakthrough,” says Frank James, professor of the history of science at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. ”It is about suddenly recognising that something is important.”

Galileo didn’t do anything of significance until he was past 40, and Faraday didn’t discover electrical induction until he was older still.

(So) it is no surprise to find that most scientific advances were made by people in their 30s and 40s. Ted Hoff was 34 when he invented the microprocessor. The Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles completed his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (a puzzle he decided to crack when still a boy of 10) at the age of 42. Charles Babbage was a year older when he designed his ”analytical engine”, forerunner of the programmable computer. Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered penicillin.

Gutenberg press reproductionAt the age of 50, Gutenberg invented his moveable-type printing press, William Harvey published his treatise on the circulation of the blood, … And Louis Pasteur was 60 when he discovered a vaccine for anthrax.

The conceptual approach, which tends to be more successful for youthful innovators, is also evident:

Occasionally the innocence of youth can work in a scientist’s favour. Thanks to his ignorance of chemical structure, William Perkin discovered the first aniline dye, mauveine, by accident when he was an 18-year-old lab assistant. …

The intuitive element of many discoveries reinforces the impression that only the young can be good at invention. Scientific solutions are often associated with an apparently heaven-sent flash of insight – Newton reputedly prompted by the apple’s fall to investigate gravity, for example, or Friedrich August Kekule’s dreaming of a serpent eating its tail to give him the shape of the benzene molecule. Most frequently quoted is the experience of Henri Poincare, who got the answer to an abstruse problem of mathematical functions while climbing on to a bus in Caen. So certain was Poincare of his solution that he settled down to chat with a fellow passenger – they were on a geological field trip – and only bothered to verify it when he got home.

Others in Tyler’s list might be examples of older conceptual innovators who make a breakthrough soon after switching careers.

UranusEven more telling, perhaps, are the examples of those who took up their subjects late in life. William Herschel, for example, was a music teacher before he turned to astronomy, discovering the planet Uranus at 43, infrared radiation and the asteroids at 62, and continuing to make observations into his 70s.

…Literature is full of examples of late vocations: the 19th-century German novelist Theodor Fontane was a chemist before turning to literature, and was nearly 60 before writing the novels that influenced Thomas Mann. Cervantes and Thomas Hobbes both wrote their masterpieces late in life.

Other young innovators are listed without explanation:

Newton, like many mathematicians, was an early starter, identifying the spectrum by means of a prism at the age of 24.

Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock at 28.

And older ones too, including the familiar examples of Cezanne and Monet, whom Galenson often cites:

In the arts, too, inventiveness can go on into old age. Beethoven’s late string quartets were music for another age. Verdi wrote his best operas at the end of his career: his Otello is often described as his most perfect fusion of drama and music.

Cezanne, though he started to break with his contemporaries in his 30s, was more than 60 when he completed his futuristic ”Les Grandes Baigneuses”. Monet gave Impressionism its name with his ”Impression: Soleil Levant”, exhibited in 1872; but it was as a 90-year-old that wrestling with the effects of light and water on his pond at Giverny pushed him into abstractionism.


New telling of old story: Misfits vs. diligent drudges

June 3, 2007

Page and Brin of GoogleIn an essay in today’s New York Times, G. Pascal Zachary retells familiar stories of conceptual vs. experimental innovators in terms of paradigm-changing “misfits” vs. persistent people in “large teams, working in routine, predictable ways.”

For his lineup of successful “misfit” conceptual innovators, Zachary brings in many of the usual suspects: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (pictured).

Zachary gives them their due, which is more than their experimental counterparts get:

” ‘The reality is that world-changing amounts of money are earned by people who question orthodoxies,’ (Sean M. Maloney, chief of sales and marketing at Intel) said.

“Does this mean the misfit is always worth betting on? Not really. The often-ignored side of the Kuhn theory is that for long stretches of time, the frontier of science and technology is ruled by diligent people who are quietly filling in the grand vision that spawned a new paradigm in the first place.

” ‘These people are heroes of their own sort, keeping the home fires burning until the reigning paradigm is played out. ‘The celebration of misfits promotes a worrisome anti-intellectualism and presents a distorted picture of the innovation process,’ says (David A. Hollinger, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley).

“Indeed, technological innovation — not to mention new scientific knowledge — is increasingly a result of large teams, working in routine, predictable ways. Individuals matter, but their contributions often can no longer be measured, nor can credit be accurately apportioned — even by the people working closest with them.

“Perhaps the steady rise in power by faceless teams of engineers, technicians and scientists explains the persistent romantic appeal of the lone misfit.

“By any measure, successful misfits are the exception, and there is no handy tool for distinguishing the next college dropout with a bright and wealthy future from the dropout who faces a heap of woe.”

As often happens, Zachary undervalues experimental innovators, who do much more than fill in gap in the grand schemes of conceptual innovators.


The innovation style of social entrepreneurs Mohammad Yunus and Michael Young

March 30, 2007

Two great social entrepreneurs, Nobel Peace Price winner Mohammad Yunus of Bangladesh and British activist Michael Young, were outstanding experimental innovators, David Galenson told the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship this week at Oxford University.

As typical seekers, they achieved their successes by trial and error and often were unsure of themselves. Here are excerpts from Galenson’s talk:

“The late Michael Young, who has been spoken of several times today, was perhaps the world’s mostMichael Young prolific social entrepreneur and was an archetypal experimental innovator. He had the basic uncertainty of the experimentalist, as he once declared that ‘I have never had an idea that I was sure about.’ As a result, in all his activities he proceeded cautiously. In the introduction to his doctoral thesis, he compared his scholarly method to the experience of finding his way through the dense London fog that had enveloped him on his first visit to the East End community that became the subject of that thesis: He wrote, ‘I felt my way along, tapping my foot against the kerbstones as I went. I am still tapping.’

“Yet his uncertainty never prevented him from making an effort to achieve what he understood to be the best option, no matter how much opposition he encountered. He attributed his accomplishments to a combination ‘of perseverance and bloody-mindedness.’ Above all, however, he reserved the right to change his mind as he went, for his tapping in the dark was not aimed merely at moving, but at making progress. In 1998, at the opening of his School for Social Entrepreneurs, in his inaugural speech the 83-year-old Lord Young offered a remarkable definition that captured the essential humility and open-mindedness of the experimental innovator, as he explained that ‘Introducing an innovation is an exercise of entrepreneurship, and for me entrepreneurship is best thought of as a concentrated and targeted kind of learning… . The idea has to be subject to continuous examination, a continuous trial and error.’ Appropriately, Young made that speech in Bethnal Green, where decades earlier he had learned about the problems facing the English working class by talking to the people who lived there.

“Over time, Young had become more and more deeply engaged with these problems, for as his friend and biographer Asa Briggs remarked of Young, he was ‘a traveler who becomes increasingly involved the longer he continues his journey.’

“Nor should Young’s experimental orientation be considered in any way surprising, for the complex problems faced by social entrepreneurs can often be expected to require perseverance and bloody-mindedness in the face of both external opposition and internal uncertainty. And perhaps the key is Michael Young’s emphasis on entrepreneurship as learning, not with a fixed goal but as an open-ended process, with continuous examination and constant trial and error. Michael Young was a successful scholar, but Asa Briggs noted that he was never completely comfortable in a university setting, for he needed to be in the field learning about the problems he wanted to solve. Michael Young would certainly have agreed with the metaphor of another important social entrepreneur, Muhammad Yunus, that the university classroom was like a beautiful movie theater, ‘where professors have all the answers and the tale works out so neatly at the end of the day. But it’s make-believe. When you turn on the lights and go outside, it’s a completely different world.’

“Frustrated by the failure of economic theory to help solve the problems of the rural poor during amuhammad yunus famine in Bangladesh in 1974, Yunus decided to learn about the poor at first hand by going into their villages, and in his book ‘Banker to the Poor’ he tells us that it was there that ‘the poor taught me an entirely new economics.’ In classic experimental terms, Yunus tells us that when he first began lending money to the poor, ‘I did not know if I was right. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was walking blind and learning as I went.’

“Yunus founded the Grameen Bank on the basic principle that experience is the best guide. All the bank’s employees are encouraged to suggest changes in even the most basic rules. If they perceive better procedures for dealing with the problems they encounter in the course of their daily work.

“Social entrepreneurs do not all have to be experimental; most disciplines, both artistic and scholarly, thrive on the combination of the two approaches, and the creative tension between theoretical and empirical innovation. But as in other disciplines, it is the experimentalists who are likely to have the harder time finding their way.”

To hear the full talk, visit the Skoll conference’s Web site and click on “2007 Skoll World Forum Opening Plenary.” Galenson’s remarks are from roughly 1:27:00 to 1:46:00 on that Real Player file.