Conceptual artist Gustave Courbet, plus Edouard Manet and Bob Dylan

August 8, 2007

L'Aterlier by Courbet

WIthout realizing it, Peter Schjeldahl describes French painter Gustave Courbet as a conceptual innovator in his recent New Yorker review of Petra Chu’s biography, “The Most Arrogant Man in France.”

Among Courbet’s characteristics that are typical of conceptual innovators:

  • Conceiving of pictures by predicting the shock they would create, rather than as an attempt to capture the essence of the world around him.
  • Basing paintings on theories about painting, such as his 1855 “Realist Manifesto.” It declared his intention “to translate the customs, the ideas, the aspect of my time as I conceive of them.” Further: “Hardly objective, Courbet’s realist works are fictive and rhetorical to the core—‘conceptual rather than perceptual,’ Chu affirms.”
  • Finding inspiration beyond the natural world. “The art historian Linda Nochlin, in her seminal book “Realism” (1971), characterized the movement’s idealism with an apt quote from Hegel: ‘Art digs an abyss between the appearance and illusion of this bad and perishable world, on the one hand, and the true content of events on the other, to reclothe these events and phenomena with a higher reality, born of the mind.’ ”

Courbet became a painter at age 20 and produced his most frequently reproduced work, “The Studio of the Artist” (pictured), in 1855 at age 36 – relatively late for a conceptual innovator. Not long after that, he faded, as conceptual innovators typically do. As Schjeldaht writes:

“Already he had lost his edge. Already, in 1863, ‘Olympia,’ by his younger and smarter contemporary Édouard Manet [another conceptual innovator], had dramatized the female nude in ways, both realist and poetic, that beggared Courbet. (It was shown, to legendary furor, in the Salon of 1865.) Meanwhile, the Impressionists were making Courbet’s eclectic chiaroscuro styles—later ridiculed by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam as ‘molasses and bitumen’—look abruptly obsolete.”

Schjeldahl even compares conceptual Courbet to a conceptual innovator from the present – Bob Dylan. “Showily enigmatic, ‘The Studio of the Painter’ affected its immediate audiences with inchoate excitements—vaguely political, indistinctly visionary, unfathomably ironic—somewhat like those which attended the early hits of Bob Dylan in another epoch that violently revamped public roles and values in the arts.”



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.

Gladwell book will tackle conceptual / experimental innovation

May 15, 2007

Malcolm GladwellThe next book by “Tipping Point” and “Blink” author Malcolm Gladwell will be about conceptual and experimental innovators, according to David Manaster, CEO of ERE Media Inc.

In a blog post, Manaster says that Gladwell’s “book about ‘high achievers’ … should be published in about eighteen months. (In it, Gladwell) places creative people into a continuum with two approaches to innovation – conceptual and experimental.”
Manaster’s blog, “Hire Calling,” reports on Gladwell’s talk to a recent recruiting-industry conference. Those remarks included many examples of conceptual and experimental innovators — very familiar examples for people who have been following this line of thought:

“Conceptual innovators … are the revolutionaries with bold ideas and strokes of genius – the people who create a something new and different. They are brilliant, but can be inconsistent – some of their bold moves will be genius, and some will miss their mark, and there is no guarantee that they can recreate their original inspiration.”

For example:

  • “Picasso , who painted his most valuable paintings as a young man,” and
  • “Orson Welles, who never surpassed his early masterpiece Citizen Kane.”

“Experimental innovators are relentless. They do not have that flash of brilliance of the conceptual innovator, but they are relentless. An experimental innovator will take an idea and doggedly pursue it, making changes and trying small changes – riffing n the concept until something sticks.” For example:

  • “Paul Cézanne, … Gladwell’s example of this kind of innovator – his most valuable paintings were done later in life, after much experimentation” and
  • “Alfred Hitchcock, whose most famous movies came late in his career, after he had already created dozens of films.”

Fleetwood MacGladwell also discussed conceptual and experimental innovation in the music business, as he did in a lecture last year.

At the conference, Gladwell said, “experimental innovators seem to have an edge – at least in live performances, which is where the real money is. It took Fleetwood Mac 16 albums to come up with Rumours, their most successful album ever. Two of the most successful touring bands in history are The Dave Matthews Band and The Grateful Dead – and according to Gladwell, both are experimental, working over many years to get their formulas down. “

Gladwell also broke new ground with a discussion of innovators on television:

“In TV, the shows on HBO are widely regarded as the most creative and engagingSix Feet Under on television. In an approach that is regarded as atypical for that industry (where a typical show only has a few episodes to gather an audience and become a breakout hit before it is cancelled), Gladwell said that a large part of their success has been because HBO is willing to give new shows enough time to develop and find their groove. Six Feet Under, one of their most critically acclaimed shows, did not reach its creative peak until its third season, even though it did not get a solid following in its entire first season.”

What is the relevance of this to daily life, especially in the workplace?

“In a showing of hands in the audience, it appeared as if most of the people in the room considered themselves to be experimental innovators (myself included). This makes sense to me, because businesses look to deliver products and services they can grow over time, which would seem to favor an incremental, experimental kind of thinking over the conceptual. (Just think of how a company’s financial performance is measured as percent growth rather than the number of new product launches they have done in a quarter.)

“What surprised me was that even in businesses traditionally thought of as ‘creative’ (conceptually innnovative), the experimental innovators seem to be more prominent than one might expect.”

Further, “If employees are no longer loyal, why should companies invest in experimental innovators if they will not see the ROI on those investments? The answer: Retention, retention, retention. “

Composers can be seekers and finders too?

January 28, 2007

Neil writes, “Why are there no composers?” in — “there are plenty of good subjects among composers.”

Little work has been done on the subject of experimental vs. conceptual innovators among composers. Readers are invited to suggest specific composers, especially citing the age at which they did their best work and whether they had other characteristics of seekers and finders.

In the ArtsJournal blog “Post Classic,” Kyle Gann picked up the topic:

“I suggest applying this typology to composers with some caution. The issues may be different, who knows? But certain examples will spring to mind. We have some Conceptual Innovator composers with explosive early careers, forever best known for one or a handful of precocious early works: Stravinsky, Antheil, Cowell, Messiaen.

“Easier to call to mind are those Experimentalists who developed their music later in life, with no particular work standing out: Shostakovich, Sessions, Partch, Carter, Feldman. I’m tempted to type Ives and Copland as conceptualists, but the later date of some of their best works militates against it.

“Perhaps music has some aspects of technical acquisition and performance vicissitudes that require some alteration of the time line. It’ll be fun to do some study and find out.”