The Two Life Cycles of Human Creativity

At what stage of their lives are most great innovators most creative?

There are two very different answers to this question. Some great innovators make their most important discoveries suddenly, very early in their careers. In contrast, others arrive at their major contributions gradually, late in their lives, after decades of work. Which of these two life cycles a particular innovator follows is related systematically to his conception of his discipline, how he works, and to the nature of his contribution. Like important scholars, important artists are innovators. Great modern artists can be divided into two groups, defined according to differences in their goals, methods, and contributions.

Painters who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goas are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that they rarely feel they have succeeded, so their careers are often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists paint the same subject many times, gradually changing its treatment by trial and error. 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 build their skills slowly over the course of their careers, and their innovations emerge piecemeal in a body of work.

In contrast, painters who have made conceptual innovations have intended to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can be stated precisely in advance. They often make detailed preparatory plans for their paintings and execute their final works systematically. Conceptual innovations appear suddenly, as a new idea produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. Conceptual innovations are consequently often embodied in individual breakthrough paintings. The conceptual artist’s certainty about his goals, and confidence that he has achieved them, often leaves him free to pursue new and different goals. Unlike the continuity of the work of the experimental artist, conceptual artists’ careers are therefore often characterized by discontinuity.

The long periods of trial and error usually required for important experimental innovations mean that they tend to occur late in an artist’s career. Conceptual innovations are made more quickly and can occur at any age. Yet radical conceptual innovations depend on the ability to perceive and appreciate extreme deviations from existing practices, and this ability tends to decline with experience, as habits of though become more firmly established. The most important conceptual innovations therefore generally occur early in an artist’s career.

Two of the greatest modern artists epitomize the two types of innovator.

Paul Cezanne was an experimental innovator. A month before his death In 1906, the 67-year-old Cezanne wrote to a friend:

“Now it seems to me that I see better and that I think more correctly about the direction of my studies. Will I ever attain the end for which I have striven so much and so long? I hope so, but as long as it is not attained a vague state of uneasiness persists which will not disappear until I have reached port, that is until I have realized something which develops better than in the past… So I continue to study… I am always studying after nature, and it seems to me that I make slow progress.”

This brief passage expresses nearly all of the characteristics of the experimental artist—the visual criteria, the view of his enterprise as research, the incremental nature and slow pace of his progress, the absorption in the pursuit of a vague and elusive goal, and the frustration with his perceived lack of success in achieving that goal of “realization.” The critic Roger Fry explained that Cezanne’s frustration was a consequence of his uncertain attitude and incremental approach:

“For him as I understand his work, the ultimate synthesis of a design was never revealed in a flash; rather he approached it with infinite precautions … For him the synthesis was an asymptote toward which he was forever approaching without ever quite reaching it.”

The irony of Cezanne’s fear of failure at the end of his life stems from a fact that it was his most recent work, the paintings of his last few years, that would soon come to be considered his greatest contribution and would directly influence every important artistic development of the decades that followed.

Unlike Cezanne, who told a friend “I seek in painting,” the leading artist of the next generation, Pablo Picasso, confidently declared “I don’t seek; I find.” In 1923 Picasso stated that:

“The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal … I have never made trials or experiments. Whenever I have had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said.”

Generations of art historians have commented on the abruptness and frequency of Picasso’s stylistic changes. One biographer made this point by comparing Picasso with Cezanne: “There was not one Picasso, but ten, twenty, always different, unpredictably changing, and in this he was the opposite of a Cezanne, whose work … followed that logical, reasonable course to fruition.” For Picasso, new ideas brought new styles, for his conceptual art was intended not to represent the appearance of his subjects, but rather his knowledge of them: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Picasso often planned his paintings carefully in advance. In 1907, at age 26, he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon after making more than 400 studies, “a quantity of preparatory work … without parallel, for a single painting, in the entire history of art.” The large canvas become his most famous work, for it served to announce the beginning of the conceptual Cubist movement, “the most complete and radical artistic revolution since the Renaissance.”

Recognition of the differences in methods and products between experimental and conceptual painters helps to resolve a number of puzzles in the history of modern art. Great experimental painters, like Cezanne, Degas, and Monet, innovated gradually, making many small changes in their technique over the course of extended periods on many canvases, and their greatest contributions were not embodied in individual breakthroughs. Consequently, there is no consensus on which of their paintings best illustrates their achievements. In contrast, conceptual innovations normally are declared in specific breakthrough works. Thus, at the age of 27 Seurat specifically designed Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte to illustrate his scientific approach to the use of color, and it became the most famous painting executed in the nineteenth century. Two decades later the 25-year-old Marcel Duchamp painted Nude Descending a Staircase to demonstrate his conception of the static representation of movement, and it became the third most famous painting produced in the twentieth century, behind only the Demoiselles d’Avignon and another landmark work, Guernica, by the conceptual Picasso. So, the puzzle is resolved: important conceptual painters produce famous individual masterpieces, but great experimental painters do not, instead producing important bodies of work.

The implications of this research go beyond modern art. It is now clear that this analysis can be applied equally to great painters of the pre-modern era: Masaccio, Raphael, and Holbein were conceptual artists, whereas Leonardo, Titian, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt were experimental. But the applicability of the analysis goes beyond art in general. In virtually all intellectual activities there are important practitioners of both types described here, and in all these activities there are consequently two distinct life cycles of creativity.

Results from studies of innovators in three other disciplines provide support for this belief. One of the studies analyzes the life cycles of Nobel laureates in economics. Whereas such theorists as Kenneth Arrow, Gary Becker, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Solow all published their most often cited work before the age of35, the empiricists Simon Kuznets and Theodore Schultz both published their most-cited work after the age of 50. Economic theorists work deductively, and innovate conceptually, while in contrast the empiricists Kuznets and Schultz worked inductively and innovated experimentally.

A second related study examines the careers of important modern American poets. The production of great poetry often is considered to be the exclusive domain of the young. But quantitative analysis of individual careers contradicts this belief. By the measure of poems reprinted in anthologies, the careers of E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Richard Wilbur were dominated by the work of their 20s and 30s, but in contrast Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams all produced their major work in their 40s and beyond. The elegant and sophisticated poetry of Cummings, Eliot, Pound, and Wilbur grew primarily out of imagination and study of literary history, and was formulated conceptually, while Bishop, Frost, Lowell, Moore, Stevens, and Williams produced poetry rooted in real speech and experience, drawing on the observed reality of their daily lives to innovate experimentally.

A third related study shows that the careers of great modern novelists have followed these same two patterns. Herman Melville, D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway wrote with confidence and clarity of purpose to express their ideas and emotions and produced conceptual masterpieces early in their careers. In contrast, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner worked tentatively toward better representations of the world they knew and arrived at their greatest contributions only after decades of experimentation.