Mar 28th 2021

Preconception and Creativity

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

 

During the winter of 1906-07, Pablo Picasso filled a series of sketchbooks with preparatory studies for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the large painting that would eventually come to be seen as his single greatest achievement.  The curator William Rubin observed that the 400-studies Picasso made for the painting constituted "a quantity of preparatory work without parallel, for a single work, in the entire history of art."

In the early 1950s, Willem de Kooning worked on Woman I, the painting that is now generally considered his greatest success, over an elapsed period of more than two years.  His wife, the painter and critic Elaine de Kooning, recalled that from day to day "I saw hundreds of images go by.  I mean, paintings that were masterpieces."  But he continued to make changes: "He simply was never satisfied."

Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies.

Elenea.Manferdini.1
Elena Manferdini, Mei Mei Lou Renovation, Chinatown Los Angeles 2018


The objection is sometimes made that the difference in practice is insignificant: both types of artist do research, some simply choose to do it before beginning to work on the canvas, and some after.  The significance, of course, is intellectual.  When we look at a painting, we may not care whether or not it was preconceived, but an artist's choice of whether to preconceive his paintings is a predictor of his life cycle of creativity. 

In other activities, the difference may have greater practical consequences.  It is not surprising, for example, to find an architect accepting the importance of the distinction between execution of a preconceived plan and experimentation with a work in progress.  Thus in a videotaped seminar the architect Elena Manferdini reflected that it had taken her several decades to recognize her category, but that it would have been useful to have seen this earlier.

Elena.Manfredidi.Evergrand
Elena Manferdini, EVERGRANDE Stadium, Guangzhou, China, 2019

Frank Lloyd Wright was a great experimental architect.  He believed that the plan for a building did not complete the design, but "may be thrown away as the work proceeds;" indeed, the greatest buildings were altered during construction, "because the concept grows and matures during realization."  Wright regularly altered buildings under construction, with inevitable delays and cost overruns, and used his charm and charisma to mollify disgruntled contractors and outraged clients.  In one letter to a long-suffering patron, he explained that "the building grows as it is built and is none too easy, therefore, to keep up with."

Frank.Gehry.Residence
Frank Gehry, Residence at the Beach Renovation, Malibu CA, 1976

 

Frank Gehry is the most prominent experimental architect active today.  In 1976, while building a Malibu guest house for Norton Simon, Gehry decided to create a novel visual effect, in the form of a trellis that would look like a pile of wood, caught by the wind, blowing off the roof.  Uncertain how to achieve the effect, Gehry worked incrementally, building a layer, looking at it, then repeating the process.  After three layers, Simon called a halt, "because it was getting too expensive.  It offended him that he was paying for this experiment.  He said to me, 'There have been many great artists over time who have not been able to finish their masterpieces.  I'm going to add you to the list.'"

Elena Manferdini spoke ironically of the numbers, tables, and charts that traced out artists' creative life cycles, but conceded that she loved "the moment when you can find the visualization of the path of a career, and understand how the nature of the work has an impact on it."  Recognizing the significance of preconception, in painting, architecture, or any other activity, is a key to the magic of that moment.

 

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Jun 4th 2021
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May 28th 2021
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May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
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Apr 8th 2021
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Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
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Mar 20th 2021

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Mar 20th 2021
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Mar 18th 2021
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Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."