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Old Age and Creativity in Art and Science

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One of the most widespread and persistent myths about creativity is that it is the domain of the young. So for example in surveying popular attitudes toward aging, the psychologist Dean Simonton observed that "Most conspicuous is the notion that creativity is the prerogative of youth, that aging is synonymous with a decrement in the capacity for generating and accepting innovations."

This misconception is not restricted to the general public, for it is shared by Simonton and many of his fellow psychologists. In the single most ambitious empirical study of the relation between age and achievement, the psychologist Harvey Lehman concluded in 1953 that "the genius does not function equally well throughout the years of adulthood. Superior creativity rises relatively rapidly to a maximum which occurs usually in the thirties and then falls off slowly." Lehman conceded that the old possessed greater wisdom and erudition, but that these qualities were not associated with creativity, for "when a situation requires a new way of looking at things...the old seem stereotyped and rigid." Although Lehman's study was done nearly six decades ago, its conclusions have not been overturned by more recent psychologists, who continue to believe that, in Simonton's words, "creativity seems to peak in early or middle adulthood."

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Portrait of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron (1881, detail), image from the collection of the National Galleries of Art, Washington, D.C.

Greater knowledge, and associated entrenched habits of thought, do appear to constrain conceptual innovation. One reason for this is that they create barriers for the radical simplifications that often characterize conceptual creativity: so for example the Nobel laureate physicist Louis de Broglie attributed Albert Einstein's early breakthroughs to the "originality and genius of a mind which can perceive in a single glance, through the complex maze of difficult questions, the new and simple idea...suddenly to bring clarity and light where darkness had reigned." Another reason is that they tend to erode the brash self-assurance of the cocksure young prodigy: thus when 45-year old Orson Welles was asked how he had the confidence to make Citizen Kane when he was just 26, he replied, "Ignorance, ignorance, sheer ignorance - you know there's no confidence to equal it. It's only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you're timid or careful." But the same is emphatically not true for experimental innovation.

In 1904, 65-year old Paul Cézanne wrote to a friend:

In your letter you speak of my realization in art. I believe that I attain it more every day, although a bit laboriously. Because if the strong feeling for nature - and certainly I have that vividly - is the necessary basis for all artistic conception..., the knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion is no less essential, and is only to be acquired through very long experience.

At the age of 62, Charles Darwin wrote to his youngest son, encouraging him in his college studies. The boy was not a distinguished student, and Darwin, who similarly had not excelled at school, clearly identified with him. He stressed that innovation did not depend simply on intelligence:

I have been speculating last night what makes a man a discoverer of unexpected things, and a most perplexing problem it is. Many men who are very clever - much cleverer than discoverers - never originate anything. As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for causes or meaning ... This implies sharp observation and requires as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated.

Cézanne and Darwin were great experimental innovators whose greatest contributions came late in their lives. The art scholar Meyer Schapiro declared of Cézanne that "the years from 1890 to his death in 1906 are a period of magnificent growth." After decades of research, Darwin published The Origin of Species - perhaps the greatest scientific book ever written - at the age of 50. The scholar Antonello La Vergata wrote that "Darwin students today generally agree that Darwin's theory was constructed, not discovered, and that it was the result of the evolution of a creative system: Darwin's mind."

Great experimental innovators in any domain develop not only vast stores of knowledge - "as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated," in Darwin's words - but also the technical means to turn it into a novel contribution - Cézanne's "knowledge of the means of expressing." Both the accumulation of great knowledge and the construction of new technical means are "only to be acquired through very long experience," as Cézanne put it, and this implies that their greatest results will almost always appear late in a career.

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Paul Cézanne, "Self-Portrait with Beret," (ca. 1899-1900), image from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In dismissing age as a source of creativity, Lehman, Simonton, and many other psychologists were guilty of taking a part of creativity for the whole. Old age and experience may be lethal for the creativity of conceptual young geniuses, but they are the lifeblood of the innovations of experimental old masters.

This analysis would come as no surprise to Cézanne, Darwin, or any other successful experimental innovator. Among these was Louise Bourgeois, a great experimental sculptor, who once declared "I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do." Bourgeois made her greatest work after the age of 80. When she was 84, and an interviewer asked whether she could have made one of her recent works earlier in her career, she replied, "Absolutely not." When he asked why, she explained, "I was not sophisticated enough."

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Portrait of Louise Bourgeois with "Fillette," by Robert Mapplethorpe (1982), image from the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.