06/07/2013 12:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Art Rules?

Art Rules?

In Age and Achievement, the psychologist Harvey Lehman measured the ages at which large numbers of practitioners of scores of different activities made their greatest contributions. For painters, he wrote that the best period — that of the "maximum average rate of highly superior production" — was ages 32-36.

The central tendency of a statistical distribution is most informative about the behavior of the individuals included in it when a population is homogeneous with respect to the relevant behavior. In Explaining Creativity, the psychologist Keith Sawyer asserted that life cycles are in fact homogeneous within activities: "Every creative domain has its own characteristic inverted-U shape that tends to apply to all individuals working within that domain. Each domain has a typical peak age of productivity, the age at which the most significant innovation of a career is typically generated."


Willem de Kooning in his studio (1961). Image courtesy the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC.

And psychologists do not believe this homogeneity is accidental. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued that the typical creative life cycle of a domain is a function of what he calls the structure of the domain. In Creativity, he contended that the clarity and strict logic of some domains allow young practitioners to master the rules quickly, and to make novel contributions early, whereas the ambiguity of other domains requires much longer periods of study for practitioners to arrive at mastery, and creativity.

These scholars are wrong. Lehman was wrong to claim there is a single peak period of creativity for a domain. Sawyer was wrong to claim that creative life cycles are homogeneous within domains. And Csikszentmihalyi was wrong to claim that creative domains have a single, fixed set of rules and practices, that govern the work of all practitioners.


Willem de Kooning, Woman I (1950-52). Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Modern painting provides an example. Important paintings — works that are studied by scholars, and hang in major museums — have been made by methods as complex and personal as those of the experimental Abstract Expressionists, or by methods as simple as impersonal as those of the conceptual Pop artists. So for example Willem de Kooning worked on his most celebrated painting, Woman I, over an elapsed period of more than two years, whereas Andy Warhol made each of his most important paintings, often aided by an assistant, in a matter of minutes. De Kooning and Warhol had radically different creative life cycles. De Kooning was 48 in 1952, the year from which his work is most illustrated in textbooks, whereas Warhol was 34 in 1962, his most illustrated year. Even more remarkably, 1962 was the first year in which Warhol made paintings.


Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans (1962). Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The experimental de Kooning spent decades developing his distinctive gestural style to achieve aesthetic aims, in the process repeatedly painting over virtually every image: his widow recalled that "on any given canvas, I saw hundred of images go by. I mean, paintings that were masterpieces." But he never stopped making changes: "He simply was never satisfied." The long gestation period of Woman I was not caused by slow and painstaking execution; de Kooning's brushwork was in fact done quickly. The painting's extended creation was instead a product of changes in the image over time, as de Kooning struggled with the proportions of the figure. And even when he finally abandoned the painting — which today hangs in New York's Museum of Modern Art — de Kooning did not consider it a success: "in the end I failed. But it didn't bother me because I had, in the end, given it up; I felt it was really an accomplishment."


Andy Warhol (undated photo). Image courtesy of the Huffington Post.

In contrast, Warhol made his most frequently illustrated paintings in the very first year he adopted the mechanical technique of silkscreening. He was not trained in using the method, and made errors that industrial printers would not have made. A friend of Warhol's who was a skilled printer recalled that Warhol enjoyed his poor technique: "Those smears and blurs...weren't intentional at all. It just came out like that and he said, 'Oh, isn't that interesting.' He would say things like that. 'Oh, I love it this way. Let's leave it.'" The errors in execution were irrelevant, for Warhol's innovations were not aesthetic, but conceptual — use of the mechanical technique, and the commonplace imagery of the paintings.


Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych (1962). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What Lehman, Sawyer, and Csikszentmihalyi failed to appreciate was that few, if any, domains, and certainly none in the arts, have a single, fixed set of rules and practices, that are accepted and followed by all practitioners. Instead, many if not most disciplines simultaneously have several different sets of rules. It is common for experimental and conceptual artists or scholars to follow very different practices within a single discipline. The simplicity of Warhol's goals and techniques allowed him to innovate quickly and early, while the complexity of de Kooning's goals and methods led him to innovate gradually and late. That both were members of the same domain — central figures in oil painting within a short span of time — demonstrates the error of the psychologists' belief that domains are populated by homogeneous practitioners, all of whom follow a single set of rules.


Willem de Kooning, Collage (1950). Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Furthermore, in painting, as in virtually all intellectual disciplines, creative practitioners are constantly violating established disciplinary conventions, and in the process changing the rules, and the boundaries, of their disciplines. So for example neither de Kooning's gestural abstractions nor Warhol's silkscreened images could have been seriously considered as paintings by any significant artist or critic of the early 20th century. Yet today both are generally considered to be among the most important contributions of their century. And even one of the few basic conventions shared by the paintings of de Kooning and Warhol, the application of paint to a two-dimensional support, was earlier conspicuously violated by Pablo Picasso, the greatest painter of the 20th century, when he invented collage.

Picasso himself explained why creativity should not be analyzed by reference to the domain. When a publisher instructed the photographer Brassaï not to bother photographing one of Picasso's works for a planned book because the publisher didn't consider it a sculpture, Picasso was incensed, asking, "Who does that man think he is, to tell me, Picasso, what is or is not a sculpture! He's got some nerve! I just might know more about it than he does." Picasso understood that the practices of disciplines are not defined by outsiders, whether publishers or academic psychologists, but rather by the actions of practitioners, and that as a result these are variable and subject to change. Thus Picasso said to Brassaï, "What is sculpture? What is painting? Everyone's still clinging to outdated ideas, obsolete definitions, as if the artist's role was not precisely to offer new ones."

The heterogeneity of practitioners and products in virtually every intellectual discipline makes aggregation by discipline unsatisfactory in analyzing the life cycles of creativity. In general, experimental innovators consider their disciplines more ambiguous and uncertain than do their conceptual peers. Understanding creativity consequently requires us to recognize the presence, and importance, of both conceptual young geniuses and experimental old masters in nearly every intellectual domain.

Doing this requires studying innovators individually, rather than engaging in the aggregated numbers games the psychologists tend to favor. A genuine understanding of creativity should not be a search for Lehman's "golden decade for the writing of secular poetry" — which does not exist — or for some unique period of "maximum average rate of highly superior production" — which is of little substantive interest, for reasons detailed above. Rather, understanding creativity should involve a deep understanding of what innovators do to make their work, and of how and why their work changes over the course of their careers. And here again psychologists should take a cue from practitioners. Thus Picasso specifically explained to Brassaï how he was providing information careful and conscientious scholars would need to understand his remarkable career:

Why do you think I date everything I make? Because it's not enough to know an artist's works. One must also know when he made them, why, how, under what circumstances. No doubt there will some day be a science, called "the science of man," perhaps, which will seek above all to get a deeper understanding of man via man-the-creator. I often think of that science, and I want the documentation I leave to posterity to be as complete as possible. That's why I date everything I make.


Pablo Picasso, Compotier avec fruits, violon, et verre (1912). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.