07/11/2013 03:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Two Life Cycles of Creativity: The New York Times Gets It Right

David Brooks correctly described the two life cycles of creativity:

I read somewhere that the people who are most intellectually creative in later life are experimentalists rather than conceptualists. Some people start with a clear conception of what they want to do and then execute their plan. They tend to be most intellectually creative young. Others don't start with clear conceptions, they just go through trial and error. They peak late.

Mr. Brooks couldn't remember where he read this (perhaps the New York Times?). But no matter: the key point is that it is correct. And in this, it is preferable to the erroneous understanding of many academic psychologists.


Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait (ca. 1669). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In view of Mr. Brooks' bibliographic shortcomings, however, let me give him a suggestion. In the same article, be referred to a rather weak essay by Kenneth Clark, "The Artist Grows Old." For a more powerful analytical statement by a greater critic, I would refer Mr. Brooks to Roger Fry's Last Lectures. Roger Fry was the subject of Virginia Woolf's only biography; Kenneth Clark accurately paid tribute to him by stating that "In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry." In Fry's inaugural lecture as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge University in 1933, he clearly identified the two life cycles of artistic creativity:

When we look at the late works of Titian or Rembrandt we cannot help feeling the pressure of a massive and rich experience which leaks out, as it were, through the ostensible image presented to us, whatever it may be. There are artists, and perhaps Titian and Rembrandt are good examples, who seem to require a very long period of activity before this unconscious element finds its way into the work of art. In other cases, particularly in artists whose gift lies in a lyrical direction, the exaltation and passion of youth transmits itself directly into everything they touch, and then sometimes, when this flame dies down, their work becomes relatively cold and uninspired.


Titian, Self-Portrait (ca. 1550-62). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.