Creative Conceptualist or Experimentalist?

Creative Conceptualist or Experimentalist?Would you consider yourself more of a Picasso or a Cézanne? More of an Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock? These are questions that author, David Galenson, asks in his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

Galenson started questioning the idea of creativity after purchasing a painting for, what an educated friend thought, was more than the actual value of the art. This sent Galenson on a quest to learn about creative geniuses and when did they become famous and their work become of value. An economics historian by profession, David started studying the great artistic and creative minds of world history. His quest led him to unexpected data results.
Creative Conceptualist or Experimentalist?

There’s a type of people, “conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young.

Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” [Those] who proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers. (WIRED Magazine – 07/2006)

My thought was that the early success of innovators caused them to coast later in life through the accolades of their endeavors. But Galenson’s research seemed to feature more on character qualities inherent in people, specifically creative types.

The hallmark of the conceptualists is certainty. They know what they want. They know when they’ve created it. [While on the other hand] experimentalists never know when their work is finished.

Galenson has recognized the limits of his theory. His updated thoughts are captured in his new book. He now talks of a continuum with extreme conceptualists on one end and extreme experimentalists on the other.

Is it possible to move from one camp into another? Sure. But, Galenson will tell you from his research that it is not often or easy.

What about you? Are you a conceptualist or an experimentalist? Below are listed some famous names from history. See who you relate to… have fun!

CONCEPTUALISTS   EXPERIMENTALISTS
NAME AGE   NAME AGE
Maya Lin 23   Mark Twain 50
Pablo Picasso 26   Ludwig Van Beethoven 54
Orson Wells 26   Alfred Hitchcock 59
F. Scott Fitzgerald 29   Paul Cézanne 64
Wolfgang Mozart 30   Frank Lloyd Wright 70

Oh, by the way, I am an experimentalist (in case you were wondering).

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3 thoughts on “Creative Conceptualist or Experimentalist?

  1. Interesting…I blogged about this late last year looking at it from a slighty different angle.
    I read about a speech Malcolm Gladwell gave at the Rotman School where he talked about the Picasso/Cezanne difference. (He also offered a great comparison between the Eagles and Fleedwood Mac.) Gladwell said:

    “In the 1960s and 80s, Fleetwood Mac went through a dizzying array of lineup changes, relationship issues and drug problems. If you listened now to their first few albums, you would have no idea who it was – they sounded nothing like the band we have come to know.”

    Then there’s The Eagles, who charted a different course:

    “Their very first album, Desperado, sounds unmistably like the Eagles we have come to know, and they hit it big immediately. Only three years later, they released their first ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation; and then came Hotel California – which remains one of the best-selling records of all time.”

    This led me to question, as a business innovator, is it better to be experimental (a la Fleetwood Mac) or conceptual (like The Eagles)? Gladwell went on to talk about the differences between Picasso and Cezanne. Picasso – the quintessential innovator who, over a lifetime, reinvented himself over and over with new and wholly different ideas. And Cezanne, who embarked on a singular quest of fulfilling his one great idea over the course of his entire career.

    Said Gladwell: “This distinction is important because in modern business, we tend to favor one kind of innovator – the Picassos – and turn our backs on the Cezannes. And there are major implications….The Cezanne model takes time; but North American managers want results now!”

    So in addition to age, it seems creative process and personality also plays a part.

    Best, Chris

  2. Chris,

    Wow! Great comment. I missed Gladwell giving that talk. It’s interesting how David Galenson found almost the opposite. Those whose creative status skyrocketed in later years seemed to always be experimenting.

    I wonder, if you layered over top the idea of “recapturing success”. Given the illustration of Fleetwood Mac, were they truly trying to be different and innovative, or trying to recapture the popularity they had early on, but with a new mix?

    Similarly, you see it in business. A concept or idea will make headlines and then the company will spin as many iterations as possible after the initial product has started to wane. In entertainment too — a particular movie will “hit it big” and then the box office is swamped with similar wannabes over the next year.

    There’s something to be said for originality.

    Thoughts?
    -eb

  3. That – is a great post! I’m intrigued by this and think I will read this book. The bold leaps concept makes sense…very fascinating that these conceptuals sort of glide once they offer a breakthrough work. A very enticing conversation piece.

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