Closing the Circle

An economist’s “new approach recapitulates long-extant modes (Creator Styles, Part 3)

Continuing through David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, he goes over what he sees as a continuation of the pattern he theorizes through more media apart from the one he started with, painting. While interesting, it’s also something of a dry read, filled out as it is with charts and statistics. Specifically, he covers poetry, literature, and film direction. And this last one provides a much closer corollary to the medium I work in, videogames (he also touches briefly on architects and economists, and posits that these same types might apply to all fields of intellectual activities).

In order to discuss film he conveniently skips over the fact that he accepts auteurism wholesale. This value system was popularized in the ’40s and ’50s by Cahiers du cinéma and in particular, François Truffaut, who wrote for the film journal. Since then it has found application in both film and in games. Wikipedia defines it as positing:

[A] singular artist who controls all aspects of a collaborative creative work, a person equivalent to the author of a novel or a play.

What Galenson utterly omits to mention is that there is significant criticism of this idea in both media. Indeed few people today, especially in games, accept the notion that all the achievements in this type of work are attributable to one individual. And I say this is as a game designer—a role that typically benefits from auteur theory.

I don’t think it’s either fair or true. I have always tried to promote my coworkers when interviews have attempted to focus on my role. My belief has always been that the whole at least should be greater than the sum of its parts, and that working with smart, creative people who can improve on one another’s ideas is one of the dynamics that continues to attract me to this field of endeavor. If holism is not occurring, that’s a red flag for me. Additionally, as many in this business have, I have had my name struck from credits, and indeed, have worked at companies in which individual credits were never given. These practices simply suck; if nothing else, games should learn from the standardized and guaranteed credits in Hollywood.

Furthermore, Galenson has focused all along on artists’ critical reception and, in the case of film directors, monetary success in evaluating them and which category they belong to. But not only is criticism inherently subjective, it can also be fickle, so these criteria are flawed ones. Just take a look at the ratings for some of your favorite movies on Rotten Tomatoes if you want to see that 1. audiences and critics don’t always agree, and 2. That you are likely to not agree with either of them.

As I have learned through the hard knocks of my own career, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip—lots of factors are beyond a creator’s control even if they are somehow the auteur of a work: patronage, changing audience tastes, and in our modern era marketing, UA costs, and a dozen other things.

Just one such factor in the timing of a creator’s success in their field, which Galenson himself points out, is the complexity involved in an activity:

[The] Abstract Expressionists dominated the advanced art world of the late 1940s and early ’50s with visual works that were highly complex, and generally required long periods of apprenticeship from important contributors.

However, he notes that conceptual dudes come along and change things:

Within a brief span of time, however, in the late 1950s Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg created new conceptual forms of art that were much less complex, and could be assimilated much more quickly, with very brief required apprenticeships. Thus the contributions of Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and many others who followed Johns and Rauschenberg were highly conceptual, and were generally made much earlier in their careers than those of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and the other important Abstract Expressionists.

And with this, he expands his taxonomy of his two types, to include:

Aesthetic Experimenter

  • Inductive
  • Empirical
  • Discover methods during process
  • Continue to improve over a long career
  • Anti-intellectual
  • Value audience reception (commercial success)
  • They do not show themselves in a work
  • Add content to media

Conceptual Innovator

  • Deductive
  • Theoretical
  • Plan everything then execute
  • Peak young (run out of things to say)
  • Intellectual
  • Self-pleasing (about their own ideas, not the audience)
  • Autobiographical
  • Change and simplify media

And here, some of the ideas he ascribes to his types begin to sound familiar. The types of translations of poetry expounded by Jorge Luis Borges in his “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), that I’ve previously covered, we recall were Classical:

The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies.

And Romantic:

Romantics never seek the work of art, but rather the man himself. […] That reverence for the I, for the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations.

Based on Galenson’s expanded descriptions of his two types, it seems clear that Aesthetic Experimenter and Classicist are synonymous, as are Conceptual Innovator and Romanticist.

Furthermore the dyad of artistic values that Borges refers to, just like the one Galenson proposes, permeates all creative endeavors. And indeed, as Galenson suggests of his categories, these might apply across intellectual activities. So ultimately, his categories don’t appear to be new ones at all, but simply a restatement of these already long extant ones. Arguably, the categories Borges uses are both too value laden with respect to the terminology employed, and overlooked in modernity. The only value Galenson seems to add then, is a discussion of the relative ages of creators belonging to one or the other group as related to their successes in their chosen field. And, as related previously, a great deal of statistical data intended to prove out these categorizations.

But again, I think this boils down to a commonplace: there is a certain brash reductiveness that is required of the Romantic point of view that nearly directly implies youth—or at least makes this approach appealing to younger creators.

In the end, Galenson concludes that to be successful, ambition and aptitude are more important than the concerns of method. Here we finally agree, and indeed, being aware of these styles, and changing one’s approach as needed might be still more important.


Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Passing on Picasso

Part 2: The Role of the Ear-Lopper

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