Zinsser & A Theory of Art (Part 1 of 2)

The theories of economist David Galenson reminded me of a certain passage from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. In the opening scene of the book, Zinsser, a writer by vocation, and a pseudonymously-named Dr. Brock, a surgeon who writes as an avocation, are invited to speak at a Connecticut school about writing. 

The first question went to [Dr. Brock.] What was it like to be a writer?

He said it was tremendous fun. Coming home from an arduous day at the hospital, he would go straight to his yellow pad and write his tensions away. The words just flowed. It was easy. I then said that writing wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.

Galenson, who Jason Kottke introduced me to, claims that there are two kinds of artists: “old masters” and “young geniuses.”

The old masters, who are epitomized by Cezanne, are experimental innovators, which means they explore and incrementally improve their art until they create a masterpiece. The price of their works are low for work by the young artist and then climb, peaking in their old age. To quote Kottke, these are men like “Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock.”

The young geniuses, represented by artists like Picasso, enter the stage with a firm artistic statement which they want to make, and then, after firmly making it, run out of things to say. The price of their works peak young and then decline. Examples here include T.S. Eliot and Orson Welles.

To really clear the difference up:

Cezanne said, “I seek in painting.”

Picasso said, “I don’t seek, I find.”

Galenson came across this supposed phenomenon after looking at the relationship between an artist’s age when he or she created a work and the price of that work at market. In this model, two groups emerge: the old experimenters and the young conceptualists. When he looked at the number of times that same work was reproduced in art history textbooks, the same pattern emerges.

The theory is somewhat old in third-millenium time (Gallenson’s first book came out in 2001, and Malcolm Gladwell gave a great talk on it in 2006), but it’s still very controversial (as I’m sure you can figure out).

Regardless of whether it’s exactly true, though, it serves as an system of organization to discuss artists of all types. For example, just look at the Zinsser quote above. Brock is a conceptualist. Zinsser is an experimenter.

But one area where it has not really been explored is classical music. Gladwell touches on Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles in his talk (I’ll let you figure out which one is the experimenter), but nowhere have I seen Galenson or Kottke or Gladwell talk about European standard art music. Nor have I seen them discuss the remarkable mix of conceptualism and experimentation that goes into a jazz solo. There’s a huge potential here, and as of now it’s unexplored. Until now.

Errr– until tomorrow, actually. That’s when I’ll post the second essay in this series on the theories of David Galenson.

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