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  • Literary Art, Economics, and Creativity: An Interview with David Galenson
  • Jeffrey P. Beck (bio) and David Galenson

David W. Galenson is professor of economics at the University of Chicago, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and academic director of the Center for Creativity Economics at the Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires. He was a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow in 2008 and has served as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Texas at Austin, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and the American University of Paris. He was born in 1951, the son of economists Walter and Marjorie Galenson, and received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University (Ph.D. in 1979). As well as writing articles frequently for the Huffington Post, Galenson is author of Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006), Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art (Harvard University Press, 2001), Traders, Planters, and Slaves: Market Behavior in Early English America (Cambridge University Press, 1986), and White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1981). He is currently at work on a book, provisionally titled Innovators: The Story of Creativity.

Jeffrey Beck (JB):

How did an economist who did his doctoral work and first two books on indenture contracts and the agrarian economy in Colonial America come to write so much about art markets and the economics of creativity? [End Page 383]

David Galenson (DG):

The link is life cycles. My research in economic history always involved estimating the relationship between age and productivity—for colonial indentured servants, slaves, nineteenth-century immigrants to the United States. In 1997, I was buying a painting by a contemporary artist, and during a series of conversations I had with the dealer and the artist’s agent, I realized that no one knew what artists’ age-price profiles looked like. Out of curiosity, I took auction data and estimated those for several dozen recent painters. The results were probably the most surprising I have seen in my career: some of the artists made their most expensive work late in their lives, but others made theirs very early. I set out to understand what caused this enormous difference in life cycles.


And you assembled impressive sets of evidence in Painting Outside the Lines, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, and Conceptual Revolutions1 about the most important artworks of the twentieth century (through auction records, illustrations in leading textbooks of art history, major exhibitions, and so on), and you found some remarkable differences. Picasso, for example, painted his single most important work, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, in 1907, at age twenty-six; Marcel Duchamp created his most important work, The Fountain, in 1917, at age thirty; Jasper Johns did his encaustic Three Flags in 1958, at age twenty-eight; but Willem de Kooning created his masterwork, Excavation, in 1950, at age forty-six; Mark Rothko painted his Red, White and Brown in 1957 at age fifty-four; and Piet Mondrian did his Broadway Boogie-Woogie in 1943, at age seventy-one. You differentiate between the early creators as conceptual innovators, and the late creators as experimental innovators. There are psychologists too who have done this kind of empirical study of age of creation (they are sometimes referred to as histriometricians), but they generally focus on median ages of peak productivity. I’m thinking of Dean Keith Simonton, among others. How does your work differ from the histriometricians’?


The psychologists’ research didn’t help me at all with my puzzle, because they simply assume that all artists in a given discipline follow the same creative life cycle: “poets peak early, novelists peak late,” and on and on. My empirical evidence for painters demonstrated that this assumption was wrong. But what I discovered was [End Page 384] much more interesting. The painters with early and late career peaks made very different kinds of art, and they had very different goals. Conceptual painters plan their works, in order to express ideas. In contrast, experimental painters work directly—without preparatory...


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