Don't Worry, There's Still Time for You to Paint Your Masterpiece

Van Gogh's Bedroom
Van Gogh's Bedroom

Einstein once said -- a bit self-servingly -- "A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so." (Einstein was 26 when he proposed the theory of relativity). Well, we know that Einstein got this one wrong: the age of scientists who win Nobel Prizes has gotten increasingly older over time: today, for example, the average age of Nobel Prize winning physicists is 48.

But what about artists? In a new research paper (gated), a Dutch academic (P.H. Franses) determined that artists make their greatest contribution to the artistic world at almost two-thirds of their life expectancy:

An analysis of 189 highest-priced works by as many modern art painters, comparing the moment of creation with their life span of these artists, yielded the remarkable result that the estimated fraction is 0.6198, which indeed is only 0.0018 away from the divine fraction.

In other words, most artists produced their best work when they were "41.92" years old, having lived 62 percent of their lives. Now, we might criticize the study on the basis that "best work = market value." Some artists were "discovered" at the end of their life -- e.g., Rousseau by Picasso -- and others died penniless: Van Gogh, Melville (novelist of course), Vermeer & c. Moreover, art is not necessarily great because it is valued in the marketplace.

There does need to be some measure though, so when Franses writes: "many other measurements (of peak creativity) are possible, but this seems the most objective one" we can probably give him a pass on his measurement. At all events, this might/should be encouraging for the as-yet unrecognized starving artist (or perhaps you have a trust fund). You still have time.

But I want to return, and end with, the non-economic point. Whether you're a fine artist, a dancer or a novelist, I think David Foster Wallace's advice to a young, aspiring writer who had written to him is profoundly right: "This is no cause for despair -- nor is getting published in my opinion . . . Lots of us don't get published -- it doesn't mean we're wasting our time." At the time the young author received the advice, he was disappointed. However:

[David Foster Wallace] was telling me what I already knew but had forgotten over the long years of struggling for acceptance and societal validation, that creation is its own reward, that the project of writing is its own gift, provides its own consolation, which no degree of outward acceptance or rejection can touch, if properly appreciated.

For any artist, this is something to remember, remind others of and take to heart.


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