Cross–disciplinary course delves into the patterns of creative production

As a student of art history, third–year Ainsley Sutherland is learning how to interpret the accomplishments of painters and sculptors from the perspective of their aesthetic contributions, but she also is intrigued by the social structures that encourage creativity.

To satisfy that curiosity, she took a seminar titled “Creativity,” co–taught by an economist and a lecturer in English. Offered in Economics and in English Language and Literature, the seminar crosses the boundaries of those quite different disciplines.

The basis of the course is the work of David Galenson, Professor in Economics, who looks at artists’ routes to creative breakthroughs and how the market for artistic innovation has emerged. In August, Galenson will teach a version of the class at the Universidad de CEMA in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he will help launch the Center for Creativity Economics, for which he will be the first academic director.

“I don’t think that this course is so much about appreciation of art as it is about understanding types of innovation, and looking at patterns in creative production,” Sutherland said. “Looking at art making as an innovative practice is helpful for me in understanding possible explanations for the prevalence of young artists who work in a wide variety of media, in contemporary art and art of the last century.”

Jorgen Harris, a fourth–year economics student, came to the class from another perspective through his work with George Tolley, Professor Emeritus in Economics. Tolley is looking at differences in technological advancement across China’s regions.

“Any issue based on fostering innovation and technological growth is enriched by an understanding of what experimental and conceptual innovators need in order to produce their innovations,” Harris said.

Research can help provide insights into how different kinds of innovations emerge in developing countries and why innovators from smaller communities move to large cities, creating a “brain drain,” he said.

“Conceptual innovators, who draw their inspiration from previous work in their discipline and tend to make their most important contributions at relatively young ages, may need to be able to emigrate in order to get access to the best work in their desired discipline,” said Harris.

For Harris, Sutherland, and the other nine students in the class, the conversations and lectures provide an understanding of economics that helps them learn more about other products of creativity, such as literature and poetry.

Galenson has been a pioneer in studying creativity through the lens of maturity. By looking at the prices paid for art and metrics such as the number of references that textbooks made to particular paintings, he discovered emerging patterns that art historians had not noticed. The artists whom Galenson calls conceptual innovators do their best work while they are young, while other artists produce their best work as they mature and continue to be engaged in the same topics throughout their lives. He labels this second group experimental artists.

Picasso, who was a conceptual innovator, painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a seminal work of Cubism at age 26. Cezanne, on the other hand, was an experimental artist who painted the same mountain in southern France his entire life, leaving a legacy that had a huge influence on modern art.

Galenson explained how the concept applies to literature in a class discussion of American novelists Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. Although the students were familiar with the authors, Galenson in his lectures points out something new.

“Many people consider Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be one of the great novels of American literature. And yet, Twain ends it uncompleted, telling the reader that he has something more to say about the story. But he never does. That is one of the signatures of an experimental artist. He can’t quite finish anything.”

Hemmingway, by contrast, wrote his best work, The Sun Also Rises, at age 27 and developed his writing style early in his career.

Galenson’s co–teacher, Joshua Kotin, Lecturer in the Humanities Collegiate Division, said he wants students to understand the authors from the perspective of their work as innovators. “My main role in the class is to help students learn the qualitative aspects of appreciating the great influential artworks and texts. I want them to better understand the development of artists’ and writers’ careers, and how one generation of innovators influences the next.

“I think the students gain a great deal from this interdisciplinary approach. They get to use a range of tools to investigate the contributions of important artists and learn how to make their findings relevant to people from a wide range of departments at the University.

The students also learn to do empirical work, accumulating data, not necessarily to prove a point, but to discover what questions should be asked,” Kotin said. By counting both positive and negative references to the work of an important author, for instance, the students can track that author’s influence.

Galenson said he learned a great deal from the students in the class, who wrote papers on artists they researched. “One of the papers was on Gabriel Garc'ia Márquez, one of Latin America’s most influential novelists, somebody I didn’t know much about,” Galenson said.

The student was able to show how Márquez, whose books include Love in the Time of Cholera, came from an underprivileged background and used his experiences to become a great conceptual writer.

“I had thought we would get some very orthodox kinds of papers, but what we got was extremely creative, and I think some of the papers are publishable,” Galenson said.

—William Harms