Clashing Styles in Making Art and Decisions: Toward a Philosophy of Complementarity

By McKinney, Ronald H. | Philosophy Today, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Clashing Styles in Making Art and Decisions: Toward a Philosophy of Complementarity


McKinney, Ronald H., Philosophy Today


In David Galenson's recent study of the life cycles of artistic creativity, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, he argues that there are two distinctive and conflicting styles, experimental and conceptual innovation.1

He demonstrates the existence of these different approaches in the fields of painting, sculpture, poetry, the novel, and film. Moreover, he claims that this fundamental contrast underlies "the general characteristics of most, if not all, intellectual activities."21 want to help substantiate this bold claim by providing here a critical survey of some of the scholarship that has been conducted regarding the crucial intellectual activity of decision making. I hope to show that Galenson's theory does make its own original contribution to our understanding of this analogous human enterprise. However, I want also to reveal a fundamental weakness in Galenson's theory of creativity, one that is corrected in M. J. Kirton's theory regarding the adaptation and innovation of evolving dynamic systems.

It should come as no surprise that people often believe that different "styles" are mutually exclusive, that they must repeatedly choose between two competing paradigms in every facet of their lives. Consequently, our study requires that we contribute to the development of a philosophy of complementarity. Indeed, the question of just how two apparently contrary polarities can co-exist may well be the central philosophical question of our century.

'Old Masters and Young Geniuses"

If Cezanne is Galenson's model for the experimental innovator, then Picasso is his paradigm for the conceptual innovator in art.3 Experimentalists prefer visual perceptions, imprecise, incremental, and tentative goals and procedures. They rarely make preparatory sketches or outlines, see themselves as ever searching for something more, and, as a result, are frustrated perfectionists. They avoid theoretical propositions about art and distrust dogmatic sets of rules. They respect the difficulty and rich complexity of human experience. Indeed, the process of making art is always unpredictable and surprising for them. Their decision to consider a work as finished is thus always a bit arbitrary and provisional.

Conceptualists, on the other hand, always have precise goals of communicating new ideas and emotions. They make detailed preparatory sketches and plans and thus, for them, art is more in the a priori idea than the mechanical or deductive execution of it. They are always trying to illuminate human experience by simplifying it and, after each discovery, move on to some unrelated insight for their next project. They express what they think far more than what they see and so are comfortable with following systematic rules. Their vision is far more certain and apodictic than that of experimentalists, and thus they know precisely when a work of art is finished.

It would be a mistake to infer that Experimentalists are more into representational art and Conceptualists into abstract art, even though Galenson does talk about the more "realistic" art of Experimental novelists and the avoidance of "linear narrative" by Conceptual filmmakers.4 Moreover, he also talks about the difference between conceiving of "art as an abstraction" versus art as the copying of nature.5 However, it is also true that abstract expressionists are Experimentalists, according to Galenson, and few would dispute today that our chaotic experience might well be represented as non-linear in order to be considered "realistic." I would also add, though Galenson does not make this point, that one should not suppose either style to be committed exclusively to a conservative or progressive orientation. In fact, the content or subject matter of an artist's vision is irrelevant. Rather, the key to Galenson's distinction is in the methodological process by which these different artists create their works of art. Conceptualists wish for more control over their created worlds, while Experimentalists are far more willing to improvise as they go along. …

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