IMAGE:  April 2003  GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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Unexpected Expertise  
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Survival of the Richest
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Clouding the Issues

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Unexpected Expertise

Dan Dry


David Galenson Poetic Values

Labor economist David Galenson, in regulation jacket and tie, excitedly paraphrases a correspondence between Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. “Frost wrote to Eliot, ‘Your problem is that you speak 23 languages but you know nothing about the world.’ And Eliot’s response was, ‘Your problem is that you’re stupid.’”

The poets’ exchange reveals the dichotomy the economics professor has discovered after five years of studying the creative process. In all intellectual pursuits, Galenson posits, there are two models: experimental and conceptual innovators, or seekers and finders. Frost was a seeker; Eliot a finder—and no wonder they couldn’t see eye to eye. The T. S. Eliots of the world take giant leaps into the unknown, radicalizing their disciplines and creating individual masterpieces. Yet they do their best work at a young age, and it’s mostly downhill from there. The Robert Frosts, meanwhile, are “kind of fuzzy,” says Galenson, “going about their work with trial and error.” They experiment, improving with age.

IMAGE:  David Galenson

Galenson, who’s spent his career studying the productivity of immigrants, slaves, and indentured servants, laid out this creativity framework in his book Painting outside the Lines (Harvard, 2001). He determined the “value” of artists (in this case, 20th-century painters) by the prices their works fetched at public auctions and how frequently they appeared in museum exhibitions and art-history texts. Then he charted the artists’ ages when they created the works with the highest values. Pablo Picasso’s early works earned the highest prices, so he falls in with Eliot as a finder. The values of Paul Cézanne’s late works show he was a seeker like Frost.

IMAGE:  David GalensonGalenson’s analysis led the National Science Foundation to fund his current study of the creative life cycles of Nobel economists (among Chicago’s laureates Gary Becker, AM’53, PhD’55, is a finder, Theodore Schultz a seeker). But Galenson can’t pull himself away from the humanists: his work on writers—digesting their letters and diaries and tracking their works’ appearances in anthologies and literary criticism—he does on the side, with the help of a hired poet.


Select an expert:

Riccardo Levi-Setti - Trilobites

Richard Epstein - Parking and Property

Mary Anne Case - Toilet Inequities

Roman Weil - Vintage Wine

Robert Grant - Sunken Submarines

David Galenson - Poetic Values

John Milton - Poise and Noise



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