Monday, November 17, 2008

Supporting Genius: Malcom Gladwell on Late Bloomers

Malcolm Gladwell writes about artistic late bloomers in a recent New Yorker: Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?

I enjoyed the article-- it's always inspiring to think that I might not be too old to actually accomplish something! Most of the article contrasts Ben Fountain, a writer who plugged away for decades trying to achieve recognition and commercial success, and Jonathan Safran Foer, who hit it big with his first novel at a very young age. They had completely different approaches to writing, and completely different inspirations. They also present very different views of the financial side of being a writer.
The late bloomer Ben Fountain was only able to quit his job as a lawyer to spend years writing little-known short stories because his wife supported him, which we don't learn until the second to last page of the article. She was also a lawyer, so they could afford to have him become a stay-at-home dad who could write while the kids were in day care or at school:


“When Ben first did this, we talked about the fact that it might not work, and we talked about, generally, ‘When will we know that it really isn’t working?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, give it ten years,’ ” [his wife] Sharie recalled. To her, ten years didn’t seem unreasonable. “It takes a while to decide whether you like something or not,” she says. And when ten years became twelve and then fourteen and then sixteen, and the kids were off in high school, she stood by him, because, even during that long stretch when Ben had nothing published at all, she was confident that he was getting better....

“I was making pretty decent money, and we didn’t need two incomes,” Sharie went on. She has a calm, unflappable quality about her. “I mean, it would have been nice, but we could live on one.”

Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also—to borrow a term from long ago—his patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.


Gladwell goes on to compare this story to that of the artist Cezanne, who was encouraged in his early career by his friend the write Emile Zola, often in letters such as this one:
You ask me an odd question. Of course one can work here, as anywhere else, if one has the will. Paris offers, further, an advantage you can’t find elsewhere: the museums in which you can study the old masters from 11 to 4. This is how you must divide your time. From 6 to 11 you go to a studio to paint from a live model; you have lunch, then from 12 to 4 you copy, in the Louvre or the Luxembourg, whatever masterpiece you like. That will make up nine hours of work. I think that ought to be enough.

Zola goes on, detailing exactly how Cézanne could manage financially on a monthly stipend of a hundred and twenty-five francs:

I’ll reckon out for you what you should spend. A room at 20 francs a month; lunch at 18 sous and dinner at 22, which makes two francs a day, or 60 francs a month. . . . Then you have the studio to pay for: the Atelier Suisse, one of the least expensive, charges, I think, 10 francs. Add 10 francs for canvas, brushes, colors; that makes 100. So you’ll have 25 francs left for laundry, light, the thousand little needs that turn up.

I loved that little glimpse into the finances of a 19th century artist in Paris!

Ultimately, the message of the article is that artistic talent often needs to be nurtured by the financial support of others, as well as their patience:
We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.“Sharie never once brought up money, not once—never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for “Brief Encounters” belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”


7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I think it also implies the "others" have to be earning more than they need and spend. I can't imagine anybody earning minimum wage supporting a late bloomer.

What about those people who use debt (specifically credit card debt) to finance their business ventures? Should it matter where the financial support comes from as long as after the blooming period and the wealth sprouts, a person can pay off all debt? I have a dream and since I neither have a supportive well to do significant other nor can I tap my home equity, I've been toying with the idea of using credit cards.

Miss M said...

I can relate to the story, Mr M would like to devote his life to art. The problem is I can't support both of us, I told him he would have been better off with a rich patron of a wife who could give him a studio and supplies and tell him to go make himself happy. Sadly most artistic endeavors don't pay off during the artists lifetime.

Ash said...

It's a touching article and quite relevant for me. Not that I would be a patron, but I'm thinking of turning to the arts a bit. Working part-time as an accountant, I'd be my own patron. But for late bloomers, or even dabblers, support is paramount.

SandyVoice said...

Dear Anonymous:

Please don't try to live on your credit cards. I used mine to pay my daily expenses for a while, trying to establish myself in the arts, so I can tell you from experience that it's a really bad idea. Unless you hit it very big, and pretty much right away, you will be left with huge credit card bills and no way to pay them off. That kind of stress stifles the soul, and makes artistic expression almost impossible.

If you can find someone to support you, or help support you, without requiring something back that you don't want to give, great; that's what patrons are for. If you can find a job that pays enough money to get by, and that gives you the flexibility you need, wonderful; let your employer be your patron. But don't try to live on your credit cards. Art is hard enough without the extra burden of debt.

SandyVoice said...

Dear Anonymous:

Please don't try to live on your credit cards. I used mine to pay my daily expenses for a while, trying to establish myself in the arts, so I can tell you from experience that it's a really bad idea. Unless you hit it very big, and pretty much right away, you will be left with huge credit card bills and no way to pay them off. That kind of stress stifles the soul, and makes artistic expression almost impossible.

If you can find someone to support you, or help support you, without requiring something back that you don't want to give, great; that's what patrons are for. If you can find a job that pays enough money to get by, and that gives you the flexibility you need, wonderful; let your employer be your patron. But don't try to live on your credit cards. Art is hard enough without the extra burden of debt.

SandyVoice said...

Sorry about that! I don't know why my comment came through twice. I would love to think that reading them twice would be twice as helpful, but even I am not that egotistical!

Anonymous said...

Malcolm Gladwell has also wrote the bestselling book Blink. I recommend it. He's a wonderful storyteller.