"In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old . . . I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”
A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent."
This made me curious to read more of Mr. Galenson, so I bought his book, "Old Masters and Young Geniuses", in which he attempts to quantify at what age certain artists produce their best work. While he admits that his methods are not iron-clad science, he feels that by collating multiple indices he can show a broad pattern of how experts and the academic community have crowned certain periods of artistic output as better than others. He does this in a variety of ways: by comparing many years of auctions results for works of an artist over the span of his career, by counting the times that certain art works (and their corresponding period from the artist's career) have been included in anthologies, and by counting which period of work is most often included in the collections of the world's greatest museums. If all three sources of data show a similar result, Galenson feels confident that this is because a consensus has been reached about when an artist produced his best work.
Now, I'm no scientist nor economist, but reading this book made me curious about what this process would yield in the photo world. So I found a not-too-dated list of the most expensive photos ever sold and did the simple arithmetic to see how old the artists were when they produced that work. Here is what I found:
- (47) Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001), $3,346,456, February, 2007, Sotheby's London auction. A second print of 99 Cent II Diptychon sold for $2.48 million in November 2006 at a New York gallery, and a third print sold for $2.25 million at Sotheby's in May 2006.
- (25) Edward Steichen, The Pond-Moonlight (1904), $2,928,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
- (55) Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe (Hands) (1919), $1,470,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
- (55) Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe Nude (1919)(55), $1,360,000, February 2006, Sotheby's New York auction.
- (40) Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy) (1989), $1,248,000, November 2005, Christie's New York auction. 
- (38) Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, 113.Athènes, T[emple] de J[upiter] olympien pris de l'est (1842) $922,488, 2003, auction.
- (37) Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sete (1857) $838,000, 1999.
- (41) Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol (1987) $643,200, 2006.
- (46) Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1948) $609,600, Sotheby's New York auction, 2006.
- (42) Andreas Gursky, Untitled 5 (1997), $559,724, 6 February 2002.
Where does this leave me in my ongoing discussion about the emerging artist? It leaves me back at my original thought that age is not a good predictor of artistic merit. One can play a hedge fund game and buy tons of work by young artists and hope that one or two hit it big to fund all the other purchases. But that's just Vegas and ignores why most of us actually enjoy owning art. If we're really honest with ourselves, I think we see that most of the time we don't know who is going to be important and powerful until they're well into their career or even long dead. If Galenson is right -- and I think he is -- and some artists peak young and others peak late, then really the only way to make choices about which artist we want to follow (and maybe buy) is to look, think, and look again. If youth is part of the equation, it will probably be one of the least interesting or significant parts of that equation. "Emerging" is a term that remains mired in the same prejudice that mis-defined the perfect age for the great lyric poets. "Emerging" has no causative effect in great art. It's a financial euphemism not a creative one. As we've been forced to view our finances with renewed sobriety, I hope that we will begin to view this term, too, with the scepticism it deserves.