Two Different Paths, One Long Road to Mastery

What is mastery? [Illustrations by Haruka Aoki]

Genius is an ephemeral idea. But generally people think of a gifted person who bursts onto a scene and rethinks everything we’d previously known about the topic.

People like Quentin Tarantino, a video store clerk whose first movie spawned an entire sub-genre of American filmmaking. Or Stephen Curry whose three-point shooting has revolutionized basketball’s approach to defense, ball movement, and almost all aspects of the game.

People like Tarantino and Curry possess an almost supernatural ability, and while almost everyone wants to be a part of that rarified group, for most it seems a desperate ideal.These people are known in academia as “the naturals.”

Luckily, there’s another group of genius, one whose journey is albeit much longer and tortured. They are what Dr. Galenson, the author of Old Masters and Young Geniuses, describes as “the experimentalists”.

The Experimentalist

(How does an artist end up here?)

On February 18th, 2016, Alejandro Iñárritu, the director of The Revenant, completed a feat rarely seen in cinema: he won his second Academy Award for Best Director and became only the third person to win the award in consecutive years.

From a distance, Alejandro would appear to be a natural, someone who was born with the gift of filmmaking. Yet a closer look shows a tinkerer, an experimentalist, a person who’d painstakingly struggled to unlock his own genius.

Iñárritu wasn’t making films as a child like Spielberg or working in a video store like Tarantino. In fact, his story didn’t even start in film. His first real job came as the host of a rock radio station in Mexico. Iñárritu was already thinking about narrative, though — he used to piece together rock songs that would “form a loose narrative arc.”

The Finder and the Seeker

Galenson describes the process of the natural genius as “finding rather than seeking.” The natural has an idea that they’ve set out and are fixated on. The artistic process for a natural involves bringing to life a preconceived notion. Perhaps the most iconic example would be Picasso.

The story goes that, at the age of 13, Pablo’s father, a professor of fine arts, realized Pablo had already surpassed his skill and thus retired from painting. By the age of 28, Pablo overturned the art world with his dynamic personality and through his invention of cubism, an impressive resume for someone not even 30.

Iñárritu is no Picasso, though, because Iñárritu’s process is radically different. Iñárritu and other experimentalists don’t come onto the scene with a predefined vision. Their process is much more fluid and takes far longer. Galenson describes it as the experimentalists seeking inspiration, always chasing a forever moving landscape. Trial and error creates their genius.

The Long Road

By 37, Iñárritu hadn’t even made his first feature film. He’d toiled away in the 90s making short films and commercials in Mexico. Most people today would see that as the story of a failure or someone simply destined for mediocrity. Today we’re so overexposed to naturals, or people who pretend to be, that success later in life is perceived as a heavy compromise.

Through these menial jobs, Alejandro picked up subtle tips. From his work as a DJ he learned about sound and narrative. To this day he credits music as being a larger influence on him as an artist than film itself. Through his work directing commercials, he picked up his writing partner, Guillermo Arriaga. They would later collaborate on his first three films.

“The only reason I do [filmmaking] is because I’m a very bad musician” -Alejandro

We can see the elements of an experimentalist coming together. Someone who dabbled, and was slowly crafting his style. But even by the time he created his first film Amores Perros in 2000, he was still truly at the beginning of his journey.

The experimentalist must walk a long road. Although a cliché, perseverance often separates them from ordinary artists and performers. For ten years before his first film, Iñárritu made small largely unseen productions. If his perseverance hadn’t been so fervent, he would likely still be in his home country making small productions.

Crafting a Style

Amores Perros

Iñárritu’s early films, including Amores Perros, are known as “hyperlink cinema,” a term popularized by Roger Ebert, whose main conceit is that the story is multilinear with characters intersecting and perspectives overlapping. Think of the movie Crash but much better. Iñárritu perfected that style over three films in six years.

Like any good experimentalist, he grew in scale and ambition through the three movies. While his first movie was very localized and small, by Babel, his third film, he was spanning continents through the scope of his storytelling.

Similar to many experimentalists, Iñárritu’s goal is always shifting. In his later movies we can see a divergence toward first-person storytelling and folklore.

But even in his latest films, Birdman and The Revenant, he still relies on music setting the tone and being a character within the film. Without the tinkering Iñárritu did in his early days as a DJ crafting narrative music, we wouldn’t have the operatic music of The Revenant or the eclectic jazz that sets the tone of Birdman.

In case you haven’t watched all of Iñárritu’s work, I suggest you close this article and turn on any one of them.

Quantifying the Two Types

As we discussed earlier,an experimentalist’s trial-and-error process leads them to peak much later than the naturalist. Glenson quantified this by looking at perhaps two of the most important painters of the 20th century, Cézanne and Picasso. Glenson looked at their artwork and different periods in their life to see how much the art sold for.

Picasso’s Art and Selling Point during His Life

Picasso’s highest selling artwork is clearly early on

The delineation is clear. With Picasso we can see that his highest selling artwork came around ages 26–30. He faces a sharp drop off later in life as he focused on sculptures and imitations of older great painters.

Cézanne’s Art and Selling Point during His Life

Cézanne’s age versus average price of piece sold

Cézanne, we see the opposite trend. His artwork shows two peaks: one in his forties and another later in life in his sixties. These periods mark when Cézanne focused on his impressionist artwork and the end of his life work, which is said to have inspired cubism and Picasso.

The Paperback Genius

If we left off here, the experimentalist doesn’t sound like they’ve had too rough a journey. Someone who goes through a trial-and-error process and are able to unleash their genius.

They don’t have a clearly defined vision at the onset, but who wouldn’t want to sign up for this if, at the end of the road, there were two Oscars waiting for you?

But the pain of the experimentalist extends beyond years of toiling away at their art. There are evident drawbacks of the experimentalist. The primary being stubbornness.

For someone who’s committed to their art for many years with little success, stubbornness is often a necessity. What distinguishes a middle-aged experimentalist from the ordinary is often the unwavering commitment to a vision or an ideal.

Iñárritu on a highway in Japan, arguing to get approved for a shot.

People who’ve worked with Alejandro Iñárritu have often cited his genius, but his stubbornness is also evident. I recall watching a behind-the-scenes video of Iñárritu making Babel. It was amazing to learn that for a mundane shot of traffic that only appeared for a few moments in Babel, he was willing to get into a prolonged fight with the Japanese police.

Alejandro was willing to stop traffic for hours for a few moments of film. In a time when collaboration, “good feelings,” and agreeableness are valued over independent thought, it’s refreshing to watch someone with such an independent streak.

“Maestro from afar, ordinary up close”

Along with the difficult personality, we often see that the experimentalist is frequently undervalued. They don’t have quite the gusto or striking vision that the naturalist possesses and, up close, they can appear middle-aged and normal. It’s not just society that undervalues their contributions; they often undervalue themselves.

Being perfectionists, they often struggle with leaving a project alone or accepting it as is. Cézanne was known to throw out his own art or leave it on the lawn. He was often so dissatisfied with it that people wouldn’t see his finished pieces for years. Luckily for us, Iñárritu doesn’t have quite the same problem.

In our culture of immediacy and social media, it would appear that the experimentalist is a fading idea. Who has time to wait fifteen-plus years to achieve success when a YouTube star appears every day? But there’s never been a time like the present when we so desperately need this type of mastery.

We need artists who are stubborn and persistent, people willing to put in the time for mastery. The experimentalist certainly has a more arduous road, but it’s fulfilling in its own right and a necessity for the culture.

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