Data show formula for artistic success: Creative exploration followed by exploitation

Data show formula for artistic success: Creative exploration followed by exploitation
Researchers used algorithms to analyze 800,000 visual arts images covering the careers of 2,128 artists to determine how they hit their defining "hot streaks," including Van Gogh, as illustrated by a saliency map visualizing pixels the systems used to predict his career trajectory. Photo courtesy of Northwestern University

Sept. 13 (UPI) -- The careers and legacies of successful artists are often defined by relatively short periods of intense productivity and popularity.

Now, new research -- published Monday in the journal Nature Communications -- suggests these breakthroughs follow a relatively common formula: creative exploration followed by exploitation.


Jackson Pollock, one of modern art's most famous painters, produced the majority of his iconic works during three-year period from 1947 to 1950. Prior to his "hot streak," Pollock experimented with a variety of styles of subject matter, first drawing and later painting humans, animals and nature.

It was only after years of experimentation that he began flinging drips of paint at a canvas. After his splattered masterpieces started making waves in the art world, Pollock doubled down on the technique, what researchers call "exploitation," producing a series of high-impact works.

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When data scientists at Northwestern University used algorithms to analyze the trajectories of dozens of successful artists, they found the formula was ubiquitous.

The early careers of successful artists are regularly defined by experimentation with a diverse array of styles, mediums and topics, followed by years of exploitation, an approach characterized by a narrow focus and deep expertise.

"Neither exploration nor exploitation alone in isolation is associated with a hot streak. It's the sequence of them together. Although exploration is considered a risk because it might not lead anywhere, it increases the likelihood of stumbling upon a great idea," lead study author Dashun Wang said in a press release.

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By contrast, exploitation is typically viewed as a conservative strategy. If you exploit the same type of work over and over for a long period of time, it might stifle creativity. But, interestingly, exploration followed by exploitation appears to show consistent associations with the onset of hot streaks," said Wang, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering.

Wang conducted research published in 2018 demonstrating the reality of artistic "hot streaks." Afterwards, Wang wanted to find out what triggered these periods of creative productivity.

Like Pollock, Van Gogh's legacy was cemented by a "hot streak." The majority of his most impactful works, including Starry Night, Sunflowers and Bedroom in Arles, were painted between 1888 and 1890.

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Prior to his breakthrough, Van Gogh's color palette was earthier and his style was less impressionistic.

"If you look at his production before 1888, it was all over the place," Wang said. "It was full of still-life paintings, pencil drawings and portraits that are much different in character from the work he created during his hot streak."

For this study, Wang and his colleagues used data analytics to identify patterns among production patterns of artists, film directors and scientists.

Researchers used their novel algorithms to survey 800,000 visual arts images from museums and galleries -- works produced by more than 2,000 different artists. Researchers also sourced data on thousands of movies and movie directors from the Internet Movie Database, or IMDB.

Additionally, researchers looked at the career histories of some 20,000 scientists using publication and citation information from the Web of Science and Google Scholar.

The data showed that when periods of exploration or experimentation aren't immediately followed by a period of exploitation, the odds of a hot streak become significantly diminished.

Likewise, when exploitation isn't preceded by exploration, a hot streak remains unlikely. However, when exploration begets exploitation, the chances of a hot streak increase.

"We were able to identify among the first regularities underlying the onset of hot streaks, which appears universal across diverse creative domains," said Wang, who is also director of the Center for Science and Science Innovation and a core member of the Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems.


"Our findings suggest that creative strategies that balance experimentation with implementation may be especially powerful," Wang said.

On average, hot streaks last five years. After achieving a hot streak, artists and scientists tend to return to a more variable work pattern -- defined by neither exploration or exploitation.

"This knowledge can help individuals and organizations understand the different types of activities to engage in -- such as exploring new domains or exploiting existing knowledge and competencies -- and the optimal sequence to use in order to achieve the most significant impact," said study co-author Jillian Chown, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.

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