Quantity vs. Quality

I’m not a huge fan of art museums, as a rule. If I have a free day, I usually prefer to be outside. But there are a few artists and museums that have moved me. Most notable among them, is the Picasso museum in Barcelona, a city where I lived for three years. It’s the only museum that I have ever encouraged other people to go see.

I’m not an artist, and so when someone tells me that an artist is a genius, I take them at their word, or I simply don’t understand that means or why that’s true.

The Picasso museum in Barcelona, however, tells a simple story that anyone can understand that explains why Picasso is a genius.

The first part of the story is the extraordinary quality of his early work. As a 14-year-old boy, he was already creating near-perfect representational art. Before going to this museum, I had always known him as a cubist or experimental artist. But long before he pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be an artist, he was already doing the traditional art, and doing it very well.

Room by room, you see his growth. From someone who painted art you could imagine on a hotel-room wall, to paintings that have now changed what we think of as art.

If you were to just look at his later cubist or exploratory paintings, it might not be obvious to a non-expert why he was so great. But to see him do the traditional art, and then push its boundaries in hundreds of different ways, it was apparent how much he was capable of doing.

And not only was it obvious how much he was capable of doing, but it was immediately clear how much he actually did.

I recently read that Picasso left behind 45,000 pieces of art. If you do the math, that’s more than one art work a day every day for more than 123 years. Every day, his entire life, and then some, he created a work of art.

The myth of the lonely, brooding artist waiting for inspiration to strike is just that: A myth. Picasso was the ultimate craftsman, who worked constantly on his art from his early youth until he died.

Which brings us to the title of this article, quantity vs. quality. Picasso is is among the greatest artists of all time. That genius was borne of years of dedication and output. Not only did he create better art, but he created more of it.

I remember thinking to myself the first time I left the museum, “is the reason that Picasso became such a great artist, simply that he created more art than anyone else?”

I don’t think the relationship is quite so linear as that. But I do think there is a correlation. You may have heard of the 10,000-hour rule, and perhaps you’ve read those who have criticized the theory.

Suffice it to say that in most domains, constant incremental improvement is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition to achieving extraordinary results. Or, stated another way, years of practice might not guarantee that you become a world-renown artist, but it is unlikely that you will become a world-renown artist without years of practice.

And very often, like in the case of Picasso, the story of genius is every bit a story of quantity and quality. Where the one who does it the most is also the one who does it the best.