In a new study published on Monday in Nature Communications, a team of scientists said it had discovered the key to “hot streaks,” or periods of intense and successful artistic productivity. The paper cites Jackson Pollock’s four-year period of intense productivity and success with his drip paintings.
In a previous paper, Dashun Wang and a team of researchers had proven the existence of hot streaks. “In scientific careers, we see that it is in a four to five year period where scientists publish their best work,” he said. “Ninety percent of scientists experience a hot streak, and it usually happens once.”
But one discovery complicated his findings. “There is equal probability that the hot streak could occur in the beginning, middle, or end of a career,” Wang said. “It seemed like a random magical period.” This puzzle set the team on a three-year journey to understand what kinds of conditions precede a hot streak.
To produce its new paper, Wang and his team relied on artificial intelligence to track the kinds of outputs artists, filmmakers, and scientists made in the period leading up to a hot streak. In particular, they were looking to see if exploration or exploitation best predicted periods of peak creativity. For the researchers, exploitation meant focusing on a narrow range of subjects or style, not abuse of some kind.
The researchers’ specially designed AI was able to consider the evolution of an artist’s art style over time. It was exposed to 800,000 images culled from museum and gallery collections that represent the careers of 2,128 artists. If the AI detected a lot of variety in style this was termed as a period of exploration, or if the AI detected little variety, it was a period of exploitation. An artist’s hot streak was identified by examining which period of time resulted in the artist’s most expensive works.
The scientists found that neither exploration nor exploitation on its own could significantly predict a hot streak, writing, “Not all explorations are fruitful, and exploitation in the absence of promising new ideas may not be as productive.”
On the other hand, the researchers did find that a sequence of exploration followed by exploitation could predict hot streaks in the careers of not only artists but filmmakers and scientists too. The researchers cited Jackson Pollock as an example in the paper, saying that the Abstract Expressionist’s hot streak took place between 1946 and 1950, when he produced some of the drip paintings for which he is best known. For Pollock, this era was a time of intense focus on a very specific style, and this, the researchers said, preceded by a good deal of experimentation.
“We searched for an answer for three years,” Wang says. “I was surprised the answer was this simple. But the best kind of results are the results that are so obvious once you know the answer.”