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There is a phenomenon when an artist cannot create to the level of his earlier work or another artist's work. He is often compared to the earlier work and can't move beyond the achievement of this work. Is there a word (or a few words) to describe when this occurs?

Some examples could be:

Mike Nichols was never able to make another film that measured up to The Graduate. All works afterwards paled in comparison.

Italian literature has never been able to escape the specter of Dante's Divine Comedy; all authors have had to react to this magnum opus in their own way and reflect it -- or deny it wholeheartedly -- in their work.

Woody Allen's critics often refer to 'his earlier, funnier work'; in their minds, his later dramatic works don't always measure up.

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(insert George Lucas joke here) – JeffSahol May 30 '11 at 23:52
In some contexts, "jumping the shark" is the moment which defines this downturn. – BBischof May 31 '11 at 0:02
@BBischof: I forgot about that. Isn't it a reference to the downturn that Happy Days took after Fonzie jumped his motorcycle over a shark tank? – gbutters May 31 '11 at 0:13
@BBischof, Happy Days was apparently number one for six years after Fonzie jumped the shark, so it could hardly be the moment of downturn, at least not by any objective measure. @gbutters, he did it on water skies. – Sam May 31 '11 at 4:18
This immediately reminded me of this TVTropes article. – Jon Purdy May 31 '11 at 5:14

10 Answers 10

up vote 8 down vote accepted

You can say an artist is past his prime.

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An unkind way to put this is to refer to that person as a "has been"; this means the person was once something special but no longer is. A kinder way is to say that the artist has "peaked" (or specify a high point, e.g., "Mike Nichols peaked with The Graduate").

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Often the earlier success is indirectly, if not directly responsible for the later failures, by way of higher expectations, less oversight (thinking they know what they're doing), and often inflated egos. – Sam May 31 '11 at 4:21

As noted by yourself, "measure up" is the phrase which defines when an artist does not create a work at the level of his previous work.


"Quentin's latest work did not measure up to his previous: The Antique"

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Other related expressions are: "One-hit wonder" - a performer or act, usually a singer or band, who has just one popular success. "One-trick pony" - a person having a single accomplishment.

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A more recent largely Internet based colloquial expression would be "He's jumped the shark". (Etymology: The sitcom Happy Days is largely regarded as having lost most or all of it's meritorious quality by the episode in which the Fonz waterskis over a shark.)

You could also say that the artist is "overshadowed by his previous work".

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+1 for overshadowed. – gbutters May 31 '11 at 15:09

A related word to describe a second appearance that doesn't live up to the first is called a

sophomore slump

(I had proposed 'sophomore effort' but that doesn't seem to be either positive or negative.)

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I'm pretty sure that a 'sophomore effort' does not imply a work of lesser value: "Adj. of or being a second effort or second version: Their sophomore album was even better than their first." – gbutters May 31 '11 at 14:50
@gbutters: yes, you seem to be right. 'sophomore slump' looks like what I really was thinking of. Which I'll edit in. – Mitch May 31 '11 at 15:29
+1 sophomore slump (I also found 'sophomore jinx') I had never heard the term before. – gbutters May 31 '11 at 22:33

Some more candidates, depending on context and genre:

  • petered out
  • fizzled out
  • burned out
  • ran out of steam
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...failed to surpass...

I've looked for antonyms for surpass or exceed, but cannot find any.

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Try underperform


To exhibit a level of performance that is below the standard: Defense industry companies have underperformed during the last two quarters

or even underachieve


  1. To achieve less than expected; to fail to fulfil one's potential.

you would then have an underachievement

–noun 1. An achievement that is less than expected; underperformance.

or an underperformance

–noun 1. The state or quality of underperforming

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This is such a commonplace in music that it's a cliché to refer to the "difficult second album" after a promising start.

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