Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oh, The Places You'll Go

The New York Times has a review of Nicholas Delbanco's new book, “Lastingness: The Art of Old Age,” that explores the question:
Why do some artists ... mature early and then run out of steam, producing only second-rank work in their last decades, while others gain momentum and occasionally even peak in old age?
Even as a child of 7, I understood that old age would reveal wondrous secrets held back from youth. It was mostly the effortless way my grandparents or other older people could connect the dots between things in the world around us. "It's going to be a fast, violent thunderstorm. You can tell by the way the wind is turning the leaves on the trees." Such simple revelations seemed like pure magic to me as a kid, as if the curtain cloaking all the mysteries of the universe was momentarily pulled back for me.

Upon first understanding this, I wanted to know all such things myself. But somehow I knew it took time...decades...possibly several of them...before one could master such magic. Not that I didn't try to accelerate the process. I practiced acting like my grandfather as a child and (now I realize) well into my early adulthood. From mimicking the groaning noises he made when he rose from a chair when I was 7 to dressing in pastel cardigans and vintage sharkskin jackets while in college, I was emulating him, because I couldn't wait to be like him...to be myself the keeper of such marvelous secrets.

OK, so thanks for humoring my trip down memory lane, but the question Delbanco's book reportedly raises is why some artists seem to tap into rich veins as they mature and others do not. Perhaps it hinges on whether an artist finds their way to what Delbanco sees as the dividing realization. From the NYTimes review by Brooke Allen:
In youth, [Delbanco] posits, “it’s the reception of the piece and not its production that counts. But to the aging writer, painter or musician the process can signify more than result; it no longer seems as important that the work be sold.” It is a profound observation; with time and age, the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward.
This follows nicely from yesterday's post on The Woodmans, in which we see Betty and George Woodman speak about the overriding importance of being in their studios, making their work, as opposed to their daughter Francesca who seemed to become depressed that there weren't more opportunities to show her work and receive the acclaim she felt she had earned.

I have noticed among some of the artists I know what is best perhaps termed a "clarity" that came to them later in life. This clarity is something they are positively delighted about, both in how it is reflected in their work and how it guides them in their practice. In Allen's review of the book, a wonderful metaphor for this is provided, via Yeats:
The question of “old-age art” is mysterious and perennially fascinating. Creative artists who continue to work late in life so often seem to undergo a sea change: a distillation, a new intensity, a sloughing off of excess and ornament in favor of deep essentials. W. B. Yeats, himself a notable example of the phenomenon, provided an image for it: “Though leaves are many, the root is one; / Through all the lying days of my youth / I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun; / Now I may wither into the truth.”
Of course, there do exist prodigies or simply smart young people among us, and what they see should not to be minimized. I'm not at all in the camp of people who feel artists have to be old to be important. I do think, though, that those who peak early should consider turning ever more toward their practice rather than seeking more and more attention, if they wish to remain important.

Labels: art making


Blogger Tatiana said...

Turtle and the hare. Peaking early is yes, great...but continually plugging along not only SHOWS tenacity, but is also a learning experience in and of itself...if one has the patience. Most dont. If you take the turtle route - continuing to hone, continuing to learn and develop, I cant imagine anything but a positive outcome - be it in your middle or late age.

1/25/2011 09:57:00 AM  
Anonymous jr said...


I read this a few years ago and I think back to it every time I feel that I've somehow missed my opportunity. It reminds me that I still have a chance and that I just need to be diligent.

Some people peak early in life, some people peak later in life. It's not right or wrong and both are important for progress to continue.

1/25/2011 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Nina Ulana said...

"It's going to be a fast, violent thunderstorm. You can tell by the way the wind is turning the leaves on the trees." --- I love that!

1/25/2011 10:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Laura Isaac said...

My husband & I have talked about this topic in our respective fields many times. He's a jazz musician & I make art. We've talked about how there's the general feeling that people don't really expect you to hit your stride in these areas until later in life. (A huge contrast to the 12 year old pop stars and 18 year old actors.) Though there has been increasing pressure for some to find the "hot new talent" it's no where near the level of pressure found in other arts fields. This lets us relax and concentrate on our practice. And we both consider our work practice. Any pressure we feel comes from within & needing to feed our children.

I, for one, can only hope to be working in my studio up until I keel over in my ink. (Which I also hope won't be anytime soon.)

1/25/2011 10:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog is becoming one of my favorite things to read. This line of discussion is so much more meaningful than obsessing over, say, the imperative of having an MFA (not that there's anything wrong with that). Reading today's entry, alongside yesterday's entry re: The Woodmans, for me, feels nourishing.

Not unrelated, I stumbled upon this the other day:

1/25/2011 10:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Cathy said...

I appreciate this post very much. Here's something I read a few weeks ago pertaining to old, female artists that I enjoyed as well: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/945ee902-07ce-11e0-8138-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1C3xXLPeF

1/25/2011 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Saskia said...

It's been shown many times over that people who seem to be prodigious in their youth actually have a great deal more experience, exposure, and work put into the subject at hand than other people their same age.
Actually, I've been thinking about this subject since the latest MFA thread. I remember when I showed up for my first day of art school, there were the kids who had come from art magnet schools or taken art classes & summer programs at prestigious art schools in their youth, grown up going to great museums and gallery openings. Of course these kids seemed way ahead of the curve compared to the kids who came from more 'normal' backgrounds.

But however awesome having those experience early can be, it teaches you nothing about how to sustain a practice and continue to maintain curiosity & growth for a lifetime-- those people won't necessarily even finish the race.

Putting too much emphasis on outside attention is an easy trap for artists to fall into but it will never sustain you for the long haul. Some artists are able to remain good in spite of early attention, but rarely because of it.

1/25/2011 11:09:00 AM  
Anonymous pamela holmes said...

I appreciate your thoughtfulness here Edward. When an artists work comes your way that you like, how soon does it enter your mind to consider the age of the artist? When you find out , how does it change your view of the work?

1/25/2011 11:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Terri said...

"I do think, though, that those who peak early should consider turning ever more toward their practice rather than seeking more and more attention, if they wish to remain important." -- Edward Winkleman

I love this for several reasons.

1/25/2011 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a theory that most artists (assuming that they are any good to begin with) have about 10 or if they are lucky 20 truly inspired years in them. Sometimes those years come early, sometime they come later. But I think it's really, really rare for someone to be that good over a 50 year period. I believe the same can be said about musicians & filmmakers for that matter.

1/25/2011 04:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Mery Lynn said...

Evolution vs revolution. All art needs both. As for age, maybe at a certain point "career" seems so much less important than the adventure.

1/25/2011 07:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Picasso once said that an exceptional artist has 3 good ideas during his career. Most artists only have one. After that, they continue to make the same work over and over.

1/26/2011 10:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

interesting take on this theme over at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/frontal-cortex

in short, the concept is proposed that "genius" has shifted overtime, in that in order to find the synergy within a given field of study, which has become deeper and wider requiring more and more time to get a formal grasp on the enjeux in play - has meant that geniuses are tending to be older and older in order to reach an understanding of the increasingly broader concern of their field. (It takes longer to figure it out, not that you necessarily need to be older to get it)

Which leads to the meme that today, the lone genius is being surpassed by the genus "groupgenius" if you will. That collaborative insights are becoming the means to grapple with the increased breadth of concerns of any given field. That the next group of genius's will be recognized as a group and not isolated individual efforts. In a time of digital distribution of ideas - seems like an ideal environment for such a shift.

... maybe what is more important is what you do with your understanding than the understanding in and of itself. - truth has many meanings but only one intent

1/27/2011 08:03:00 AM  
OpenID scotstyle said...

process vs product, a topic which has garnered much brain time of late. I don't believe it is exclusive to age at all. It is a perception that once adopted must be fought for in the face of social pressures. Isolated genus artists don't have so much to fight, but the social networked, blog reading, child of the 00's, has to become disciplined rather quickly to avoid the temptation of the brass ring and therefore avoid the audience response pulling the art. This discipline is probably the reason we equate the posture with older artists.

My first and strongest relationship with recognized artists was with the producers of the LP. The rock musicians. Its easy here to track the public consumptive notion of success through the years. Some artists peak early then never regain their stature although they keep producing and challenging themselves. Some have periods where their output blends well with public demand at the time and they have comebacks. I am thinking of Neil Young who has challenged himself every step of the way. Market response is a poor indicator of success unless your goal is making money in which case the discerning consumer can see right through you. We may hoist you aloft for a while but we see what you are up to and place you in a category it may take a lifetime to get out of. Then again if you aren't hoisted aloft we may never see you. The curse of popular opinion.

The reward for an artmaking lifestyle lies in the meditative moments, the eureka afternoons and the relationships developed through the years with people who's companionship is a process oriented exchange rather than one of product.

1/27/2011 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating question. Kind of makes the argument against the market as an arbiter of what is good in art/music etc, at least if you believe that market success ruins or distorts the work of many artists who achieve success when young.

1/27/2011 05:46:00 PM  

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