Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Retiring as an Artist | Open Thread

We talk so much here about an artist's "career," borrowing the term from more conventional work histories, which for the average person has a beginning and (hopefully before they die) an ending and a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but we've also spent time discussing how artists keep making art despite whether or not their "career" is doing well (by which, of course, we mean whether or not they're able to support themselves via sales of their art). We've also recently discussed whether or not late work by an artist can be expected to be better than their early work, which only reinforces the notion that an artist is expected to be a worker for life.

But why?

The simple response would be because many feel that being an artist is a "calling" rather than just a vocation. It's their identity and there's nothing else they'd rather do. But as MFA programs and simply expectations in the market place keep nudging artists toward a more "professional" approach to their careers, why shouldn't artists also be able to eventually relax and enjoy retirement?

The Guardian's Jonathan Jones recently took on these questions in his post titled "Real artists never retire – or do they?":
Is retirement an option for creative artists? The film director Steven Soderbergh recently announced that he plans to retire from movie-making once his next two films are finished. A folly? A whim? A PR stunt? Who knows, but he sounded sincerely tired of it all in the interview I read.

This startled me, because Soderbergh, while working in Hollywood, has gained a reputation as a serious film artist. And retirement rarely seems to interest serious artists – least of all visual ones.

Lucian Freud and Cy Twombly are still painting, and still doing powerful work, in old age. Nor is the career longevity (and physical longevity) of artists just a product of modern healthcare. In the 16th century, both Michelangelo and Titian lived very long lives and both worked brilliantly into their last years. Titian's late works are his greatest of all and several scintillating masterpieces were left unfinished when he died. Michelangelo also left an incredible unfinished masterpiece – when death obliged him to lay down tools, he was the architect of St Peter's.

If great artists work well beyond retirement age, it is surely because, especially for a painter, writer or similarly skilled worker, it can take a lifetime to learn all the skills. Only then can you work with total freedom: hence the striking phenomenon of "late" styles.
I suspect you could make the last statement about people in lots of fields though. An editor's skills improve with time as do a baker's, I suspect. A police detective surely becomes more effective the longer he/she has spent studying criminal behavior first hand. And I personally feel much more comfortable visiting a doctor who's older than I am than one who's not (I call it my Marcus Welby issue). But no one expects any of these folks to keep working past the retirement age, unless they choose to.

Jones carries on with something I never knew, though:
There is at least one startling exception to the rule that real artists never retire: Shakespeare. He made his money in London then retired to his native Stratford, like Prospero relinquishing his magic in The Tempest. But then Shakespeare is an exception to every rule and the ultimate biographical enigma.
Consider this an open thread on whether artists should be expected to keep working until they pass away or whether retiring as an artist is the same well-deserved reward it is in other fields.

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36 Comments:

Anonymous Gam said...

Maybe retirement depends on how you view art. As: a vocation or as an avocationor asan evocation

"The word "vocation" comes from the Latin vocare (verb to call); [1]" wikipedia

Nothing wrong with enjoying retirement, it's just kind of hard to imagine a priest "retiring", although relinquishing their position would be understandable.

Artists retiring? - moving on maybe, but arts measure can't be only financial gain. Maybe its more a question of going from professional to amateur?

Artists should stop when they don't care if they aren't evocating their muse(s). (if they care and aren't doing that- assuredly keep seeking their muse!)

3/23/2011 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger grace said...

Interesting - my nephew asked me this week if I was thinking of retiring. I said of course not - a question I could not even conceive of and had not done so.

Using painting as precedent to make my case. The greatest Goya's were the last ones. The greatest Degas, Monet and Manet and DeKooning artworks were the last ones....that goes for Titian, Tintoretto, etc. etc. I am not one to romanticize "creativity" but making art involves a need that flim-makers, writers, actors, musicians, composers, performers, choreographers all experience. We can no more think of retirement than think of giving up what we have worked for our entire lives - no matter how frivolous, unworthy or trite. It is the way we are made. If one's work is so intertwined with one's life which is the case for many artists - the story goes on till it ends.

3/23/2011 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Aron said...

Can most artists afford to retire? Besides, why would we? We actually like what we do!!!

3/23/2011 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger ArtistDan said...

When the conversation among non-artists turns to retirement I can't help but think of an old, ailing Matisse lying in bed with paper attached to the ceiling with drawing media attached to a long stick. I've never considered retirement to be something to look forward to and is simply irrelevant to my being an artist. After consideration, I suppose my idea of retirement would be to have the luxury of playing a round of golf more often in the morning and then returning to the studio. I'm 59 and feel that I'm just recently reaching the goals set when I was 22.

3/23/2011 12:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Creative figures are not generally employees in the sense that most other workers are. Artists, writers, and composers mostly do what they do from a felt need. The typical employee - whether a baker, programmer, undertaker, accountant, auto mechanic, or other - is doing non-creative work for somebody else. It's rare for an employee to have the freedom and autonomy to do something so stimulating at work that they would want not to retire.

3/23/2011 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger nkatz22 said...

I sure would love to retire from all of the other careers that i have to maintain in order to sustain my art career. Then I can finally spend all of the time that I would like to spend making art. I just hope that doesn't happen too late...

3/23/2011 01:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

I think that this subject is a little silly -- I mean, those people where their career is aligned with their internal impulse never "retire" until they are dead. Then the universe retires them. : )

CEOs who love their work usually continue to sit on boards (private or public), and many choose to volunteer to council new start-ups for free at the Small Business Association.

Bakers who love to bake never stop, even when they sell the bakery. (Seriously, the examples of continuing a committed calling are really too numerous to list.)

I think retirement is for somebody who never really loved their job, and did it almost exclusively for the paycheck.

(If an artist retires willingly, it might be a head's-up that they were never really serious/committed in the first place?)

3/23/2011 02:04:00 PM  
Blogger MH said...

I recently met with Eva Ziezel who is 105- and still working. Her dedication is something that I aspire to, I hope to be blessed with the same health, drive and clarity to be able to keep working

3/23/2011 02:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

I don't see that the subject is silly at all. CEOs by definition are people in power over others, and we all know what power does; bakers (at least cake decorators) have considerable artistic freedom. To say "retirement is for somebody who never really loved their job, and did it almost exclusively for the paycheck" is unfair to the majority of people who do have to work for a living, and who for whatever reason were unable to pursue a career that might have been more stimulating but didn't pay the bills. I worked for a couple of years at a well-known non-profit company in Rockefeller Center, and the cubicles were strewn with failed poets, musicians, painters, and dancers.

3/23/2011 02:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I gotta agree with Terry. On the other hand there are MANY artists who've made it (in the sense of gotten rich off their work) which I wish would call it quits because they suck up so much attention from the art world. We're I in their position though I'm sure I would feel differently. It is a way of life, and once you get some attention it seems its hard for most to step back and let it go.

3/23/2011 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger man said...

Growing up I remember my father talking about how much Andrew Wyeth still worked into his old age (he was still painting up until his death). Similarly I get the impression that my dad will work until he physically can't anymore. For me I will continue to work/play/create as long as that life force is present and strong within me; as long as I am creating work that MUST be created. I "retired" from theater because it wasn't fulfilling certain needs, the same way that I "retired" from web design/development. I don't think about it in terms of longevity but as a sustained response to my relationship with the world. That, I'll never retire from (regardless of form).

Do I hope to live/lead an "easier" life in older age? Certainly...

3/23/2011 03:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Bernard: "I gotta agree with Terry."

In whole, in part? Do you reject my arguments completely? Perhaps the artists here don't relate to the average working stiff who needs to earn money to pay the bills, and who may have to do boring things just to stay alive. I'm not saying such people aren't basically living Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation," but I can't look down on the great majority of people who may lack artistic impulses (or who don't see those impulses as leading to a career).

Personally, for what it's worth, I do look forward to retiring in a few years, primarily so that I'll have more time for the personal writing that I can now only fit in after hours or on weekends. (Or when I sneak a moment on the side at the office.) But if I'm to retire, I will need enough saved that I can afford to live without sleeping in the car and switching to a diet of Purina dog chow. And that's why I continue working for now.

3/23/2011 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Having passed the 50-year mark, I can say that I am of two minds:

1. I am freaking tired and would like to slow down. I work harder now that I'm earning a living from the sale of my work than I did when I juggled a 9-5 with my studio practice.
2. Finally, after decades of pushing, pushing, pushing, really nice opportunities are coming my way. How can I say No? I don't (usually), but all those good things translate into longer hours in the studio and at the computer. I'm not complaining, just shaking my head at one of those cosmic ironies.

I have no intention of retiring, ever--what would I do, be a Sunday painter?--but I'm going to second Man's comment, above: "Do I hope to live/lead an 'easier' life in older age? Certainly..."

3/23/2011 04:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

@ Larry,
No need to get defensive. What I felt Terri (sorry I misspelled your name earlier) was hinting at was that being an artist is a way of life, regardless of the amount of money made or not made and in that sense retirement doesn't quite fit. As far as dayjobs, other careers, etc. goes I absolutely believe retirement needs to be an available option. In fact I think an artist SHOULD be able to retire if she/he would want to.
All the artists I know personally work VERY hard at what they do, in fact too hard, and I think the whole art world is badly out of wack, but there I digress. All us struggling artists should have a comfy retirement waiting for us, but most would probably continue to make work anyway.

3/23/2011 05:18:00 PM  
Anonymous LG said...

My parents, both in their 70's, are retired and traveled the traditional route of working for a paycheck. Now they have no hobbies (they abandoned the very few they had while earning a paycheck), have few friends, and seem to live in fear of running out of money. Although bargain shopping has become a hobby, go figure.

My Dad's company, where he worked for 35+ years, screwed him on his retirement as the original owners sold it. He missed the "good retirement" cut off with the new company by less than two weeks. One poor guy missed it by less then two days!

My point with all this is: What is the point of working for a paycheck just to find yourself anxious when you "retire" and scared that any hobby/active life you pursue will bankrupt you?

Can artists retire? Not to sound cheesy but I don't think real artists ever retire. The act of creative creation does not get old or boring for a real artist. I suspect Mr. Soderbergh will continue to make cinema in some fashion, just not the commercially viable kind.

Sorry for the long reply. Good post.

3/23/2011 09:54:00 PM  
Blogger mikesorgatz said...

I hope to keep the ball rolling as long as possible! The advantage for artists is that there's many ways to keep going into old age and infirmament. I think that gives us a longer shelf life! However I don't think retiring should be a black mark on anyone. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to deal with the various inanities of the world, and I'm sympathetic to people who've had enough.

3/24/2011 12:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Anonymous Larry said...
'To say "retirement is for somebody who never really loved their job, and did it almost exclusively for the paycheck" is unfair to the majority of people who do have to work for a living, and who for whatever reason were unable to pursue a career that might have been more stimulating but didn't pay the bills. I worked for a couple of years at a well-known non-profit company in Rockefeller Center, and the cubicles were strewn with failed poets, musicians, painters, and dancers.'

Larry, you prove the point -- these people shelved their vocation for a job (for assured money) -- and they will happily retire once their job-career is over. It's not an unfair statement at all, but it may make the world seem unfair to you.

When a person says to me that not everyone can do what they want, I just wonder how badly they want it. A person can have both a job AND a calling, and they can be mutually exclusive of each other. Will they retire from the job? Yes. IF they retire from the calling... well... that is their own sad, sad decision.

(A job provides for the body, a calling provides for the soul/psyche.)

3/24/2011 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Anonymous Larry said...
"Personally, for what it's worth, I do look forward to retiring in a few years, primarily so that I'll have more time for the personal writing that I can now only fit in after hours or on weekends. (Or when I sneak a moment on the side at the office.)"

Larry, from this I'm thinking that maybe you are currently in the job of copywriter or something where your skills as a writer are used, but your personal creativity is obfuscated. It's okay to retire from that and still consider yourself an artistic writer, because *that* is a JOB, and though it may have used most of the same *skills* as being a creative writer, it is not what you *are*. You job and your calling are different -- feel free to retire. : )

3/24/2011 01:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Blogger mikesorgatz said...
"However I don't think retiring should be a black mark on anyone. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to deal with the various inanities of the world, and I'm sympathetic to people who've had enough."

Okay, I understand this reasoning (and that of Joanne Mattera as well) -- but even when burnt out on the actual "work-and-obligation" portion, I still believe that a artist continues to produce new pieces, even in-the-mind, because the creative impulse is who they are.

Guess I'm just a purist -- I speak from my own experience of working as a successful commercial sculptor and painter (toys and housewares) and deciding to "retire" from freelance work (and missing the money, to be sure) in order to finally pursue the fine-artist-thing. I gave up assured money for fine art, and that is why I probably hold such strong opinions.

@ Bernard Klevickas -- no worries -- my first day of school my Kindergarten Teacher told me I spelled my own name wrong (my parents had to write her a note to tell her I was spelling it right); so after that early experience, I've never had a problem with anyone spelling my name differently. : )

3/24/2011 02:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Duchamp retired to play chess

3/24/2011 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger grovecanada said...

I know someone who was a pilot for the US Air Force, a career that lasted 4 years, mainly due to burnout associated with flying the type of high speed planes he had to fly... You just can't do that kind of flying for longer than 4 years...
I watch 29 year old tennis players start slowing down on the court & all of a sudden Federer is losing matches here & there... The 30 year old-already retireds sit in the stands with their new wives & babies looking tired...
Myself, I am taking this year "off"...I take a year off when it all seems too much or my eyes feel injured...
In terms of retirement, honestly, as an artist, I feel like I am already retired...
My husband is also an artist, & it seems, while we are out feeding swans, or admiring a landscape, that our fellow lookers are all retirees...
We are stop & smell the roses people & the only others we ever seem to meet who are stopping & smelling at the same time are retired people...
Somehow the sensibility of slowing down to take it all in is something that many only do when they are old...
So many seem to go back to art when they are finished with their "other" jobs... We have just started the process early...
I guess I always thought that you continue doing whatever you are doing if you can...
This comment is rambling, sorry- I am thinking it out as I write... Food for thought...

3/24/2011 09:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 39 and retired from my art career a couple of years ago. Being an artist was like having a heroin habit or an abusive boyfriend for me. Even though I was getting all the things I wanted--shows, gallery attention, commissions--I kept feeling more and more trapped and screwed and morally off-course. My debt was mounting, I never had time for anything. I put an outrageous amount of pressure on myself all the time. I found myself befriending people I didn't respect because I liked their galleries. I felt like a slave.

I was angry and clenched all the time, and I am grateful that I realized that I don't have to be.

Stopping being an artist was hard in the same way stopping an addictive behavior is hard. But it wasn't who I am. "Artist" was an identity I clung to to for some specific, maladaptive reasons. I am definitely better off without the burdensome clinging, and I didn't give anything up but the clinging. There are shockingly few downsides to retiring from being an artist once you get over yourself.

I think I get to be more creative now, and have much more mental space and freedom. All the things that other posters are saying are the delights of an artist's life--I definitely feel like I gained those things for the first time when I retired.

3/24/2011 09:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I am happy for you Anon!
And apparently you are still involved in the art world in some way.
I don't quite understand your last sentence though.

3/25/2011 03:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something I thought I got across but totally didn't:

That notion of being a "real" artist and really believing in this identity that I thought was inherent was the primary component of my major attitude problem. I think this is very common, and wish more artists would examine it.

It's always easier to see other people's problems than your own. I figured out that I had to quit because I was surrounded by grim, monastic people who were gritting it out day after day, even though their work wasn't particularly special and wasn't particularly feeding them.

I thought I just needed some new friends until I stepped back from those friendships and was left staring down my own dogged, monastic, purposeless grit, and my own work that didn't add much to the conversation.

If I do go back to making art one day, it will be because I got over the identity of "artist" and how I used it to limit and punish myself. In other words, I know that my art was a dead end when I was caught in the vice of identifying as an artist. I don't feel like making art now, and might never feel like it again. But I know that all future creativity depended completely on giving up on that identity. Paradoxically, I think that this letting go, this playing with reality, is what artists do when they are really being generous. The most "real" artistic act I've ever committed is retiring.

3/25/2011 07:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

@Anon,
You come across perfectly clear and I applaud you for it.
Should the NY Art world continue to be a small club of friends patting each other on the back? It seems to me you let go because it was not about vision to you. Or you gave up because you knew others would never accept or share your vision. But you remain here like some post-AA guru anonymously giving advice.
There are countless talented artists out there of which I am one and we all thank you for loosening the bottleneck by one.
I am curious to see what your art was like though?

3/25/2011 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Meltemi. said...

I like many 'late career artists' spent my productive career pleasing:those teachers, those employers, those bank managers, the family etc. Now as the front of the wave baby-boomer, in retirement, I have the: time, the money, the drive and initiative to paint those memories that have been on the back burner of life for the past 50 years.

3/25/2011 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Paula Manning-Lewis said...

I have been asked by my in laws, "How are you planning for retirement?" As a full time artist, my answer has always been, "Artists don't retire, they die". I plan to paint until I die, even if I have to use my mouth or feet to hold the brush. For me, art is a calling, it is who I am and I cannot imagine stopping. :)

3/25/2011 01:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure Bernard, I am anonymous out of laziness, not because I am hiding. Here: http://local-artists.org/users/deborah-fisher.

For what it's worth, I wrote about this topic extensively on my own blog while it was happening. You can go nuts--just google me.

3/25/2011 05:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About vision...

I definitely had and have a vision. I also think that the notion of vision is worth examining. A vision can definitely become a pair of blinders. I am finding that I have more fun when I let go of that vision and play with others.

And I did nothing about the clubby bottleneck you perceive, but ive got to say that you illustrate the problem nicely by acting like I gave you my seat or something. amazing.

3/25/2011 05:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

You just broke my heart Anon. And I'm not joking about that. I looked at your work, loved it (though want to see it in the real). We also share a love of the Benglis show. There are WAY to few sculptors and ESPECIALLY too few female sculptors who work with formal concerns and physicality of material. (maybe there are many who are trying but are not able to get there work out there and I don't want to discount the possibility).
Forget the crap I said about the bottleneck- that is my feeling that there are currently an enormous amount of artists out there all vying for the right gallery or Art Star position and through their network connections (my back-patting reference) or their academic credentials (without real world experience) get their work into the galleries.
I like your work very much and wouldn't dare criticize your vision. I think I saw your piece at Socrates some time ago too. (you've gotten far into the art world in my book, because you got in there). It's not easy to get traction in this current art world but please don't give it up.

But again, if you Really feel better that way then good for you. Nobody said it would be fair or easy but some of us feed off of the challenge.

3/25/2011 10:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

@Anon,
And just to add:
FARMING! big yes!
If you're ever in Astoria visit Two Coves Community Garden a few blocks north of Socrates Sculpture Park.

3/25/2011 10:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really appreciate your comments anon/deborah fisher. I'm sure you're still bringing your eye,spirit, and creativity to your current activites.

3/26/2011 01:28:00 PM  
Blogger Mab MacMoragh said...

I would like to 'retire' from making art for others to making it purely for myself.

In this capitalist world and in these scary times that's a lofty goal but it's not an impossible dream- unless I die before I can make it happen- a very real possibility.

Perhaps this is along the lines of what Soderbergh is concerned with. Obviously the 'late style' artists like Freud, Twombly, de Kooning, Matisse et al, are/were staring mortality in the face as they make/made their mature works.

Churning out commercial Hollywood films is more about running a factory to industrial standards, than appeasing your muse. No one ever made a living by creating poetry but as William Carlos Williams famously said in 'Asphodel, That Greeny Flower':

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

3/28/2011 01:35:00 PM  
Blogger Delilah said...

I am a full time working artist and I do not plan on ever retiring. At least as of today those are my plans.I have a friend who is an artist and she has retired. She still paints and sells art. For her retirement means not always having a new body of work and not do shows any more. She now paints when the muses calls not when the gallery does.

4/20/2011 09:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Frank Steineck said...

Even though I have "retired" social life pretty much before I was 50, I ask myself what a painter would do to fill the time to be created for living in the first place. There is no sense in making space and then gape at it. I have to fill all my time, with what ever and I turn that to excellence, of course. I have to eat, so I eat as well as possible and better. I have to perceive, esp. look, so I do it in painting for excellence, frank and free unbounded. If one "retires" from producing every little day, one has no more reason to hang around here at this pretty mediocre place. One can just be, for a while, which eliminates the reason to wear a corpse at all. To not retire is a yes to living and to retire, not resignate about the stakes in the game is a yes to filling a day. Retirement is a hoax if it means to linger, cease action, etc.

11/08/2011 12:40:00 PM  
Anonymous David Patch said...

At age 40 something I see the world differently. I see form and how lighting works in a ways which I hadn't before - even as recently as a few years ago. I've had gaps of years when I haven't picked up a paintbrush, each time I return it just gets better. I pray that I will have enough good years now to get my ideas into oil paint. I'm just getting started. You don't retire from a gift like this.

9/10/2014 09:39:00 AM  

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