“Creativity takes courage,” at least according to Henri Matisse. If that’s the case, then at what point in their lives are artists most creative? When they’re young, bold, and taking risks? Or does creativity blossom over time, with practice and life experience? On the one hand, there’s Mary Shelley, who was just 21 when her landmark gothic horror novel Frankenstein was published.
On the other, there’s Matisse himself, whose later work—he continued to make art up until his death at 84—is considered by many to be his finest. In advance of the Zócalo/Getty “Open Art” event “Does Artistic Greatness Only Come with Age?”, we asked scholars, psychologists, arts administrators, and artists: What is the relationship between age and creativity?
At the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, there’s a magisterial exhibition of the work of J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) at the end of his career. The oil paintings and watercolors in “J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free” date from his last 15 years. Like the final flowerings of Rembrandt, Goya, and Monet, the late work of this master was “ahead of its time” and, to a degree, misunderstood. We think of it now as the culmination of his long artistic project; then, the public thought of it as an old man’s blinkered eye and shaking hand.
Can a work of art be carbon-dated in terms of its producer’s age, or only in terms of the age of the object produced? And, if the former, how? This is a complicated question and not one to be answered in a paragraph or two; it can, however, be raised. Certain forms of prowess—think of baseball or ballet—require youth in their practitioner; no one plays the violin or tennis at a professional level if they start at 55.
But there’s no obvious reason why a writer or a painter cannot advance his or her art—replenishing, say, energy with wisdom—as they grow. And though our widespread notion of an artist is a prodigy—think of Mozart, Keats, or Raphael, none of whom reached 40—it’s also true that older age enables a kind of freedom not often found in the young. What Turner painted (the seascapes, the fires, the snowstorms and buildings and mountains and ships) at his life’s end is visionary in the word’s root sense; he saw and showed the world to us in ways that make us see.
Because so much empirical research has been conducted on the relationship between age and creativity—including the production of artistic masterpieces—it is easy to draw conclusions that stick closely to the scientific data. The researcher begins with a list of masterpieces of painting, sculpture, architecture, and other aesthetic genres. After determining the age at which the artists completed their work, the results are tabulated, yielding a curve—the peak of which indicates the probability of producing one’s best work at a particular age. That peak almost always appears in the 30s.
If the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes can be considered Michelangelo’s greatest single work, then he can be taken as typical. After all, he painted them when he was between 33 and 37 years old. His later painting on the chapel altar wall, “The Last Judgment,” was created when he was between 61 and 67—and it is universally considered an inferior work.
That said, statistical averages are just that: statistical averages. Although we can speak of the average height of men or women, some will be tall and others short. The same holds here. Some artists mature very late in life, while others are early-blooming one-hit wonders. Some artists may just get a late start, like the famed Grandma Moses. The expected peak also depends on the genre. For example, etchers peak earlier than architects. This difference probably reflects the amount of expertise that must be acquired.
Yet despite all these niceties, the bottom line remains: It is extremely rare for artists to save the best for last.
By 2030, Americans aged 65 and older will comprise 20 percent of the total population. Despite this demographic explosion, American society still undervalues, underestimates, and underserves its older citizens. While our medical institutions have made great strides toward addressing the physical needs of our older people, our cultural institutions have lagged way behind in meeting their social and cultural needs. Older people have few meaningful social roles to play in our cultural and civic institutions; they suffer a paucity of outlets for interpersonal connection, growth, or creative self-expression.
We still predominantly see old age as a time of problems, as a time of letting go. Age brings loss, of course, but increasingly we know from research and experience that the very things that constitute well-being—close relationships with others, activities that we invest with meaning and purpose—are no less important in later life. In fact, these things are essential to the “art of aging.” Not only do social interaction and meaningful engagement enhance an older person’s quality of life, they contribute to her overall health and survival.
In fact, there is an integral relationship between creative expression and healthy aging, as evidenced by the results of “Creativity and Aging: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults,” the first national longitudinal study on creativity and aging in America. It proved that people who participated in the arts had fewer doctor visits, reduced medication usage, and experienced overall improvements in physical and mental health.
As we move into a world that is rapidly aging, we need to reconsider how the arts can elevate the status of older adults within our society, and transform how we perceive aging from a process of loss to one with amazing creative potential.
Humans are born with creative potential. Just watch very young children at play, using drums made of pots and pans or smearing paint on almost every surface. With any kind of music accompaniment, children start to move and invent a dance. Those who are old enough to speak often weave intricate stories to explain or entertain with props to enhance the drama.
Psychologists say that reinforced behaviors grow. With little parental, cultural, or peer approval, most kids give up on creative endeavors. In most places, thinking outside of the box is not valued by the socialization process or public education. Remember the phrase “starving artist”?
Latent creative talents then go dormant for decades, except for the few early identified gifted and talented boys and girls who received all kinds of encouragement and support for their budding art.
Fast forward to the period I’ve identified as The Vintage Years, the next fertile life stage for unleashing creative expression. Though many decades may have passed, the urge to create finally finds expression when work and family demands ease. There are also neurological, psychological, endocrine-based, and life-stage explanations for why this is so.
After the age of 60, the fine arts emerge for many people as a way to satisfy unfinished business, to find wished-for but never realized hobbies or passions, and to search for ways to create meaning and leave a legacy. This life stage also offers laser-sharp ability to focus—perfect timing as seniors have more disposable time.
The fine arts have survival value according to evolutionary psychologists. Music likely predated language, and cave paintings were an essential part of communicating dangers and life cycle events, as was storytelling, the precursor of writing, by elders who embodied wisdom. Our aging population benefits from this primordial inheritance.
In Old Masters: Great Artists in Old Age (2000), Thomas Dormandy points to three reasons why the physical challenges of old age might impair technique but not creative talent. He asserts that artists in their 60s, 70s, and 80s have learned how to see the material of their future paintings in the real world and to transform what they see in their minds into actual art work.
In the 2005 study Above Ground, the Research Center for Arts and Culture surveyed 146 professional visual artists over the age of 62 in New York City. They were shown to be resilient and tenacious, thinking up problems and figuring out how to solve them. Seventy-one percent said art helps them resolve conflicts; 83 percent said that art helps them understand the “big picture” better. Concentrated on their own mastery over their work, three-quarters of them had an exhibition less than a year before, 56 percent thought they were making the best work of their lives, and less than 10 percent felt they regularly experienced abuse or despair.
For those of us who know or who are artists, this information comes as no surprise. Artists embody what Erik Erikson called “generativity,” confronting and mastering challenges at different life stages through their art. This is not art therapy. It’s their life.
Age is a repository of knowledge and skills—but not necessarily creativity, which is acquired by deconstructing knowledge. An artist is a craftsman of human culture, a construction laborer and architect of aesthetic principles, and a shaman of meaning and beauty. Becoming an artist is a labor-intensive journey that requires time (age) and skills.
Picasso once said, “It took most of my life as an artist to learn to paint as a child.” In learning “to paint like a child,” he referred to the dialectics of the human learning-unlearning process that was the great foundation of his creative force. However, Picasso was also talking about the ability to transcend from biological aging to experiencing life and the maturing, not aging, of consciousness.
I believe that humans create culture because of the need to transcend their biological existence (age), their geographical territories (nation), and their cultural environments (languages). The rationalization of human existence is culture or the arts. The “return to the future” is an action to understand who we are and, at the same time, a question of how we could be otherwise. It propels us forward and makes us nostalgic for the future.
Inasmuch as an artist develops his/her practical skills over time, this aging does not guarantee that creativity will follow. Creativity is more about understanding the future as it appeared yesterday. Creativity is an extraordinary daily occurrence; it is the maturing of consciousness. This maturing of consciousness is acquired by a commitment to engage others and constantly reconstitute and replenish our work.
I personally don’t see any relationship between age and creativity.
At 6, I made a “snowbear” while other children made snowmen. At 17, I drew caricatures of my classmates as animals. As a young man, I always created something different, perhaps extraordinary, and sometimes excellent. But I did it all because it made sense and was fun.
Over the years I developed a unique one-man band, playing several instruments simultaneously. The idea is to satisfy my audience, who expects to hear music that sounds like their favorite records. It was all out of necessity, not meant to be a challenge.
I have seen many young artists create extraordinary work mainly to defy the convention or tradition. They typically have this “I’ll-show-the-world” attitude, and more often than not, they get caught in creating work in “bad taste” that’s frowned upon by the general public.
As a professional, I couldn’t take that kind of chance. I had rent to pay and six children to feed. Whatever I tried that was new had to work. I had to “get the job done”—the very first requirement of being a professional artist.
As I grow older, I have learned what I can do and what I cannot do. You must “know what you are doing” to be an artist—that’s the second requirement.
I have become more confident from experience and more daring because I know how to get out of trouble. Actually, my one-man band show becomes more entertaining when I stumble. I have learned from old masters, such as Jack Benny and Johnny Carson.
Picasso and Beethoven became more daring as they got older, often breaking away their own established styles. They would “always try to improve”—the third and last requirement of being an artist.