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The nautre of art making over the lifetime has been a recurring theme for me these last few months. Spurred in many ways by the publication of Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, by Nicholas Delbanco (which wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped), my curiosity about what makes an artist able to continue working has only deepened. Answers are few as to why some continue on and others do not, but the question is a potent one.
Here are a few highlights from Delbanco’s book:
Why should it seem so difficult to substitute endurance for enthusiasm, to temper ambition with artistry;what are, in Cyril Connolly’s fine phrase, the “enemies of promise” that keep us from achieving the best work at the end?
To know, I mean truly know—as might a basketball player or ballerina—that the best is behind you is to turn to drink or diterhing or to an oven or gun. A few modest and decorous authors—think of E. M. Forster and Eudora Welty—withdraw into silence and declare at a certain point in their career, Enough’s enough. But most of us go on and on, unable or unwilling to break a lifetime’s habit of wrangling with language, and happy to be allowed, even encouraged, to do so. Most of us, when asked which book has been our favorite, will answer (hopefully, wishfully, truthfully), “The next.”
For a group of ceaseless strivers (often miserable, always doubt-hounded as they search) the motto is Cezanne’s: “I seek in painting.” Whereas Picasso announced, “I don’t seek; I find.”
Of the aging artists, Donald Hall has this to say: When I saw Moore the year he turned eighty, I asked him, in a jocular manner I hope, to tell me the secret of life. Without jocularity he answered that the secret was to devote yourself entirely to one end, to one goal, and to work every day toward this goal, to put all your energy and imagination into the one endeavor. The only necessity was that this goal by unattainable.”
As Anthony Storr observes, in “Solitude: A Return to Self”:
One of the most interesting features of any creative person’s work is how it changes over time. No highly creative person is ever satisfied with what he has done. Often indeed, after completing a project, he experiences a period of depression from which he is only relieved by embarking on the next piece of work. It seems to me that the capacity to create provides an irreplaceable opportunity for personal development in isolation. Most of us develop and mature primarily through interaction with others. Our passage through life is defined by our roles relative to others; as child, adolescent, spouse, parent, and grandparent. The artist or philosopher is able to mature primarily on his own. His passage through life is defined by the changing nature and increasing maturity of his work, rather than his relationships with others.
The last quote, from Storr’s book, is a rich one. It is also right in keeping with my personal predilection for hermitizing, for being defined more by my work than anything else. And it was provocative enough to get me to read Storr’s book next.
I call it “squinting”—you will have your own term. You’ve chosen a favorite musician, probably in your teen years, and the relationship grows through awkward phases…Along the way, you find yourself squinting to keep seeing what made you fall in love…In pop music, which is a worse deal for the aging than painting and fiction are, there can be a fair amount of effort involved.
This is the start of Sasha Frere-Jones’ review, Gut Check, of PJ Harvey’s latest release. (And PJ falls into that squinting category for me—some of her music was ecstasy embodied for me.) But when it comes to issues of doing your art and aging, pop music and ballet have to be two of the most youth-centric. Some would say they are youth-centric to a draconian degree.
But as my wise friend Sally Reed reminded me on the occasion of my birthday this week, forms change. It’s a mantra worthy of my studio wall as well as my bathroom mirror. And look at how even the forms of pop music and dance have stretched and morphed. How many aging rockers are touring and making music? It isn’t just superstars like Robert Plant, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCarthy and Bob Dylan—even Robbie Robertson, the Band heartthrob from the 70’s, just released a new album. In the words of Mitchell Stephens, “Once upon a time, these men reinvented what it meant to play rock-and-roll. Is it not possible that they might also be capable of reinventing what it means to be ‘old’ and still playing rock-and-roll? Age has, after all, done them a few favors. To begin with, it has given these fellows, none of whom has ever been saddled with a day job, years of practice. They’re better musicians than they were at 25, and better singers too.”
Another great moment recently on this same theme: Charles Lloyd, jazz veteran at 73, came out of semi-retirement to blow our minds. He recently performed at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge with his latest quartet, now playing with three extraordinary young musicians in their 30s—Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland and my favorite all time jazz pianist, Jason Moran.* It was an evening I will never forget.
And then there was the stunning moment at the end of the National Theater’s recent broadcast of Fela! when Bill T. Jones jumped up on stage and danced with the cast, shirtless. Like Mark Morris, Jones continues to engage us with the way his body can move.
All anecdotes worth considering. Yes, forms change. And sometimes what shows up surprises everybody.
* For a list of my many blog posts about Jason Moran, go here.