“Frankenfolks” can be artists too!”
Originally published in Art of England, Issue 86, 2011. Reproduced with permission.
Are older people curiosities, especially the long-lived? Do we see them as ‘marvellous’ simply for their fact of survival. Perhaps instead, we trap others in the medico-social web of nursing homes, expensive end-of-life care, and dependency on others. Perhaps old people become ‘Frankenfolks’, as Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote recently in her book on ageism.
Working as I do in the health arena, but a painter as such, her comments drew my attention. Figuring out what her comments mean entails coming to grips with something else she wrote: “Sometimes pop culture looks like nothing more than a giant machine for excreting ageism.”
Certainly less than a century ago, the average life expectancy was 40 years, death of children was expected; today neither is true, with life expectancy of a healthy person being at least to the mid 90s. Furthermore, most of us will not pass our final days in nursing or care homes. And despite doom-laden predictions of rising cancers and metabolic disorders, most people should expect healthy ageing and natural death. So much for the good news.
The departure of Cy Twombly is a timely opportunity to reflect on all his work, and how it evolved, and challenged us as he himself moved through the phases of his life. All long-lived artists evolve, some like Picasso were condemned in old age for what was seen as inferior work by people with short memories.
We all have life trajectories, and some are acutely aware of the process of personal evolution and seek to reinvent themselves over and over again. Others, whose lives may be more tied to the corporate business cycle may just stop when they hit a ‘retirement age’. Regardless of personal life experiences, ignoring the evolving talent potential of ‘older folk’ echoes ageism.
I’ve noted in other writing the dismal performance of the UK’s art schools. It is also worth noting that while an arts education is a wonderful thing in and of itself, few arts graduates actually make a career out of their studies. And this at the expense of art schools themselves becoming engines of creative expression for the whole of society regardless of age. Like pop culture, art schools also seem to be engines of ageism.
There may be a reason for this. For some, art history is broadly linear; this is a typical western approach, that present perceptions replace past perceptions, a sort of movement from/to. Other cultures see all history as living in the present, so art movements of the past also speak to the present: Sumi-e for example. Can abstract expressionism, described as dated by some, be relevant – no sooner had abstract expressionism burst upon the scene, pop artists were claiming it was obsolete. Really?
The point here is a simple one and betrays the superficial approach to creativity that abounds in the art world and that fosters ageism, namely, that new art replaces old art, and when an art ‘style’ has been replaced, it has no more to say to us. In that respect, we are always looking for the ‘shock of the new’, like Matisse’s gouaches découpés, themselves his response to ageing.
Is everything before transformed, as newness forces us to reassess everything that went before, and must we then consign it to the bins of the history of art?
What can Malevich, or the Futurists, say of relevance to ourselves in our 21st century angst when no sooner are we tweeted than we’ve moved on to the ‘next big thing’. And the next big thing is showing his or her work at some dodgy art school of middling quality at taxpayer’s expense, hoping to shock you with some edgy work of marginal interest (this sentence could go on and on….)
And so we never notice that we are drawn to the specious moment, in our search for that euphoria of artistic discovery, a type of addictive behaviour overwhelms, which always needs a fix. In this way the conditions for ageism in art are created. QED.