Flowers are not the only late-bloomers…

“Flowers are not the only late-bloomers…”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 64, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

We live in an ageing society. There are for example more people are over 65 than under 18. But many baby boomers, a factor in this, are still in their 50s, so imagine the social changes to come over the next 10 or 15 years. What if they all wanted to become artists?

A recent report (“The Future for Lifelong Learning” by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and chaired by Sir David Watson) has found that 86% of the £55 billion annually available for public funding of adult education is actually spent on people in the 18-25 age group, leaving the growing numbers of ‘older’ adults with very little. The report observes that our priorities are confused and that the resources should be oriented more toward the post-25 age group, and perhaps more importantly toward those closer to retirement and older. I would add that with increased pressure on the public purse, the best use of this money is also a new imperative.

Without falling into ageism, I believe the art community is trapped in a constellation of assumptions about the origins of creativity and when artistic talent can bloom. Clearly not all important creativity comes from the young. That much is indeed obvious. Could this be seen as a ‘cult of youth’, or of the worst sort of ageism?

I was feeling pretty depressed at this point when Art of England surprised in the August 2009 issue with an article, “Second Life”, on the painter Nasser Azim, , who is renewing himself through art, following a career in the financial sector. Nasser is not alone in his endeavours, as many people are similarly motivated to do what he has done.

Indeed, with the ageing of the population, increasing numbers of older folk may be late-blooming artists. What I wonder about is whether the art community is ready to embrace them, despite stories such as this about Nasser Azim?

In education, art programmes are built around the needs of younger, first career artists, not adult learners. Serious part-time programmes are limited, while many adult education programmes approach art recreationally and do not offer opportunities for late career development. Grant programmes can be selectively discriminatory. Art galleries are looking for that special new (young?) talent, and the art community feasts on the “graduate art shows” with their often inscrutable products, despite evidence that very few graduates actually pursue careers in art. And so it goes.

I was interested to watch the new television show “Design for Life” which has no contestant over 35, yet the host, Philippe Stark, the real genius is clearly older, and apparently more creative, insightful and energetic than the “designers” (I’m being polite) chosen to be on the show. Indeed, one of the first contestants to be sent home hadn’t even finished his university studies. Of course, television isn’t about the real world, is it, and perhaps design isn’t art?

So how are we to make sense of the late-blooming artist? For such people, they may be seeking an opportunity to put away the career choices they made as a younger person, and embrace what might have been a lifelong artistic desire, never fulfilled. But a late-blooming artist is not an oddity of nature. I think they could be a major source of renewed vigour within the art community. I see these older artists providing challenging alternative artistic perspectives, as they put mature ideas and images before us. Such art may speak to us in ways that much art now fails. Is the art community prepared to listen?

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