I’m not young any more. It pains me to write that, as I am sure it would pain most people, but why? What’s wrong with being the age you are? What has age got to do with your art? Aren’t there advantages to being older and wiser?
It’s undeniable that there are numerous advantages to being youthful. Your strength, vigour, stamina and enthusiasm are still undiminished. The aches and pains that accompany your advancement through the decades have not yet begun to bite and you recover much more quickly from these minor physical setbacks. As a more youthful person, you are considered to be more attractive and desirable. Selling your art is somehow easier, if you are a person people want to admire, rather than feel pity or repulsion at the state of your decaying flesh.
This all-pervasive bias toward youth and youth culture, so prevalent in our society, often convinces older artists to give up and never make another work of art ever again. I think they write themselves off and abandon their art prematurely. You often hear of artists saying they’re too old to do this, that or the other. They feel it’s too late to learn or embark on any significantly challenging project. I think this is nonsense. Older artists, particularly established ones, are frequently blind to the fact that all their audience wants is for them to keep going. Somehow, they lose sight of that fact.
You can’t be a young, fit artist your whole life. If your artistic identity is rooted in your youth, there will come a very uncomfortable day of reckoning, when maintaining the fiction is simply no longer credible. Yet, there are distinct advantages that come with experience, the insight that comes from thinking about your artistic practice over an extended period of time and from increasing wisdom. Can you use those advantages in your favour, to leverage those in order to become a better artist that makes better art? Maybe you should be playing to those strengths, instead of trying to be so flash.
They say that creativity is a numbers game. Make a lot of art and some of your art will be great. Put in your 10,000 hours and you should achieve mastery. This theory (which has some evidential basis) asserts that putting in the consistent effort, the practice and the bloody-minded dedication is all it takes to become a great artist. I think it’s a necessary, but insufficient condition. There’s more to it.
Given the fact that older artists are likely to have produced more works and spent more hours on their practise, so that theoretically at least, they will (by sheer law of averages) have produced some remarkable works of art, why then does popular culture exhibit a marked preference for emerging and younger artists? These Johnny-come-latelys cannot have made enough art or put in enough hours to compete, surely. What makes the difference in these young artists, so that older artists struggle to compete?
Age and experience can have distinctive advantages of their own, which while not quite so celebrated in popular culture, can help an older artist create truly great art. We all love a fit, attractive young thing, of reproductive age, for purely visceral, animalistic reasons, after all, but that can’t be the only thing that defines our humanity and our relationship with art. In some fields, like classical composition, painting or writing novels, the advantages that older artists have is somewhat acknowledged. We speak of old masters and maestros. However, in popular music, older musicians barely get a look in.
When it comes down to it, genius does not come solely from putting in the hours, from rehearsal and practice and from sheer dogged determination alone. That can get you to journeyman status, for sure, but not propel you to genius. Artistic genius is more about entertaining people and emotional engagement. To accomplish that, you have to be doing something different, not 10,000 hours of repetitive practice, doing the same old thing. It’s not about shredding and demonstrating your technical mastery. It’s about connecting. You’re not there to bludgeon your listener to death with your sheer technical skill on your chosen instrument. You’re there to reach parts of their heart and soul that are rarely, if ever, reached.
When it comes to connecting with an audience and reaching into their hearts and souls, age can have many advantages. You will have had more life experiences, been humiliated and humbled through failure (and sometimes infirmity) more times and you will have opportunities to be more compassionate and empathic. With that enhanced emotional intelligence and understanding, you have the capacity to produce art which doesn’t try to dazzle, but rather tries to soothe, or uplift, or spread joy. Those are big advantages – perhaps even decisive ones.
It’s better to do something differently and fail at it than to do something orthodox and succeed. There is more joy in that for everyone and that’s where genius comes from. For every young, virtuoso guitar player that can blitz you with a million notes per second, executed perfectly, there is an older guitar play that can produce a sustained note that is so sweet, so understated, so delicate and subtle, so appropriate to its musical context, yet so impactful, that audiences are moved to tears. This is where the great art is to be found.
Younger artists lack context and perspective. They are still brash and insensitive. Even the sensitive ones lack breadth of experience. Their concern is still focused on looking good, rather than making art that delivers emotional impact. They can’t yet tell that they need to learn other skills, like composition, song structure, lyric writing, great vibrato technique, so that their instrument sings and a zillion other fields of study that can, in the fullness of time, enrich their artistic outpourings. In their minds, the goal is still to find their mate, not to embrace all of humanity with love and understanding. Their quest might have an intensity that other people can relate to, but the bigger picture is the bigger picture. Being an older artist, whose love for humanity bleeds from your paintings, or music, or prose, is the more powerful way to create art.
Today, we have the tools to make better music. They’re relatively cheap and ubiquitously available. It has never been so easy, cheap and fast to make music that once took months or years to produce. Whereas music consumers once had no idea how music was produced and so placed it on a pedestal, like gifts from the Gods, today everybody knows which software made which records. They have that software too. There is no mystery and so nothing particularly special about music producers. Musical creativity has, in some senses, been democratised.
Given that we have these superior, frictionless tools of production, permitting us to place our music in front of an audience with equally alacrity, then we should make better music. Take that experience, insight and empathy, pour your heart out and connect with an audience. Even though it’s easier than ever to make art that is ok, find the integrity to push yourself beyond ok to make something great. Making great music is no longer about using better software and equipment; it’s about using the software and equipment better than anybody else does.
I submit that the reason the world is awash with mediocre music is that it’s so easy to create passable music and so many of the music producers are so young, they lack the discipline and emotional depth to produce anything more substantial. This is where older artists might have an edge.
Of course, there are those older artists that have eschewed the new technology, remaining proud of their more authentic ways and insights into making great music. They’re half right, but they’ve given themselves a serious handicap they didn’t need to have, in not learning how to use the new technology to create and deliver what their authentic souls already have within them. By refusing to embrace the new tools, they’ve cut themselves off from their audience.
For proof that youth culture no longer produces work of the same emotional richness as older artists can, look to the behaviour of record companies. They act as if they’re trying to find sneakier ways of fooling the buying public into accepting content of a lesser standard than they ought to. It’s tacitly acknowledged (but never publicly admitted) that their youthful artists are producing emotionally distant and unappealing works that don’t connect with people very powerfully, so they have to devise ever more byzantine and clandestine ways of pushing this product into the market. They never even consider the dimension of making better records. All they care about is passing off the junk that has become so easy to crank out effortlessly. To me, that sounds like an opportunity.
Great art and artistic genius is actually all about innovation, more than putting in the hours. New artistic ideas are what ought to be our stock in trade. Older artists can either ossify their old ideas, preserving them like dusty museum exhibits, or else draw upon their superior life experience and technical skills to serve as a well spring of exciting, innovative, artistic ideas. Ideas at first considered outrageous, ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed and accepted.
It’s vanishingly unlikely that you have no choice, as an older artist. It’s more the case that there’s no easy choice. There probably isn’t a safe choice that also accommodates and enhances your potential. If you’re looking for a choice that doesn’t cause short-term misery and struggle, in exchange for long term benefit, you will search in vain. You’re going to have to take chances. You’re going to have to risk failure. Established, older artists fear failure more, because they have their reputations, hard won over decades of sustained work, at stake. Gamble it all.
You shouldn’t be living out your role of being an artist, which is a performance of sorts, for the benefit of the public and your own ego. Rather, you should be living out your immutable experience of doing and making art. It’s the art that counts, not your identity as an artist. Let go of that and go back to what brings you the most joy. Share that joy through the works you make. That’s all there is to it.
Ageism in art only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. The evidence is that there are many accomplished, experienced artists, of an advanced age, that are still producing great art and arguably, their greatest works. The older they get; the younger they feel.
“The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect…” – Rebecca Solnit
We are artists because we are ourselves.
Side note: Many older artists fear and avoid the tsunami of vitriolic, abusive, unfounded, anonymous criticism that the modern, on-line world makes possible. They stop making art altogether or no longer wish to put it out there, up for criticism and derision. Society’s obsession with judgement and hatred, as if it’s any of their business, is not a good omen. Imagine what it means for somebody to spend hours and hours of their life indulging in nothing but pure hatred, judgementalism, censoriousness, abuse of creative people and their works and destruction of anything made and anybody that cares enough to make things. What a degenerate state of existence. The sense of grasping entitlement, wanting it to all to be available for free and still being able to casually, insouciantly trash the artist and their work, is a disturbing trend. It is a symptom of a much deeper, darker malaise affecting humanity, which can only be amended by exposure to great art and music that reaches the emotional centres of these otherwise hatred-obsessed individuals. Reason enough to keep making better art. Maybe they feel stifled in their own creative endeavours.