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Does creative capability decline? by Robert Genn

Does creative capability decline?
by Robert Genn

Last Tuesday Michael Epp of Bowen Island, BC, Canada wrote, "I was intrigued by what you see as Norman Rockwell's decline with age. Do you think artists must inevitably suffer a waning of their powers as they grow older? I would like to think that, unlike athletes, for example, we can just keep getting better and better."

Thanks, Michael. The Canadian painter A.Y. Jackson called it "painterly senility." He thought it had something to do with the number of paintings painted. "Every painter has 2,500 paintings in him," he said, "no more, no less."

When I heard that statement (in a radio interview in 1974) I was already up to 7,000. I briefly figured I was prematurely on my way to the old painters' home, but I was wrong, and so was he.

True, when an artist reaches a critical volume of work, a sort of jaded blindness can easily set in. It's a failure of sight and it's sometimes difficult to spot. Curiously, the artist doesn't see as well what he saw so well when he was beyond amateur and nearing peak power. A few of the typically overlooked failures include crooked or sloppy horizon lines, poor tone values, amorphous forms, impatient, unresolved passages or the hasty skimming over of areas that were once well understood but now either lack challenge or are bedeviled by repetition or boredom.

To beat the problem, artists need to put two main concepts into play. First is increased vigilance--the artist needs to rethink all passages and try to reassess them "baby eyes new." Second is the refurbishing of youthful confidence. These two apps in tandem, like the combination of exercise and puzzle games for elderly folks, go a long way toward staving off creative vacuity and process bewilderment. It works. Delusion or not, many older artists tell me they now take a longer time to do their work, but by all accounts their work looks just as fresh.

More than anything, creative aging means keeping the mind alive to possibilities. In the art business, one never stops learning. Apart from the intervention of something truly disruptive like Alzheimer's, staying vital in your work is a matter of attitude. Rockwell's "tightening up" at the end was minor. Emphysema killed him at 84--the legacy of a lifetime of smoking.

Best regards,


PS: "Time growing old teaches all things." (Aeschylus)

Esoterica: Oscar Wilde said, "The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything." In coping with aging, artists do well to think about Oscar's idea. When growing old, we need to know that we still know everything. We need to rekindle our suspicions of the shibboleths we have glossed over and taken for granted. And we need to stop believing in all forms of nonsense, particularly the idea that we are "losing it." Aging is an adventure that requires the application of new and previously untested skills. "Come grow old with me," said William Wordsworth, "The best is yet to be."


Robert Genn has given ARTAZINE permission to post from his twice-weekly newsletter. For more of his artistic insights, visit his blog at www.painterspost.com.

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