Winter Fires was a project looking at how working as an artist – ‘artisting‘ as it’s described in the book – can change the experience of old age. I met many people in the 60s, 70s and 80s for whom art is an important aspect of their life. Some were professional, some serious amateurs and some had come to art because it allowed them to talk about the experience of ageing in public. Like all the Regular Marvels, the project was done in partnership with an artist, in this case case my friend Mik Godley. You can see some of the portraits he made using an iPad here.
Here is the text of my talk at Talk at Independent Creative Living Conference, Baltic, Gateshead (UK) on 28 June 2016; you can download a PDF of the talk by clicking this link; to download a copy of Winter Fires, click here.
Three Great Human Episodes
Towards the end of his own life, the critic and philosopher Edward Said became very interested in the last work of artists, for which he coined the phrase ‘Late Style’. He
saw human beings as engaged in a ‘self-making process’ that was defined by ‘three great human episodes common to all human cultures and traditions’. The first of these is experienced in childhood and youth. It focuses on origin, the starting point in time and space that defines both the possibilities and the limits that will shape a life. The middle concerns the unfolding of that potential, how adult actions fulfil or fail to fulfil the promise of youth, how a character is made by its history. The third, final episode is the story’s end, the descent of the dramatic arc in which resolution is achieved or denied, meaning found, lost or perhaps both. Sense is made, in the end. Sometimes, it is also true. [i]
A beginning, a middle and an end
There are several reasons why this idea appeals to me, including its link with Aristotle’s ideas about dramatic structure, which he described as
the representation of an action that is complete and whole and of a certain amplitude– for a thing may be whole and yet lack amplitude. A whole is that thing which has a beginning, middle, and an end.[ii]
With the publication of A Wider Horizon ten days ago, this phase of the Regular Marvels idea draws to a close. I say ‘this phase’ but I don’t know whether or when there may be a second one. Five years ago, I set out to explore different ways of writing about the place of the arts in people’s lives. I was dissatisfied with some aspects of my own previous work, and even more with the language and assumptions of current arts discourse. Two questions concerned me in particular:
- If art is important, why is it not accepted as a valid way to understand arts experience?
- If people are important, why not write about their experience in ways that they might read?
Regular Marvels was a response to both problems. My intention with each book was to:
- Work with a writer’s, not a researcher’s, methods and sensibility;
- Work with a visual artist as an equal partner in the process;
- Choose the subject and focus of each book myself;
- Write about things the art world undervalued or just didn’t see; and
- Write in ways that were approachable and interesting to those involved.
Those ideas shaped both the process and the final books, in particular the commitment to publishing them under a Creative Commons licence and making them free through this site. It also influenced their appearance and content: richly illustrated, legible design, accessible language, no footnotes. I wanted each one to be readable at a sitting – a long train journey perhaps.
A couple of recent but unconnected conversations have been encouraging. Joli Vyann, an exciting young performance company, told me that they’d been inspired by Bread & Salt when they were researching their piece about migration, Stateless. And Lyn Gardner, theatre critic with the Guardian (who has just written generously about A Wider Horizon) mentioned she’d read and quoted from Winter Fires. Writing can seem like a mad obsession, like constantly dropping messages in bottles off an ocean pier. It’s great when you get a reply.
With a bit more distance, I might give a better account of Regular Marvels. For now, I want to thank all those who’ve come on the journey – the people who’ve contributed to the books in countless ways and those who’ve read the results. It’s a big busy world and your attention is appreciated. In September, I’ll post news of a new project. In the meantime, I wish you a good summer (or winter if you’re reading this in the Southern Hemisphere…).
If you’d like a digital copy of A Wider Horizon, click on this link: A Wider Horizon (PDF 5MB). Printed books are available now from Creative Arts East, 19 Griffin Court, Market Street, Wymondham NR18 0GU, Tel: 01953 713390 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I have written about Mike White before. He belongs to the quiet army of artists and creative people who’ve nurtured socially engaged arts practice at the heart of community life today. A hugely valuable career at Womad, Welfare State International, Gateshead Council and Durham University came to early retirement last autumn as he continues treatment for cancer. Mike is also an old friend with whom I have had many stimulating conversations about art and people, health, well-being and community. Creative people use their gifts to make sense of their experience: it’s the human in us. A couple of weeks ago, Mike started a blog, Chalkie’s Demon Diary, about illness, life and lanterns. So much stuff doesn’t matter: this does. Please read it.
- Go to Chalkie’s Demon Diary
Update, 5 June 2015
Mike died today. I’ve written briefly about him here – Mike White – but there’s no more to say now.
Everything is Connected
At the end of his hour long set in the Federation Hall last night, the singer introduced the musicians who’d accompanied him, before booming out: ‘I’m Fred Brookes and I’ve just had the most wonderful time of my life!’. That’s something to say at your 72nd birthday party, when you’ve just sung about your heart attack and the ambulance that took you to hospital.
Fred Brookes is known as an expert in the creative industries though he’s played many roles, professional and personal, in his life. To those, he’s now added that of recording artist: his first album, Everything is Connected, came out last year. No wonder he’s having the time of his life.
If they think we’ve had enough of beer and drugs and sex
Better think again, and just watch out what’s coming next
They ain’t seen nothing yet
On the record is Golden Generation, Fred’s celebration of life as a baby boomer and his music enacts every bit of optimism they ever had. It’s living proof that peace, education and health care lay the foundations of long and fruitful lives. The post-war generation not only benefited from those public goods, they used them to redefine how to live. Now they are redefining old age as they explore it.
The previous generation had raged against the dying of the light: this one sings about it. I tip my hat to the man who sings ‘If you want to get ahead, get a hat’.
What else would you expect from a baby boomer and a specialist in the creative industries?
‘Music is in the first place of art. It brings us on an island with peace, beauty and love. Music is a dream!’
These are the words of Alice Herz Sommer, whose story is told in The Lady in No.6, and whose death was announced today. At the age of 110, she still played the piano every day, from memory, as she had throughout her life, including the two years she spent with her small son in Theresienstadt concentration camp. In the film, she says, ‘I knew that we will play; and I was thinking, when we can play, it can’t be so terrible. I felt that this is the only thing which helps me to have hope.’
Everything that need be said, Alice Herz Sommer says in the film. There’s more joy and truth in this short trailer than in whole libraries of reports about the value of the art, and the film itself is a treasure. It’s worth a few minutes of anybody’s time.
Alice Herz Sommer
Born Prague, 26 November 1903
Died London. 23 February 2014
‘Every day in life is beautiful, every day that we are here, that we can speak about everything. It’s beautiful.’
The pleasures of one generation are often incomprehensible to another. I first heard the phrase ‘Old Time and Sequence Dancing’ when a couple wanted to print a poster advertising sessions they ran at the local community centre. I was 25 and they were retired. Their artistic tastes seemed exotically remote to me then, like those of a distant culture. Now it’s the tastes of 25 year olds that seem distant.
What hasn’t changed in those decades is the importance of dancing among people entitled to a pension. I’ve learned more about it over the years and come to appreciate a rich, sophisticated aspect of contemporary artistic life. It involves millions, and is of real cultural and social importance, but doesn’t get much attention. Perhaps that’s why Daniel Baker calls his project about older people’s dancing, Unknown Empires.
Daniel is an artist and, in his own words, an amateur anthropologist. We met during my work on Winter Fires, when, as Education Director of Cubitt Studios in Islington, he put me in touch with several of the older artists who participate in the workshops and events he organises. His site is a lovely evocation of movement and mutuality (which I suppose is just a long way of saying dance) tracing his journeys among groups in London and elsewhere. As he says:
From Scottish Circle, to Sequence and Line, from Disco and Ballroom to Balkan Folk, the dancing is varied and full of life. The music, customs and practices are unique and contemporary: creating new traditions instead of reliving scenes from the past.
In February, he will present the project* in the context of a Science Museum exhibition of photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr documenting, in the curators’ words, ‘the eccentricities of English social customs. It will be an intriguing juxtaposition of cultures, though I wonder just who is calling who eccentric.
* To book follow this link: Unknown Empires
An ethnographer’s perspective on drawing
A few weeks after the publication of Winter Fires, I was contacted by the editor of an academic journal, Anthropology and Aging Quarterly, who was interested in reproducing some of Mik Godley’s images. Naturally, Mik and I were very happy to agree, and a portfolio with an explanatory note was published in the spring issue. I asked Jason Danely, the editor, to give me a sense of why he was interested in the images. This is what he says:
Images and other forms of media are not merely decorations for the journal, but generate a new kind of knowledge-making process that invites the viewer into an engagement with the subject. When I read Winter Fires, I could not imagine the text as separate from Mik Godley’s photo-paintings. This collaborative process of engagement perfectly suited the topics of creativity and art in later life. Mik’s portraits not only stir the emotions of the viewer, but they add depth to the expressions and lives of the subjects.
Ethnography also, at its best, has a particular aesthetic commitment, and does not masquerade as an objective recounting of events, but presents the ethnographer and her process as a vital part of the research. Mik’s process of reworking each photo reveals the artistic hand in ways that the camera cannot capture.
Together with the text, I was moved to wonder about the role of art and creativity not only in the lives of older people, but in my own perspective of aging and the ways I engage with aging visually. I reflected on the way these images were different from other images of aging that circulate in popular media. Most of all, I came to think about my own writing on creativity in aging, the aesthetic commitments that I use to convey the complexity and everyday life in old age.
Jason’s comments prompt several trains of thought, but the one I want to look at here is his point that ethnography does not pretend to a simple objectivity.
Drawing is not objective: that’s why it matters
The idealisation of objectivity in contemporary culture has long troubled me—I wrote about it 15 years ago, in the introduction to Use or Ornament?—both because it is untrue and because it is used to promote or disqualify certain forms of knowledge and, by extension, certain values, ideas and political theories. Artistic method is central to Regular Marvels, both in the collaborations with other artists and in the literary construction of my texts, partly to signal plainly that these books do not aspire to the kind of objectivity that is used to legitimise some kinds of science and, through intellectual sleight of hand, what is called ‘evidence-based policy’.
The risk, even in questioning the hegemony of this concept of how knowledge is created, is to be accused of methodological failure and therefore irrelevance. That bad faith shows why scientism in Western culture must be challenged: after all, testing is intrinsic to scientific method. Scientific objectivity can be vital in the right places. But it is not the only method of thinking deeply and with integrity about human experience. Nor is it the only way of distinguishing truth from falsehood. The vast and ancient practice of art is another, which is why 2,500 year old plays can still move us today, though we are so different from the people who created them.
And, despite the inability of some scientists, politicians, academics and, yes, artists, to understand it, these human systems of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary, interactive and mutually rewarding.
The work of ethnography is one area, among others, where acceptance of the limits of objectivity challenges the researcher to be even more watchful of their own biases, because they do not trust a method to do it for them. Rather than pretending that their own reality can be left at the laboratory door, ethnographers, like good artists, bring it inside, the better to keep a watch on it.
A note on the photographs: Nicholas Nixon and the Brown Sisters
The photographs that I’ve used to illustrate this post (alongside one of Mik Godley’s images, which are already familiar to visitors to this site) come from a remarkable project by Nicholas Nixon. Since 1975, Nicholas Nixon has made an annual group portrait of his wife with her three sisters. The resulting sequence now stretches over 30 years and is one of the most extraordinary works of portraiture I have seen.
In a press release for a 25 year retrospective of the series, the Zabriskie Gallery wrote this about the series:
For this ongoing series, the artist adheres to two unwavering constants. First, the sisters always pose in the same frontal sequence; Laurie, Heather, Bebe, and Mimi. Second, regardless of how many negatives exposed, only one is selected for printing from each individual year’s batch. This imparts a scientific approach to the work, with its unchanging variables, setting parameters for the creative process. However, operating within these limits also allows the subject matter to richly expand, allowing the viewer to partake more empathetically in the lives of the four individuals.
Despite the misuse of the word ‘scientific’, this is clearly an artistic method, using its own rules. It is also extraordinarily rigorous since it imposes a shared responsibility for the continuation of the process on the sitters. But what matters, in the end, is that the work is a beautiful and moving reflection on human life.
This text was partly inspired by my experiences meeting older artists, as documented in Winter Fires
Art and wellbeing in old age
[This is the English text of a chapter I contributed to a book on art and ageing called Lang Leven Kunst, which was published on 18 June 2013 in Rotterdam.It’s rather long for a blog post, so to download a PDF of the whole text, please click on this link.]
Everybody knows that human beings now live much longer than they did in the past, and not only in the rich West but across the globe. We know too the reasons for this change: better health care and nutrition, less manual labour, access to education, growing prosperity and so on. We even know the economic and social challenges this ‘long tail’ presents, as humanity’s demographic profile changes. What we do not seem to know is what we should do with our lengthening lives.
Spiritually conscious cultures often associate the last years of…
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It’s an old-fashioned ladies hairdressers’, on a down-at-heel high road in the West Midlands. The owner – let’s call her Linda – has worked there for decades, cutting, washing and perming the hair of countless women she’s grown old with.
Chairs line both walls in front of mirrors, hair-dryers to one side. There’s a poster of a young Elvis and the price board has those press-in plastic letters that once seemed so modern.
Linda’s is what it has always been – a community space where women pop in as much for a chat as for a tidy up. Last year, one of the customers turned 100—she wasn’t the first—and there was sherry and cake at 9.30am, when she came in to get her hair done.
A week ago, that lady died. Many old friends have been lost in the past year or two. Linda says you can see it in how the takings are down. So now she’s had a letter from the Tax Office. They’re coming to interview her—to make sure the business is not a front for money laundering.
You’d laugh, if it weren’t so sad.
Is this really the best we can do in thinking about the needs of an ageing society?