2 Winter Fires (2012)

Published on 27 November 2012

Winter Fires: Art and Agency in Old Age is now available to download here. This page is a record of the original idea, which has evolved since its first conception in  2011.

In a spiritually sensitive culture, then, it might well be that age is something to be admired or envied. A person is released from the pressure to justify themselves, free to discover who they are – and perhaps to pass on to the rest of us something of what they discover.

Rowan Williams, Lecture, 6 Sept. 2005

Points of departure

Colin MacLean is a dancer in his 70s, now working with Entelechy Arts and others. He’d always loved dance, but he turned professional only 10 years ago after careers in the army and the church. Today, he quotes Merce Cunningham: ‘You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back – nothing but that fleeting moment when you feel utterly alive. It is not for unsteady souls’.

Leonard Cohen returned to the stage in his 70s after being cheated of his retirement fund. Performing for three hours each night, he charmed audiences across the globe with his grace and wisdom, quoting something once said to him by his centenarian Zen master, ‘Excuse me for not dying…’.

My own mother, a historian and translator, has experienced a similarly rich later life, publishing more since she retired than during her career. She has published more in her 70s and 80s than in the rest of her career: she has not run out of things to say.

Art, ideas and connections

Today, more British people are over 65 years old, than are under 16; in other countries, from Italy to Russia, the ratio of old to young is even greater. Politicians and commentators see this as a problem because they see the old as taking, not giving. They expect the needs of longer-lived people merely to place ever-greater demands on the ‘productive’ population.

BEIJING, March 8 2011 – Aging population poses a huge challenge to China’s pension system, minister of human resources and social security Yin Weimin said Tuesday.

From this perspective, older people are liabilities, not assets, on the national balance sheet. That analysis rests on false assumptions about age and worth. Living longer no longer equates with poor health and many people contribute as much in old age as when they were younger. For example 50% of people aged between 65 and 74 volunteer and our ‘big society’ depends hugely on their gifted work. Older people must be part of the solution to humanity’s unsustainable present, not least in helping rethink the values that have led us here. Art and culture, through which people create and share their values, are essential to that process of renewal.

The arts, in awe of youth like the rest of Western society, have their own contradictory ideas about ageing. They fret about audiences like a leaseholder whose term is coming up:

The classical music audience is aging faster than the population as a whole. In 1982 those under thirty years of age comprised 26.9% of the audience and by 1997 comprised just 13.2% of the audience.

But they also see the value of the ‘grey pound’ at a time when young people are less willing to pay for cultural product; the Economist recently reported that:

In Britain people aged 60 or over spent more on pop-music albums in 2009 than did teenagers or people in their 20s.

And Western culture celebrates what Edward Said called ‘Late Style’, evident in the last works of Beethoven, Shakespeare, Rembrandt and other icons of European art.  In 2008, the composer Elliott Carter marked his own centenary at the BBC Proms with two new works, showing that being old is not the same as being passé.

Below these highest reaches of Parnassus, however, older artists are less appreciated, Indeed, as far as amateurs and non-professionals are concerned, the focus turns back to what they might need rather than what they might contribute. The participatory arts sector has done much to extend a cultural franchise to older people but its justification has been strongly remedial, rooted in health, social care and wellbeing. This statement, from the Arts and Aging Toolkit, is characteristic:

Community arts programs run by professional artists have powerful positive results. Involvement in challenging, participatory programs has a positive effect on physical health, mental health, and social functioning in older adults.

The claim is well founded but in focusing on these personal and social benefits the arts world strengthens the dominant image of ageing as a merely degenerative process that strips us of mobility, intelligence and eventually autonomy.  In fact, our gifts and our ability to give, change throughout life. Both can grow even as our physical and other forces diminish. And art, which enables people to express the unique reality of being them, allows us to share our gifts until the end.


Winter Fires celebrates the practice of older artists – particularly those who’ve found their creative gifts late in life – and its distinctive voice in the arts and the community.  It recognises giving as essential to a fulfilled life and understands art’s capacity to enable gift relationships. It is the story of people who, late in life, offer light and warmth through their vision. It says that the old are like everyone else, just older.

Is it condescending for us old geezers to imply, as I’m doing here, that aging is deepening, or at least can be? […] Still, I cannot doubt that my life with music – at least some of it – is far less shallow, in the dismissive sense, than it was at twenty.

Wayne Booth ‘For the Love of it’

Winter Fires  is a series of encounters with older people active as artists. The focus is on individuals, exploring how their artistic commitment has changed over time. Participants share their own stories as they wish. The aim is to develop a form of co-production rather than an external, objectifying view and the evolving work (text and images) is checked with the participants as it progresses. People will represent only themselves but the group includes a range of practices, backgrounds and situations. There are professional and non-professional artists because these art world distinctions, as well as being self-serving, are not very meaningful after retirement. What matters is the seriousness of a person’s commitment to their art practice. The meetings are social and informal – conversations over a meal or a drink. Without intruding into that, they are documented through sound recording and photography and other material. The work will finally be presented in a book and this website.

A different way of telling

‘Winter Fires…’ will culminate in a body of creative work centred on these conversations. By juxtaposing the lived experience of older artists with the often-misguided contemporary discourse about ageing, it questions some of the assumptions that shape decision makers’ responses to both ageing and the arts. There is a conscious intention to develop alternative models of talking about the place of art and culture in people’s lives, moving away from approaches rooted in sociology, theory or management and towards one that embodies the humanist values of Western culture. Disciplines modelled on the natural sciences, for all their importance, have struggled to understand or describe the immaterial world of art, culture and human experience. ‘Winter Fires’ is part of a larger project that uses art’s own epistemologies to articulate its processes, experiences and value.

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms inside your head

Philip Larkin ,‘The Old Fools’, 1973

Winter Fires was made possible by The Baring Foundation as part of its programme supporting arts and older people,  

The Winter Fires book is available free of charge from the Foundation: 

The Baring Foundation, 
60 London Wall, 
London EC2M 5TQ

Tel: 020 7767 1348 
Email: baring.foundation@uk.ing.com

This Regular Marvel was completed in November 2012: the book is available on the downloads page.


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