Whether artists hit their stride right after college or make their best work in their final years, the creative career seldom has a conventional trajectory. We asked seven leading artists aged 24 to 80 what they haved learned from a life in art
The Japanese master Hokusai was one day found weeping at his workbench because he believed he had not yet learned enough about drawing. He was 80. On his deathbed, eight years later, he cried out, “If heaven would only grant me 10 more years, I might still become a great artist.” We may consider Hokusai a genius from childhood but he thought nothing he produced before the age of 70 was any good. How long does it take to become an artist?
A whole lifetime is the stock answer (unless you’re Julian Schnabel, who compared himself to Picasso in his 20s). But what if that life is cut short? Raphael, Watteau and Van Gogh were dead at 37. Modigliani was 35, Géricault 33 and Seurat was carried off by a virulent illness at 31. We may regret every masterpiece they did not live to paint, but the stupendous works they left show that age and achievement do not keep pace. Schiele was dead at 28; if Gauguin had died at the same age we would never have heard of him: The Ham, arguably his first masterpiece, was painted at 40.
There are other late starters (Van Gogh didn’t paint until his mid-20s) but these days the pressure is on young artists to come up with a singular look while they are still in college. Ever since Charles Saatchi began trawling degree shows in the 1980s, students have had to produce selling statements alongside their work, never mind that it may still be inchoate.
Laure Prouvost argues that early success may be dangerous. Get picked up in your 20s and you may founder later because “you haven’t tried hard enough, or got lost enough yet”.
Assuming you aren’t netted at this stage (or any other), a day job will have to carry you through. Richard Serra was a removal man; Ed Kienholz sold vacuum cleaners; Susan Hiller here reveals an early stint as a receptionist at a Skoda factory. The trick is to find work that doesn’t exhaust the body, or fill the head so that there is no room for thinking.
Perhaps there is some freedom in making art without any sense of its prospects to begin with, for as soon as people start liking it, there is a compulsion to keep doing the same thing to survive. I have heard artists in their 30s and 40s speak of the intense difficulty of getting new ideas accepted by galleries or potential buyers. And just around this time a family may fill the horizon.
The old adage that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, has never applied to artists, nearly all of whom teach at some stage to feed their dependants. I remember my father, James Cumming, literally running upstairs to his easel after a day’s teaching to paint right through the night; money and time were so tight.
The age of 50 brings the realisation that you’re in it now for the long haul, with all the hardship, labour and joy. “Everyone has talent at 25,” Degas sardonically observed, “the difficulty is to have it still at 50.” At 60, there is the knowledge that more projects may now be abandoned than made. At 70, like Hokusai, some artists begin to think they are at last getting somewhere even if the spotlight has eluded them. Louise Bourgeois, still sculpting weeks before her death at 98, said that the lack of interest in her art up to this point at least left her to work beautifully undisturbed.
The most radical art of all is sometimes the very last. Late Titian, late Picasso, late Matisse – in a wheelchair, devising the cut-out technique when he could no longer paint – seem so much wilder and more vigorous in their 80s than in youth. But a sense of urgency can dominate at any age. George Shaw, at 48, feels time’s winged chariot drawing near, and the drive to work increasing exponentially. Paula Rego, in her 80s, says working makes one forget the miseries of old age. And perhaps it is true that artists stay younger for longer, as Hiller suggests; I recall solemn research to this effect published in Nature (sculptors, incidentally, apparently live longer than painters).
The artists interviewed here are all exceptional in that they have the recognition, freedom and financial security that millions of their colleagues will never enjoy. Yet they share the same preoccupations: how to raise families while working, what to make, how to find time, how to keep one’s spirit, vision and integrity intact. And even, in Richard Deacon’s case, whether and when to retire.
For artists do not have to go on for ever. Marcel Duchamp spent most of the last 30 years of his life teaching and playing chess. Generally it is rare for artists to give up for good, certain that they have made everything they could; the mind lifts the hand for ever, my father used to say. And for most artists, this is not a profession but a calling. The great Cuban-born painter Carmen Herrera, who turned 100 this year, and did not sell a work until she was 89, gets up every morning to paint. Her advice to the young is not to hurry through their 20s, and never to be intimidated by anything. “You don’t decide to be an artist,” she has said, “art gets inside of you. It’s like falling in love.”
The purpose of Life is to Live! But upon arrival on this Earth it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the agenda. Ninety nine percent of what’s going on here is not about enhancing human creative potential, but about suppressing it.
It’s about stepping onto an invisible ladder whose rungs form the seemingly inviolable rules of a stagnant, pyramid posturing status quo. A status quo which has almost nothing to do with growing, but a lot to do with decaying. With becoming a well adapted slave in a world whose task masters are kings of a two-dimensional sub reality.
That reality consists of a monotonous fixation on the acquisition of power, money, prestige and preeminence. A world in which a quite deadly lack of awareness remains the prevailing condition; ruthlessly maintained by a small cabal in whose interests it is to keep things exactly as they are, lest some unguarded rebellion should dislodge them from their imperious, sterile thrones.
However the life force is strong. It cannot and will not tolerate eternal repression. Wherever fissures appear in the status quo, it bubbles up and declares itself to be the messenger of truth. “This is our World. We are breaking free and shining a light on the path to be manifest.”
So what is it that is still holding back so many from actually making that illumined path manifest?
Breaking through the cozy similitudes of a largely routine, safe existence, takes courage and conviction. There is no ‘easy way’ to truth. But the thought of venturing into a deeper side of one’s self – and of jumping into new paradigms of external involvement – often arouses a sense of fear.
Honest internal and external exploration bring things to the surface that many would rather leave buried and, as far as possible, forgotten.
Such embarkations into previously uncharted territories are, for many, an unsettling experience; one where our deeper intuition appears to be at odds with our mundane fixations. Where the inner call to be awake clashes with all too easily accepted patterns of day-to-day existence. Patterns whose ‘successful’ completion ironically, require that one remains largely asleep!
Fear can – and does – create the single largest block to the manifestation of our basic consciousness.
The manifestation of consciousness is not a passive affair, it demands taking action. ‘An action that speaks louder than words.’ And here’s where the next level of inner, fear based resistance kicks-in and tries to hold us back from making a stand. Tries to prevent our involvement in positive acts of resistance in response to the further erosion of the planet’s life support system. And to the further erosion of essential facets of daily life right in our own back yards.
Overcoming the hold which the fear factor exerts upon us is, I believe, the single greatest step we can make towards the emancipation of the true self and a rising consciousness. There are one hundred and one different ways of doing it, but recognition of the paralysis it causes in us is a major first step.
There are many amongst those longing for both internal and external change who fall at the first hurdle due to a seeming lack of self-confidence. A lack of self-esteem. But this need not be, for this sense of ‘lack’ is a trick played upon us by a wayward ‘second self’. A little devil who has acquired entry into our subconscious and is damned if he is going to quit without a fight!
He’s a cunning one alright, because he disguises himself as our actual thoughts; making us believe that ‘we’ can’t do such and such – because ‘we’ are not capable – ‘we’ are not good enough.. But it ain’t the real us speaking, it’s the little demon which Carlos Castaneda refers to as “a foreign installation”. And yes, it is a foreign installation. And a devilishly clever little trickster to boot!
Try putting a proposal (to yourself ) to do something for which you feel a great need, but have not as yet taken the step of actually putting into practice. Now, as soon as the foreign installation kicks in with “But I can’t .. it’s really not possible..” you know it’s that little Lucifer fellow. He’s tricking you into believing that ‘you’ arrived at this prognosis, when actually he did. “But I can’t..” Yep – that’s him!
Once you know this you’re on your way. Once you disentangle your real self from that foreign installation – you have one foot on the path to the promised land. No ‘but’s’ – unless you feel a positive urge to boot that little demon in the butt!
Yes, well, let’s admit it, getting off one’s ‘butt’ and getting going isn’t the easiest for some people. But most forms of laziness stem from being unmotivated and unwilling to make the effort to become motivated.
There are certain days when we all feel it; days when the energy seems to be drained out of us and nothing really comes to our rescue to kick the mood. But that form of ‘enforced’ lack of motivation can be in our best interests, as it may well stem from too many days of over exertion without a break.
It’s not the same as the kind of in-built lack of get up and go which afflicts millions, sometimes for long periods of their lives. This disease, and it is such, is more often than not associated with being ‘too comfortable’. Too wrapped up in one’s own self-interested state of material well-being to ever consider doing something for the good of the greater whole.
This affliction is particularly prevalent amongst those who feel safest when operating in a club-like atmosphere where maintaining a public face of cheery conviviality acts as an insurance policy to protect against ever having to think and act ‘outside the box’. To ever get truly serious about the dire nature of the predicaments faced by mankind and mankind’s planet – and indeed one’s own neglected soul.
For these beings, the only thing to jolt them out of their lethargy, is a disaster. And so it is that millions will in fact face just such a disaster, as a form of karmic retribution for failing to make use of the gifts bestowed upon them.
This form of ‘waking up as a last resort’ is clearly to be avoided. Our World needs action in the here and now – and not years of inaction in never-never land.
Here’s another barnacle encrusted old anchor chain that’s been holding back the evolution of large segments of often thoughtful individuals .. for far too long.
So it starts with worrying about what other people might think about one, especially if one is intending to embark upon something which fails to conform to the politically correct menu of the day. It’s a form of paralysis which blocks any instinct to move away from ‘herd mentality syndrome’ with its rigid confirmation to what are considered ‘acceptable’ parameters of behavior.
So powerful, for many, is the pull of trying to appear normal, that few openings exist for the true individual to ever emerge. What a tragic waste of human potential!
The prevalence of this condition is particularly well suited to the goals of the centralized control system. The one which sets the agenda of daily life on our planet. It plays into the hands of the top-down politics of persuasion through ensuring basic conformity with whatever the majority might be up to. Not daring to ever speak-out against even the most fool hardy propositions and practices, lest one should appear ‘different’, is a disaster area of global proportions, especially in the face of ill-conceived and often abject acts of destruction which we witness almost every day of our lives.
I’ve got news for those who suffer this affliction: you’re not going to be your own best friend in later life if you fail to make the effort to overcome your shyness now. Because either the frustration will build up to the point where sickness intervenes, or you accept becoming just another number amongst the robotic crowd. A crowd that operates without any true emotions ever breaking the surface.
That’s an ugly choice to have in front of one. So why not break free today? Stop hiding your light under a bushel; step out and let it shine!
You’ll be amazed at how much brighter everything becomes once one ceases trying to be like Mr, Mrs or Ms Normal..
Stuck in the Wrong Job
This one’s a major energy sucker, as anyone in this position surely realizes. The inventor of the 9 to 5 work day sure came up with a clever control mechanism for keeping mankind terminally preoccupied. Preoccupied with ‘earning a living’ – pretty much 24/7.
What the hell is this? Shackled to a desk in a neon lit air-conditioned sterile office building with only a computer as work mate? Or maybe not quite as dull as that, but nevertheless, enforced and usually slavish routine day after day. A routine that ultimately only succeeds in bringing in more dosh to a business or corporation whose end product is just one of millions steadily destroying the health and welfare of planet Earth and most of her occupants. Get the hell out of there – and fast!
Better to be on the street than in this kind of prison. Better (by far) to be working for yourself, not for someone who is only out to use you, prior to installing a robot a year or two down the road. The kind of robots that don’t ask for wages. You know. They’re even better than the one’s that do, like you.
The typical 9 to 5 job leaves no time for the type of deep reflection required to move forward into a state of conscious awareness. How could it – when 90% of one’s energy is used-up fighting to survive in the job market jungle. The rat race.
Our survival as human beings demands more than the monthly pay cheque. It demands that we are able to hear the voice of our true selves, and then turn its message to good effect in helping to shift the tide of history in a positive direction. Away from the neo-liberal capitalist money-making machine and into something which calls forth a true power of awakening, sharing and social responsibility.
The Skeptical Intellectual
“I can see that it won’t work.” Yes, sure you can! Because you made-up your mind years ago that there’s really no point in getting involved in any remotely idealistic initiative, since such initiatives are all doomed to failure at the hands of Mr Realism and his “I know best” crew.
There’s something more than faintly fatalistic about our skeptical intellectual. Strange really, to build a pedestal for one’s self and then set it in a concrete plinth, so as to be impervious to the swirling current of a life force which is capable of bringing ‘a mountain to Mohamed’ if that’s what’s really needed.
“Prove it”. And when he says that, you know that everything which follows is something ‘you’ have to do – never him. For him, proof is actually never good enough anyway, because the mind which demands answers without ever trying to find them itself, is a sad and polluted vessel; badly in need of a full immersion detox.
Yet many of these sorts of people are just the one’s to become bankers, army corporals, political strategists, bureaucrats, professors and civil servants. They are the glue that holds together the status quo. Very reliable at carrying out their duties and ensuring that nothing too imaginative or spontaneous ever gets in amongst the automated cogs and wheels of the sanitized status quo.
The best cure for such individuals is to suffer an insufferable shock .. like falling in love. Is it possible? Something that shakes them to their roots and causes a little volcano to erupt deep within. That which is capable of blowing away the densely packed layers which have caused a crust of cynicism to form over buried benign feelings of compassion, joy, creativity and yes, love. Something which turns on its head all the false pride of an over indulged, obese ego.
Lack of Passion
This is very bad news. Nothing, but nothing, truly meaningful comes into being without someone, somewhere, having a strong desire to bring to life their deepest needs. The manifestation of our inner powers is all about following through on that which inspires us. Inspires us to take action, to create meaningful change.
That should be the very definition of ‘living’ of ‘being alive’. All the rest is shadow boxing with phantoms. And happy are these phantoms to be given so much unearned attention.
It is passion which created life in the first place. Passion is the precondition for all genuinely creative acts. It is the motor of universal movement. It is the dance of life!
Yet, for tens of millions of human souls it remains an almost entirely missing ingredient. And if, God forbid, it should ever rear its beautiful head, it is greeted with as much indifference as its recipient can possibly muster!
Come on! Sustained intent, fueled as it is by passion, poses a massively intrusive threat on the control system’s determination to keep the lid on human emancipation. It is the key without which we cannot unlock the door behind which we have for so long been imprisoned.
Look, I’m not talking about ‘having a blast’, going to a rave, or even getting worked-up about something nasty going on in the neighbourhood. The architects of control have arranged all the outlets you will ever need to ‘let off steam’; such sporadic outbursts of passion are well catered for.
No, I’m talking about a deeply sustained burning intent which simply will not die; once you’ve given it your recognition and grasped the implications of its transformative powers.
It’s the reason I write these essays. A deep need to share a vision of something. Something out of the ordinary. Sharing my thoughts and aspirations with you, dear reader. That’s all part and parcel of this passion – which catches fire in those who are ready to burn.
That’s it! And it all bubbles up from a place which is inseparable from Source. It is Source. Passion is ‘the original energy’.
So how could one hope to Live Life without this primary force playing its fundamental role in everything one does. I can barely imagine. It’s not possible. For whatever that thing is which happens between the time when we are born (on Earth) and the time we depart (from Earth) – it is not Life unless it is inspired by passion. It is a fake.
And, due to the fact that so many feel the need to fake their way through life, our World is starved of direction. There are too few helmsmen. It is largely direction-less. The only forces to bring direction into this vacuum are the masters of control. The architects of fear. The instigators of war, oppression and violence.
Quite simply, it is the lack of ‘we the people’s’ ability to sustain a passionate commitment to taking forward the callings of our destinies which is responsible for a global take-over by the preeminent despotic masters of oppression and control.
If we want to ensure their days are numbered, and we surely do, we must dig deep. Yes, dig deep, always keeping victory firmly in our sights. The despots cannot endure a sustained barrage of many awakened souls. They fall away, exposed as the hollow cardboard shells which they really are.
Comfort and luxury are usually the chief requirements of life for your ego—its top priorities tend to be accumulations, achievements, and the approval of others.
Consider a new alternative for what makes you happy, one that soars beyond the superficial demands of the ego. The only thing that you need for this state of joy is something to be passionate about. Something that speaks only to you…that gets you tingling inside with excitement…that will not go away…that radiates within you…that sends you into a frenzy of good feeling because it makes you feel purposeful and connected to your Source of being. It doesn’t matter what it is. The only requirement is that you feel intensely about it and are willing to act with enthusiasm, awakening the sleeping God within you.
As Abraham Maslow once observed about self-actualizing people: “They must be what they can be.” Take a moment to think about what you can be, and contrast that with what you’ve chosen to be up until now. So what can you be? Perhaps you have an idea you’ve been carrying around with you for decades, such as a book that you know needs to be written, which only you have the wisdom to create. Can you get so passionate about realizing your vision that you activate the presence of God to assist you in co-creating your dreams?
Remember, the mere presence of that passion, nothing more, is evidence that the energy of the Divine creating spirit is alive and well in you. That’s all you need—just the willingness to allow your passion to speak up and awaken from its dormant status. You don’t have to know how to activate your long-buried enthusiasm or precisely what to focus on. What you need is the willingness to say yes to signals from within you, the God within you that wants to be active.
I’ve always treasured the observations of the famous Greek scholar Nikos Kazantzakis, who is one of my favorite authors. In page after page of his wonderful novel Zorba the Greek, Kazantzakis details what a truly passionate man looks, sounds, and feels like, as the title character simply lives his bliss and feels the presence of God in every waking moment. And I’ve had these words by Kazantzakis posted in my home for more than a decade now, yet I still read and contemplate them every day: “By believing passionately in something that does not yet exist we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
Here’s a concept you won’t want to forget: passion always trumps excuses. Keep in mind that when I use the word passion, I’m not referring to the romantic notions that this concept conjures. Instead, I’m equating it to a vigorous kind of enthusiasm that you feel deep within you and that isn’t easy to explain or define. This kind of passion propels you in a direction that seems motivated by a force beyond your control. It’s the inner excitement of being on the right path, doing what feels good to you, and what you know you were meant to do.
It’s my contention that the mere presence of passion within you is all you need to fulfill your dreams. Remember that God is in no need of excuses, ever. The creative Divine Spirit is able to manifest anything it contemplates, and you and I are the results of its contemplating itself into material form. Thus, when we have an emotional reaction that feels like overwhelming passion for what we’re contemplating, we’re experiencing the God within us…and nothing can hold us back.
Passion is a feeling that tells you: This is the right thing to do. Nothing can stand in my way. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says. This feeling is so good that it cannot be ignored. I’m going to follow my bliss and act upon this glorious sensation of joy.
When you’re enthusiastic, nothing seems difficult. When you have passion, there are no risks: family dramas become meaningless, money isn’t an issue, you know that you have the strength and the smarts, and the rules laid down by others have no bearing on you whatsoever. That’s because you’re answering your calling—and the you who is doing the answering is the highest part of you, or the God within.
The presence of passion within you is the greatest gift you can receive. And when it’s aligned with Spirit, treat it as a miracle, doing everything you can to hold on to it. I feel this way about the creation of my books. I’ve learned over the years that when I go to that place of passion within me, there’s no force in the universe that can interfere with my completing a project. My life is consumed by the passion I feel for what I’m doing—yet I know that as long as I feel this, I’m experiencing the God within.
My enthusiasm seems to cause my world to endlessly offer me cooperative, co-creating experiences. I’m willing and I’m eager, and not just about my writing—I feel the same way about staying in shape, enjoying my family, giving a lecture, or whatever it may be. If you have passion, there is no need for excuses, because your enthusiasm will trump any negative reasoning you might come up with. Enthusiasm makes excuses a nonissue. When you seek the presence of your creative Spirit and are filled with passion about virtually everything you undertake, you’ll successfully remove the roadblocks from your life and enjoy the active presence of Spirit.