Paul McCartney’s solo career, Willie Mays’ last season with the New
York Mets, Robert De Niro in Cape Fear,
William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial, John Ashbery’s Flowchart, Georgia O’Keeffe’s last 10 years of paintings, T.S.
Eliot’s plays, & John Glenn’s last flight as an astronaut.
The Beatles’ Long and Winding Road, Jim Brown’s last season, Keats’ Odes, Mozart’s concertos, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Wilfred Owen’s lyrics, & Marie Curie in her laboratory.
The former set we recall- if at all- because all of the folk were past their prime- way past. Almost embarrassing were their quests &/or achievements. The latter we recall- & will most likely always do so with fondness & fervor- because they left their respective quests at the height of their powers. It’s how we all hope to be recalled. When we think of an afterlife we always envision ourselves at the prime of our life. Who would want to inhabit a realm filled with yipping old yentas & crusty altacockers? It’s one of the oldest stereotypes there is about the creationary impulse: The fires of youth. One of the great sources of woe for a lot of artists is that just as they get enough time & experience under their belts to gain technical skill in their field, the impulse to do so wanes. There seems to be a brief nexus where the 2- skill & desire- meet & are sustaining. Too young & a lot of crap- with potential- is produced. Too old & little work is made- & what is is skilled but dull, repetitive, & uninteresting. Thus most artists, &/or scientists, have similar careers which graphed would form a nice slowly rising & falling horizontal arc whose rounded apex is between the years 35 & 50.
But is it necessarily so? There are examples of such who defy the conventional wisdom in poetry. The 2 best examples in the English language are Wallace Stevens & William Butler Yeats- in fact their poetry probably kept improving with age. But for every Stevens & Yeats there’s the last 20 years of Whitman’s bloated poetry & terrible prose, Hardy’s verse, Pound’s Cantos, Ginsberg’s last 30 years, Ashbery, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, Quincy Troupe, & on & on.
I am not here to argue whether or not it is true- I think that any reasonable survey of such endeavors will confirm this posit- & in truth we know it in our gut. But I don’t believe I, or anyone, can accurately & truly posit why. Yes, one could try to give a biologic reason as to the human being’s aging process entailing a necessary slowing down of all processes, but it would seem to me that, barring Alzheimer’s Disease’s onset, the slow accrual of knowledge & experience should more than make up for the natural slowing down process of creativity. It should, in fact, merely slow down the rate at which we improve at our creative endeavors, not the rate & quality of those endeavors. So, I will herein try to posit not if it happens or why it happens, but rather its relation to sundry other aspects of the creative process. & please bear in mind this posit: Creativity is present in both art & science; however, art is discovery in service to creativity while science is creativity in service to discovery (as a general rule).
Let’s start with the obvious. Except for a few precocious great apes, dolphins & whales, humans are the only creatures that have the seeming drive or spark to seek out knowledge & create art. The few other creatures such traits may be ascribed to are- to our best & current knowledge- mere slaves to genetic impulses that accrue knowledge & create beauty by evolutionary happenstance. Humans do so because they want to. Humans are sentient & intentional scientists & artists. Now this may seem to fall into the Duh! category of observations. However, think of how much mythos & religion (& even philosophy) contradicts such a simple statement. So such a statement is not such a manifest idea as one may think. Nonetheless, I state it. Now, what things flow logically out of this observation? The most natural & obvious thing is why? Why do humans create & observe, take notes & elaborate on the reality presented before them? Well, again we have 2 major options that I can reckon. 1 is a more entailed version of the evolutionary happenstance argument put forth to explain behaviors which seem to mimic ours in ‘lesser’ creatures. Of course, that is tempered with attempts to explain mind, free will, & a lot of other etherea beyond science’s purview. Indeed, science is unique amongst human disciplines precisely because it only attempts to explain the how of things- the why is never at issue. Therefore science becomes a loop-de-loop of hows battling each other. So, most other humans (both artists/scientists & the layety) have turned to the 2nd option. That option is- for lack of a better term- the ‘Divine Inspiration’ theory. I.e.- the breath of God, the Muse, the Eternal Flame, the Soul, the Man In The Box, the Cartesian homunculus, etc.: that humans are merely vessels, antennae, or tuning forks, for other beings or powers to express eternal truths.
Generally I scoff at this line of reasoning. Let me state I do not believe it is true. However, that is beside the point. I DO believe most people of all stripes buy in to this notion. I will therefore attempt to explain & debunk it, & also tie it in to the obvious observation of ‘Youthful Fire’.
Let me 1st label this argument as the Divine Inspirational Fallacy. I believe the DIF’s roots are bound up in 1 of the oldest human impulses- laze. Humans are naturally drawn to certain behaviors which outflow from our millions of years of ancestors’ history. These things survived because they ‘worked’- lest we would not be here! Laze is the ‘sentient’ extension, if you will, of the natural desire to conserve energy when it is not needed to acquire energy (eat), expend energy (fight or flight), sleep, procreate, etc. Similarly ingrained is greed- for things, food, mates, etc. But laze, while a good thing in the natural world, has proven to be somewhat of a detriment since humans invented civilization. Intellectual laze foisted religious nonsense on us to explain the things we fear in the dark. Physical laze has foisted an assortment of ills upon us- starting & expanding from obesity. But few people seem to see how it applies to creativity. Laze is inherent in most artists’ living. To produce something of value entails expending energies that could be conserved. So we battle laze just to create. But we also like to fob off responsibility in many of our endeavors. This is laze, & the most obvious manifestation of this is the claim that artists are merely ‘instruments’. I.e.- that the works of art are not really the product of the artist, per se; moreso that the artist merely plucked them down from the ethers of possibility, or even was told to or guided by spirits which needed to impart their wisdom. The Spiritualists of the late 19th Century & Televangelists of the late 20th Century rode this line of reasoning to great fortune by scamming would-be believers that spirits dictated letters & even whole books from beyond & that genius & healing flowed from the intercession of angels. But a weaker version of this is used every day by artists of all walks. Mozart, Keats, Michelangelo, etc. were not really necessary to the equation of art- save for being good antennae- or so would a lot of artists argue. Therefore anyone could have written Othello, directed Taxi Driver, painted a Dali, etc. But these arguments fail because how many artists in those fields reach those heights? If true, it would be necessary to explain why some antennae are favored & others get mostly static- indeed why the bulk of humanity are not even antennae? You see, if 1 accepts that artists are merely antennae then the question of ‘genius’ or ‘greatness’ merely alters from ‘How does 1 become a great _____?’ to ‘How does 1 become a great antenna for the Muse?’ It’s akin to the logical obviation of God due to asking, “If God created the universe what created God?’. Because if you answer, ‘Well, God always was.’ then you are logically bound to think that your ‘God’ is merely an extension of the universe, which therefore always was & makes God superfluous. Similarly if you posit that artists are merely antennae you still leave open the question of how come some are more attuned & how come some people develop their ‘channeling’ abilities while others do not. In effect, all you are doing is a semantic dance replacing the ability to ‘create’ with the ability to ‘channel’- you’ve answered nothing; so the idea of channeling is merely a superfluous idea added to appease someone’s religious or philosophic belief- not an idea which addresses a damned real world thing. Besides, I know, within the limits of my own existence, that I alone am responsible for all the poems & writings that bear my name. But most people, or artists, apparently don’t- & for whatever reasons. One of the other major outpourings of this misbelief, I believe, is the tendency of artists to envy others’ achievements. Let me explain. I have written many great poems. They are all individual achievements & all mine. I know that. So when I encounter another great poem, or great poet, my 1st instinct is to see how he/she achieved that greatness so that I may be able to replicate some aspects of its greatness in my future works- or even re-apply those features to spruce up my lesser works. My belief in my own creative sovereignty, in other words, empowers me to forego petty envy, because after all- I could never have hoped to have written the singular achievement of any great poem by Issa, Rilke, Tsvetaeva, Jeffers, etc. If you are having another Duh! moment please bear with me.
But what if, instead of believing in my own creative sovereignty, I believe that I am merely a vessel for channeling works of art that are fully formed out there in the ether? Well, then I might sit around, doing nothing, waiting for inspiration to strike. & when it doesn’t I’m gonna be pretty pissed off. & when someone else writes something- anything, much less something great- I may just react a little possessively. After all, that ‘poem’ was out there waiting to be plucked by someone & that person may have ‘stolen’ something that I could have ‘produced’. Because, if works of art are not dependent on their ‘creator’, then they are up for all to possibly ‘create’, & if someone ‘steals’ an ‘idea’ you may have realized then it is perfectly understandable to resent & envy that person & artwork. ‘But that’s ridiculous!’, you say. Really? What other explanation so neatly fits the facts? How many times have you heard or read an artist use a version of the Divine Inspiration Fallacy to explain their success? & bear in mind- I do not merely refer to the Judaeo-Christian God but any attempt to foist off creativity on an Otherness. The logical nadir of this viewpoint is the petty envy previously described- they go lockstep. So, unless artists are inveterate liars when queried about their beliefs about creativity this seems to be merely the logical outcome of such a belief- as well a sad commentary on the exceedingly poor ratiocinative powers of most artists- both Classical & contemporary.
‘But how does this relate to the loss of creativity with age?’ Good question. Let’s see if there are any tie-ins. Well, if most artists tacitly accept the notion that they are not ultimately responsible for their art then its easier to accept the waning of creativity. Why? Because it was never you, anyway, that did any of the hard work- you were just a vessel. So, if the ‘gods’ dare not deign to give you ‘muse’ it’s not your fault- it’s theirs! Better to rage at others than accept responsibility & increase your effort to counterpoise senescence. “Besides,” you might say, “I’ve already accomplished enough to get me recognition in my field, why do more if it’s such a chore?” Now, you may be thinking that the DIF surely cannot be responsible for such a self-destructive self-fulfilling prophecy, right? Well, think of how often people & artists routinely demur responsibility. How often have you encountered someone with a fierce opinion 1 way or the other. You argue & argue & slowly you realize that they do not have any real basis for their belief in personal experience or logic; they simply are regurgitating the opinions of others that they have heard, been told, or read. People love to be told what to believe- it saves time- it is laze! It is the foisting off of responsibility- just as in the artist on the wane who simpers against the dying of the light. Don’t believe me? Please, think about it for yourself. There really is not as big a chasm between the 2 as you may think.
Another negative to the DIF POV is that it encourages the lazy aspects of much contemporary poetry & art that has proliferated in the last few decades- from ‘found’ poetry to bland ill-formed unmusicked poetic rants (Beatnik to Nuyorican) to abstract expressionism (yes, it takes a genius to paint a canvas a whole solid color- or 2!) to 6 year old prodigies whose eructations are taken for deep art. With the DIF there is no reason to truly push boundaries, after all, these ‘things’ are really the products of an otherness, not you- so just channel them & get on to the next one. Unfortunately, in my experience, this is the stated or implicit predilection of most artists. & it is very easy to be an artist in this set of conditions- just open your mind sufficiently & something’s bound to plop in! & without any need to develop skills, just turn your antenna this way or that & you stand just as much a chance to be an artist as the next person. Damn! ANYONE CAN BE AN ARTIST! EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST! WE ALL ARE CREATIVE! & on & on the blather goes! The DIF seems very analogous to the old Classical physics view of the cosmos; that there is only 1 set of invariant laws that all things adhere to. In the DIF’s case that body of laws states that creativity springs from the Otherness, not from the creator. But I believe differently- & perhaps this explains why I don’t fall into the seemingly DIF-inspired trap of envy & irresponsibility for my art. I believe that art’s ‘physics’ hews less to a Classical line than to a more modern ‘Quantum’ line. Classical physics forbids other universes with other sets of physics. Likewise a Classical view of art hews to the DIF. Quantum physics allows for other universes, dimensions, & sets of physics within those dimensions. Likewise the more Quantum view of art allows that each poem/artwork is- in effect- its own universe & must merely be self-consistent to its own artistic principles/physics. & like Quantum physics, which allows that anything is possible but most universes that realize themselves (& are ‘successful’ by that definition) will be physically similar, so too will each poem/artwork/universe in my view have an infinite range of possibility. But most ‘successful’ poems /artworks will have similar ‘physics’, yet will retain their own self-consistency & self-justification. In lay terms, my idea about art & its origins allows for a greater flexibility in explaining creativity’s wax & wane, why artists tend to go with senescence’s flow rather than fight it, why artists envy other artists- especially those who excel, yet it also allows for understanding why very diverse forms of art (within & without a genre, field, or discipline) all evoke or invoke similar feelings (that Quantum view strikes again!).
Let us turn, now, from the DIF as explanatory vehicle for the wane of creativity- because this fundamental fallacy infects far more than just ideas on creativity itself. It also gets back to that old & insidious bugbear- the art is truth argument. Because if 1 accepts the more mature & logical view that the individual is the lone source of creativity then the only ‘purpose’ art serves is whatever its creator deems- for someone, if but by chance, is gonna draw the lot as ‘creator’. No? But think of the opposite view- could the DIF really be responsible for the ‘art is truth’ fallacy? Not in all cases, certainly- but bear with me again. Suppose I, or you, are merely an antenna for ‘the Muse’. Well, if this Muse is an otherworldly, superhuman power, then the antenna (i.e.- you) must be special. There must be a reason you are an antenna, & not Jill Jones, the cute redhead down the block who works as an accountant. & if there is a reason you are an antenna then there must be a reason you have to impart this vital information. You have been chosen- & it must be for a higher calling than, say, mere accountancy! So you rack your mind trying to think of higher human ideals. Hmm….hey, what’s higher than Truth? Love, perhaps? Beauty? But didn’t someone once conflate these anyway? I think this is a reasonable interpretation for why a great number- but certainly not all- of the ‘art is truth’ fallacies have been perpetuated.
Of course, another fallacy that rears its brow is the Intentional Fallacy- the idea that what the artist intends supercedes what the audience gets. However, that is a line of argument that deserves its own full treatment at another time. But a more relevant real-world counterpart to the Intentional Fallacy is what might be called the Generative Effect. The GE is, de facto, the opposite of the IF- i.e.: What art generates (in the artist or audience) is more important than what generates the art, itself. On its face it seems like merely a simple reversal of the IF. However, it may tie in to the seemingly complex conundrum of why art seems to wane. If an artist comes along & their art generates a very positive reaction it creates not only an expectation for more of the same high quality, but in fact, a desire & expectation that the artist can & must surpass that art in their later works. This is a daunting task- just ask any widely praised 1st-time novelist or filmmaker. The longer the wait between artworks the more the pressure builds on the artist. Not only fear of failure can grip the artist- but the old foe of laze can hit! Many artists merely give up- they do not so much rest on their laurels as resign themselves to a fear of future failure. So they do not try, or more often give ½-hearted attempts that fail, & reinforce the idea that they cannot top their earlier works. & sometimes (think Margaret Mitchell) that early work’s success removes the artist from a real world (read financial) need to produce more. Thus are patterns of behavior born- in individuals & cultures. Again, there are many variants on this, & a lot is explained by senescence, & the previous idea of being mere antennae for the Muses, &- let’s face it- a lot of artists only have 1 good idea or artwork in them. But this expectation generated by early success undoubtedly plays a part- the question is only 1 of the degree of its import & grip. & the addendum (as just noted) to this idea is that the success that mutes art may not be artistic success but merely popular or commercial success. Think how a poet like Carolyn Forchė’s development was stunted by early publication & overpraise by colleagues & mentors, or how a film director like Steven Spielberg may have been forced to grow as a storyteller had his early films foundered & his every silly childish whim not been readily financed? Neither of them will ever be the artist their natural talents may have allowed them to become.
But to return to the DIF, if only to leave it to its end, let me just add 1 final kick to its writhing form. Probably the most obviously blatant argument against it is that even the DIF’s most ardent adherents do not, deep down, truly believe they are merely antennae. The very act of art is communication at its highest- it is the artist screaming into the cosmos: ‘I’m here, NOTICE me!’, even as they may try to rationalize-however coyly- that they are merely tools for such Otherly things as Truth, Beauty, Love [note the capitalization!].
Obviously, we are talking about a very complex set of ideas & reasons for why creativity wanes; & just like there are no 100% guaranteed reasons for why someone is bold or shy, conservative or liberal, homosexual or heterosexual, libidinous or asexual, honest or dishonest, similarly each tale of why most artists wane in power with age & a few retain or actually improve on their skills is 100% unique. However, there are some of the general reasons I’ve outlined, undoubtedly, at play. Each artist must root out as much as they can, keep working, & do the best they can- at least if they desire to be as good as they can be as artists. Or else, head down to your local Home Depot & check out the latest offerings in antennae!
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