Stanley Kunitz was 69 years old when he was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, in 1974. He was chosen Poet Laureate of the United States 26 years later, in 2000, at the age of 95. His last book of poetry, “The Wild Braid,” was published in 2005, when Kunitz was 99 years old. The poet died in 2006.
The story of a senior actively engaged in the arts is not as extraordinary as our culture might have us believe.
Anna Mary “Grandma Moses” Robertson began painting in her late 70s. Frank Lloyd Wright finished designing the Guggenheim Museum when he was 91. Michelangelo assumed the role of architect of St. Peter’s Basilica when he was 72. Cuban-born minimalist Carmen Herrera had her first major sale of a painting at age 89. Her works now hang in the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the Tate. At an age when society regards too many elders as invisible, Herrera became something of a phenom in the art world. As a New York Times art critic asked, “How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?”
The answer is simple: Our youth-oriented culture rewards youthful talent while largely ignoring or dismissing the talent of its elders. This practice, while not unique in its modern Western form, is paradoxical. Shamans, prophets, seers — the men and women a society turns to for vision and wisdom — historically, have been its elders.
The fetish of youth is a relatively new phenomenon, although its roots run into the deep past, impressed by movements and moments from 19th-century Romanticism, with its adoration of childish wisdom, to modern hippiedom, with its disdain for and suspicion of anyone over age 30.
The marginalization of older people is not solely the product of pop culture. Science shares responsibility.
Once upon a time, science told us that senility was the result of a dying brain, of brain cells that are never replaced, unlike most other somatic cells. Most of us — even most of us who are old — probably still believe this myth as we go about our day anxiously searching for misplaced keys, forgetting names of familiar faces and missing appointments. Even if it has been our habit for decades to have these lapses, now that we are old, we are inclined to regard them as evidence of dotage and dementia and gray matter flaking off like dandruff.
Stereotypes — even and especially scientific stereotypes — die hard. Once a scientific fact becomes a cultural truism, it is not easily dismissed, particularly if it has credible authorship. Sigmund Freud, whose indelible influence upon our culture has been important in our understanding and articulation of the mind, maintained that students over 50 could learn absolutely nothing. He was 51 when he made this pronouncement. Ironically, “Oedipus Rex” — the play from which Freud drew most of his important symbolism — was written by Greek tragedian Sophocles at age 71.
That pathology is a part of aging, however, is not a myth. Stroke and Alzheimer’s, diseases that can impair cognition and limit artistic endeavor, attack the elderly more often than the young. Yet each life has age-specific physical dangers; e.g., type 1 diabetes in children, and muscular dystrophy in young adults. It’s also true that the brain eventually does lose about 10 percent of its weight as a result of atrophy.
However, nature has provided us with a vast reserve of neurons that render this loss negligible in an otherwise healthy brain. Furthermore, recent research debunks the established scientific belief that the brain’s neurons are produced only in the first two years of life. Evidence now suggests that the human brain actually continues to produce these cells through most of its lifespan—into the fifth, sixth, and seventh decades of the average human’s life.
Probably more important than neuron production is the production of dendrites, the branches between neurons which carry electrical impulses from brain cell to brain cell. The brain has some 100 billion neurons capable of producing 100 trillion connections, or synapses.
By definition, creativity is the ability to make connections where previously no connection existed. Synapses are the places where creativity occurs, where two thoughts connect and become one. “Connectivity is a key component” of creativity, according to Kenneth Heilman, the James E. Rooks, Jr., Professor of Neurology at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine. These connections seem to increase over time, with experience and age. Furthermore, environment can affect the efficiency of, and even type of, these connections. Studies on elderly cab drivers, for instance, have shown abnormally thick dendrite development in areas of the brain that control spatial acuity. Creativity, apparently, challenges the brain in the same way exercise affects the muscles; the brain physically improves as it learns.
Studies conducted as early as the 1960s showed that lab animals that lived in an enriched environment, an environment augmented with stimulating challenges — toys and mazes and wheels—produced stronger synapses and more numerous dendrites than those raised in traditionally sterile environments. Marian Diamond, a researcher at the University of California, discovered that lab rats living in stimulating environments had larger and sharper brains than their deprived cohorts and, in fact, lived longer. These findings are not inconsistent with both empirical and anecdotal evidence. In a study of 300 seniors, Dr. Gene Cohen, author of “The Creative Age,” found that older subjects who are artistic have “fewer visits to the doctor, fall less often, use less medication, and are less likely to be depressed” than less artistic older people.
According to Cohen, creativity seems to thrive on limitations. Challenges of all kinds force the brain to create new connections. Such accomplishments are valued by society and create a feeling in the individual of “mastery and contribution.” As we grow old, this sense of mastery, regularly exercised, brings about a phenomenon known as neurogenesis — a regeneration of the brain’s nerve tissue.
Unfortunately, we customarily think of aging in terms of pathology (and make no mistake, there is pathology in old age). Suspecting bias against maturity in the music industry, singer-songwriter Craig Bickhardt set out to discover what medical research had to say about the relationship between aging and art. He found that most gerontologists believe that age has its advantages for the artist. “The older brain’s sophistication stems from its complex adaptive ability,” which is developed over time. “Repeated activity enables the mind to bridge more direct routes and to create the most efficient strategies for dealing with creative problems.”
The special privilege, too, of old age is to allow life to happen, to be open to discovery, free of the fears of failure or scorn or public opinion. Perhaps individuals who take up art or music or writing late in life realize, for the first time, who they are. Perhaps, for the first time, occupation and desire have their chance to run in tandem, complementing rather than competing with one another.
Gerontology is only now beginning to focus on positive aging; specifically, aging and its relationship to art. Artistic activity of all kinds — painting, music, writing, crafts, and hobbies — seems to benefit both society and its most senior citizens. It is no accident, I think, that ancient people relied upon their elders to be their “seers,” the visionaries whose final occupation it was to create order out of elemental chaos.