The Turner Prize supports our young artists - what about the older ones?
These days it’s mature artists who are being undervalued, writes Penny Anderson
Like most artists, I read opportunity bulletins more in hope than expectation. Some offers are aimed at female artists. Or black artists, LGBT artists, tall artists, short artists. But nothing, it seems, for older artists. I completed my Masters recently as a mature student, keenly aware that aging is the final taboo in our youth-obsessed society, especially for visual artists. There's even a book called The YBAs at 50. Considering the lifestyles certain luminaries enjoyed, it is miraculous they’re still alive, but that petty title diminishes them as people.
The Turner Prize was launched because younger artists (that is, those under 50) were undervalued. Nowadays the reverse is true with most opportunities going to shiny, fresh-faced newcomers. I recently encountered a collective who referred to 'young' artists, although the terms ‘emerging’ or, worse still, ‘new’ are equally discouraging and unhelpful. I’ve been told that artists in their twenties believe they have just a few years following graduation to establish themselves. Shockingly, ‘older’ denotes artists over 25, not just those who dare to reach and then brazenly pass milestones such as 30 with the audacity to cruise past 40 and keep right on going.
What’s ahead for those who don't live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse? Keep in mind that many older artists encounter obstacles such as family and work responsibilities. They might have opted for a career change, jacking in the 9 to 5 to study art, or could have dipped in and out of the life artistic when life intervenes or funding is withdrawn.
Even so, older artists are not congratulated for raging against the dying of the light, but assumed to be fusty old farts, bigoted, forgetful and shocked by the new with their residual talent dwindling. The word 'dotage' is deployed. One younger artist of my acquaintance developed a habit of announcing loudly: 'You're old!' mistaking cruelty for 'honesty'. And I’m not even that old.
Mature artists know that, realistically, opportunities decline: one exception is Scottish Book Trust’s laudable Next Chapter Award for writers over 40. Will the latest Intermedia Gallery open call select work by older artists? I doubt it. And I wonder how many Creative Scotland bursaries went to artists of 50 or 60? I've toyed with submitting a freedom of information request, but doubt the figures are available, since I suspect that older artists withhold their age, rightly certain that it will work against them.
In reality, some artists 'emerge' several times in their career. Many do not produce their best work until they are older, while others are at their most imaginative when younger. Intriguingly, some drama schools refuse applicants younger than 25, reasoning that actors should accumulate a reference library of emotions.
Aging didn’t hinder Picasso. So let’s have a level playing field and open up the Turner Prize to artists of all ages. Life experience should be viewed as beneficial to art practice, rather than detrimental to creativity. Ultimately everyone learns that aging – when it brings illness and creaking bones – truly sucks. But you know what? It's better than the alternative.
Penny Anderson is an artist and writer based in Scotland.