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Visual Arts and the elderly

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

PhD Research into aspects of ageing in relation to visual artistry

Aging as a social development and ageing as a personal experience are important frameworks for the artistic and professional positioning and for giving purpose to individual artistry. This research deals with the question whether and how age and ageing influence artistry, in which way ageing gives meaning and purpose to artistry and in which way it is an influencing factor determining possibilities and choices in the career of the artist. Choices which will eventually be given shape in the work of art and its reception in the public presentation.

The relation between the visual artist and the process of ageing is manifold and can be examined from various angles. The human life cycle is a popular theme in art history and has a long iconographic tradition. All stages of life (birth, youth, maturity, old age and dying) are represented in different ways. Best known are the 'life stairs' and the 'life circle' in which the phases of life sometimes correspond with the seasons and so fall under a cosmic influence. The symbolism of growth, prosperity and decline is often represented by characteristics which serve as a reminder of the impermanence and transitoriness of life on earth. The iconography of old age knows certain typologies which attributes certain qualities, behaviours, virtues or vices to the older man or woman, often held up as an example with an admonishing message.

In modern and contemporary visual art the human life cycle is still a popular theme. Countless artists represent aspects of ageing in their work. In this they not only refer to deterioration and decline, but also to remembrance, to memory and to holding on to images of the time by the new media. For many artists the (self) portrait is a form in which they can best express this passing of time. The interest for the subject of ageing has also led to visual artists making work specifically for care institutions for the elderly. In this the subject of the artwork does not only bear a relation to aspects of ageing, but sometimes it also requires interaction or participation from the older person within the concept and execution of the work.

The ageing process of the artist him- or herself raises the question of what this means for his or her work. In which way does ageing influence artistry? About the work itself people often think that it develops in a progressive line and gains in quality and meaning over the years. The so-called Altersstil supposes an artistic highlight in the later work of an artist. A frequently mentioned example is Rembrandt whose later work is considered the pinnacle of his talent. Yet this is not a general truth and there are plenty of examples which contradict the Altersstil as being indisputable. The artist him- or herself is not impervious to the process of ageing and may also have to deal with all aspects of it. Not only physical or mental, but also in a social respect it may influence the way he or she does his or her work.

In this research the question of what ageing means for artistry is key. To a large extent it will consist of narrative-biographical research which will result in 'first hand information'. The findings will be placed in the context of the infrastructure of institutions for visual arts and they will also be reported back to institutions for professional art education, more especially to the curricula of visual arts institutions. The question which then emerges is: can an institution for professional arts education contribute to 'lifelong artistry' in which learning, wellbeing and purpose are key? Institutions for art education appear to especially focus on the short term; successful graduation, making a good start, finding a place within the profession and the labour market. And awards, stipends, scholarships etc. also appear to focus especially on new talent and encouraging beginning artists. But what can an institution offer for the long term, in relation to lifelong artistry and giving purpose to ageing? Is it possible for artists to reinvent themselves up to an advanced age and does this make artistry a lifelong learning process?

The research wants to make a contribution to these questions concerning lifelong and life-wide learning and to healthy ageing.

Researcher: Leo Delfgaauw
Presentation Visual Arts and the Elderly - Leo Delfgaauw February 2011

Research update 2011
Visual arts and the Elderly - aspects of ageing in relation to visual artistry

What does ageing mean to the visual artist and his or her professional practice? In which way is artistry influenced by the process of getting older? Within the framework of Healthy Ageing Leo Delfgaauw is researching the meaning of ageing for the development of the work, the positioning of artistry, and the changes in the professional environment of the visual artist. He bases his research on a great number of narrative biographical interviews with Dutch artists. The artists tell about their careers and developments related to age and getting older. Getting older does not only mean a development of the work and reflection on this for the older artist, but also a change in the 'infrastructure' of the professional environment. Because of the focus of the art world on young and new talent, the position of the older artist is harder to define. On the one hand there is appreciation for 'mastership' and the exemplary function of the artist, but on the other hand opportunities for presentation, promotion and selling are often very limited. Criteria such as 'innovation' or 'originality', so often used in the art world, appear not to do justice to artists who are developing their work and reaching more advanced levels in this.

In addition to a methodological account and analysis of the obtained data, the research will focus on quantitative data about the professional group and on policy and infrastructure concerning older artists. Furthermore the research looks into life phases, the learning process and the development of mastership and expertise. Careers, opportunities, contacts in a professional network and success and recognition as acquired capital will also be considered. And finally the research will look into appreciation and meaning, for example concerning curricula and of transferring knowledge and experience to younger colleagues. Are there findings which will be relevant to higher arts education? And can higher arts education, besides offering the tools for a good start, also provide a starting artist with perspectives for a professional career in the arts in the long run?

On the first Research Day of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Groningen, on Wednesday 30 January 2013, Leo Delfgaauw held a poster presentation, where as a PhD student he talked about his research.