Towards an Integrated Life: Thoughts on Aging and the Artistic Process

In an exhibit of Picasso’s drawings of a horse, done over the artist’s lifetime, one remarks on a rather extraordinary feature: rather than getting more complex over time, the drawings become increasingly simple until finally Picasso conjures up the animal with a minimum of  brush strokes. At 80 he had learned to extract the essential elements and create the essence of the animal, at once recognizable and artistic. Clearly, this artist’s vision had continually transformed and evolved.

For, despite the hazards to body and mind that  accompany getting old, age can be a dynamic period of life  from an artistic, emotional and spiritual point of view. The people for whom that is true may have already attained the status of an artist; or they may have simply cultivated the artistic outlook on life. Or, and just as important, they may simply yearn to expand in new and creative ways.

What are some attributes of  the artistic outlook?

Over our lifetime we segue between multiple roles: mate, parent, teacher, artist, friend. We leave the house a spouse to run to school as a parent, leave there to don our professional cloak, grab time to trade phone calls and emails with our multiple friends, and  if we are not by profession an artist, we cram into spare time some creative or artistic endeavor that takes us onto another plane, providing the aesthetics  to our prosaic life.It has been a rich, full life, but also fragmented and emotionally fragmenting.

But then comes the time when the individual parts, those roles we’ve played, can come together, coalesce into a coherent whole. The energy that went disjointedly into our compartmentalized existence expands exponentially as those components stitch seamlessly into a single fabric. This wholeness – this integration – provides an exciting new dynamic impetus to our artistic endeavor, like pieces of a quilt sewn together finally fulfilling the purpose for which they had been intended. Like that quilt, as we become whole, we become  truer to ourselves. In the process we become liberated, free to expand in powerful new ways because we are drawing from a larger reservoir of internal resources for our artistry.

The word ‘whole’ comes from the same root as health and holy. Thus, becoming ‘whole,’ or healthy in our later years, implies we have incorporated all aspects of ourselves into our sentient, conscious self. And here’s the crunch: that implies incorporating not only those aspects we love about ourselves but those other parts as well.With increasing years, in order to be fully whole, fully human, we must also bring to light, examine and incorporate,  that part of us that  Jung refers to as our shadow side, that which is unrealized and undeveloped, unacceptable and repressed. For each individual, those parts will be different.  Dark parts of the shadow may include some obvious  traits – like racial or cultural prejudice, disdain for the less intelligent, homophobia. But it may also include underdeveloped aspects of ourselves that we have been afraid of, such as fear of success.

Within the shadow may lie any number of fears – fear of developing one’s sensitive nature, fear of developing one’s logical nature. And what about the artist’s fear of the non-artistic? The world of the marketplace, of money? Of the general public? “No one understands my work. It is too sophisticated for the general public.” (Spoken by the artist with hand over brow, nose pointed north.)

On the contrary: artists must know their worth. When Caruso was asked to sing gratis at a benefit, the great tenor replied: “Only birds sing for free.”

Fear of the marketplace is one of the myths artists use that imprisons them. Forgetting how the great artists in history –  Bach,  Michaelangelo  as two of many famous examples – demanded their rightful due from society, today’s artists make an enemy of the market place, and by implication the public. Bringing to light and examining such myths frees the person with the artistic mentality to think differently

In addition to developing her internal resources, the older artist has lived a life full of experience in the world as well, continually challenging and broadening her world view by learning about new cultures, countries, the latest artistic developments, the latest political and scientific developments. The artist is inextricably connected to her community, serving to reflect it as well as sing its follies. That is the mystery of the artist in the world: simultaneously servant and soothsayer. For that, she must both partake of and stand apart from the mainstream. But the artist knows this, lives it instinctively, is not deflected by superficial distractions. And so too does the older person who has cultivated an artistic outlook.

Older artists, rather than becoming inflexible in their ways, become even more fluid. Being an artist implies fluidity, such as that between conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche, and between the rational and irrational.

Because they have accrued such varied experience, traveled, read, they know it is folly to insist there is one true way. They know different cultures view artists, children, parents, the mentally ill,  religion from varying perspectives.

They know it is more important to have a sense of humor about life than always be right; that change is inevitable and one must remain flexible; that all experiences, despite concomitant hardship or pain, can offer wisdom, and for an artistic mind, continue to replenish the emotional reservoir from which one’s art is drawn.

They know that an integrated life is one in which one’s art informs one’s life, one’s life informs one’s art.

And  finally, they leave room for mystery, the sublime encounter with the ineffable. Like Picasso’s horse, it takes a lifetime to understand the underlying simplicity of what it means to both be human and view the world with an artist’s vision.


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