“Lastingness”: New Book Explores Art in Old Age

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 31 January 2011

“Work and interest are the best remedy for age. Each day I am reborn. Each day I must begin again.” –Pablo Casals

Nicholas Delbanco’s latest book Lastingness:The Art of Old Age shifts the writer’s lens to focus on the work of artists who continued to create well into their 70s and beyond. Delbanco, now 68, admits that 30 or 40 years ago, the art of old age isn’t a subject he’d want to read or write about, but as he approaches his seventh decade, the exploration took on new meaning.

In Lastingness, Delbanco writes about artists, writers and musicians whose finest works were created in their later years – like Claude Monet, William Butler Yeats, and Guiseppe Verdi. Delbanco adds that some go gently into the good night willingly, like the writers E.M.Forster and Eudora Welty, who withdrew into silence. He also examines the work of artists whose creativity/productivity seemed to diminish with age. Interestingly enough, the ebbing of the creative tide is not always directly related to the weakening of the artist’s physical body. Monet produced masterpieces despite failing eyesight and limited mobility.

Delbanco raises many fascinating questions here, not just about art, but about our inner conflict as a society when it comes to what he calls the “elders of the tribe.” Do we ask them to step aside (i.e. let the young people have a chance), or do we celebrate their achievements regardless of age (i.e. do we get upset when an older actor gets snubbed by a new fresh face at the Oscars)? Think of actors like Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Judi Dench – all are over the age of 70, and some might argue are doing their best work (which is not to say that the work of their younger years was unimpressive either – quite the contrary). As Delbanco discovers in the writing of his book, some artists seem to have the quality of “lastingness” and clearly these actors possess it.

On January 21st, Delbanco talked about his new venture with Robert Siegel on NPR’s All Things Considered; read/listen to the interview here.

In the interview, Delbanco and Siegel touch on the issue of whether art created out of the fresh vision of a young artist who is seeing the world for the first time is more desirable than the art produced by a highly seasoned artist with the wisdom of years on his side – another intriguing matter to ponder. I feel that my own art has improved with age, but I suppose practice has something to do with that too. However, when I look at the stuff I did in my early childhood years (spelling and grammar aside), the creativity is definitely there, and I don’t think I’ve written anything quite as imaginative and innovative as some of those early works (example: a space story that featured a bone-shaped alien named Funnybone and his sister, Ribs). What I’ve written since then is more mature, more refined…it’s still creative, I suppose, but it does lack some of the zany, more adventurous qualities that my younger brain produced.

I highly, highly recommend the book if you’re fascinated by art or old age – or if you’re like me, art and old age. Definitely a captivating read, and one that makes you think (I love books like that).

Talkback: What do you think of Delbanco’s idea of lastingness?

-Michelle Seitzer


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