Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Aging and art

It is hard to be an artist in this post-industrial late-stage-imperial society (maybe in almost every society—because every society has imposed some kind of stipulation, restriction, or hierarchical criterion on who gets to call themselves “an artist”). It is hard to age in this society, just as it is hard to be a POC, a woman, LGBTQ, poor, or indeed anyone other than a white male. Societal and classist “norms” impose unconstitutional restrictions and unacceptable burdens.

It’s thus hard to be an aging artist. Not only cognitive and physiological capacities erode, but so too do mental stamina and acquisition capacities; the obvious parallel here is to language-acquisition skills, which begin to erode precisely when cognitive skills begin to expand.

But to be an artist, you also need time.

If you’ve been a consciously-self-identified artist for some, most of, or nearly all your life, and have developed even a modicum of self-reflection, you think about the number of hours required to mastery, and the number of hours available—or remaining—in which to acquire that mastery.

How many hours, not constrained by day-to-day financial, professional, and personal obligations—many freely and gratefully assumed—are left, for the development of new artistry? New dexterity? New aesthetic zones and frames?

Answer: At my age--not many.                   

So if you’re thinking in these terms, you might think about “husbanding” your hours. Seeing their total number diminish—seeing the light, or the darkness, at the end of the tunnel increasing—you think about how you are going to use those remaining available hours.

Pat Metheny’s great drummer Paul Wertico had a wonderful reply, when asked what he’d do if he knew beyond doubt that the bombs had been dropped; he said “I know what I’d do—I’d practice.” This points to a perception of “practice” as more than simply a means to an end—to an acquisition of dexterity or interpretative command. It links musical “practice” and spiritual “Practice”—an insight, such as it is, that has shaped the interplay of my own musical and spiritual practices for the past 35 years at least.

And so to the diatonique: the diatonic 2.5-row accordion used in a wide variety of the world’s musics, but particularly in the cluster of European & related dance idioms called “Balfolk.” Over the decades, I’ve been smitten by many musics, and often a major factor that drove that obsessions was the unique, complex, and beautiful sound of an instrument: the Irish bouzouki, the Appalachian 5-string banjo, the Delta blues steel guitar, the Sudanese oud, the medieval European lute, and so on. The diatonique operates well outside the manual/physical choreographies of this cluster of stringed instruments—as a result, I find it probably the most counter-intuitive instrument I have actually tried to learn.

It is also probably the last instrument I will try to “master”—a desirable goal because “mastery,” defined for my purposes as “the ability of hear appropriate ideas in response to musical opportunities and execute them in musical real-time,” provides access to much more expansive and enjoyable expressive, participatory, and collaborative spaces.

But, though Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” is a chimera and yet another example of the pop-sociology that leads to NYT bestsellers, incel obsessions, and authorial egocentricity, there is no escaping the reality that developing this level of cognitive/aural/manual capacity takes thousands of hours—which loops us back to language-acquisition and the simplicity and resulting one-pointed attention possible in a healthy and supported childhood or adolescence.

It’s different at sixty.

How many hours are left? How will we use them?