Sam Smiles: Thoughts prompted by the workshops
1. The tension between universal and particular qualities. Roughly speaking, if epidemiological and similarly broadly-conceived research is to advise organisations about the needs of people in their last decades, it needs to assume that aging is a phenomenon about which one can generalise. With respect to late-life creativity, Humanities may once have wished to adopt the same tactics for ‘late style’ (when LS simply = old age style), but today Humanities specialists have been taught to shy away from generalities. If we are to contribute to this wider interest in aging, can/should Humanities generalise more, while simultaneously remaining wary about the kinds of effusions that have produced so much lax thinking about late style?
2. Close attention to cultural contexts is one obvious means of avoiding the issue of over-generalisation. Just as Gerontologists don’t restrict themselves to studying the impact of old age on Homo Sapiens, but think of aging in its social and cultural aspects, so scholars in Humanities should approach late-life production with specific cultural considerations in mind. The extent to which old persons (whether ‘creative’ or not) work with/against the expectations about aging specific to their cultural circumstances would be interesting to pursue in greater depth, making use of cross-cultural case studies. In all of this, agency is probably key.
3. More generally, can late-life creativity be positioned as a special feature in the ‘environment’ of aging? For example, is the widely-accepted belief in an inevitable and remorseless decline easier to resist if you are producing cultural goods and working with a positive paradigm – i.e. having the opportunity, even the expectation to self-fashion your last act as a meaningful one? Or, more banally, is decline easier to resist if your creative career was sufficiently successful (in a material sense) for you to remain independent, rather than becoming a medicalised and marginalised inmate of an old peoples home? In either case, can one draw conclusions from this? Do the arts offer something that might influence policy? Not so much in terms of therapy, valuable though that is as has been shown in the examples discussed at the workshops, but more generally about quality of life? If it could be shown that the old age of creatively-attuned people tended to be less burdensome (to themselves, to their family, to society), any responsible modern state would take steps to invest heavily in the arts as a hedge against the social and economic costs of old-age care.
4. The physical decline associated with old age affects production in different arts very differently. On a sliding scale, you’d have to say that dancers get hit hardest (although I remember seeing Merce Cunningham’s penultimate appearance in London, still finding a way to be on stage when arthritis had laid him permanently low), then singers, musicians, painters, sculptors – probably in that order – all of whom need to compensate for the weakening of fine muscle control and other motor skills and/or eyesight problems. Actors, directors, composers, architects and writers may also suffer from physical deterioration but I don’t think it impinges on their work to anything like the same extent. As an art historian I’m interested – and could have done with more in the workshops about this – on medical analyses, especially changes in perception (e.g. light reception, colour sensitivity, degeneration of eyesight) and other physical alterations that tend to come with age. Analyses of cognitive features associated with old age would also have been very useful to hear about. Beyond the clinical understanding of dementia and other examples of cognitive decline, is there any consensus on the way the healthy mind functions in old age? Is cognitive behaviour in an 80-year old indistinguishable from a 40-year old or is it reasonable to divide adult life, broadly understood, into typical states of mind before and after various climacterics?
5. The discussion around memory in the last workshop does tie in with the idea of the ‘life review’ promoted by many analysts observing older people. And there is a pattern – although it’s not inevitable – of creative late work recuperating earlier productions. Can these phenomena be brought into any sort of alignment? And if not, why not?
6. How can Humanities help Gerontology and allied disciplines? The big obstacle is that we rarely read their journals and they rarely read ours. Partly this is due to the problem of interdisciplinarity, lack of specialist knowledge, problems with technical language etc. However, as the workshops have shown there probably is room for a major research effort that can produce results of interest to both communities.