Creativity in the third age

I have at last caught up with the joys of reading my Saga Magazine. I have a subscription to this magazine which I took out on the advice of a friend when I moved and following my redundancy and retirement from educational consultancy.

I say “at last” because those few brave souls out there who are regular readers of my blog posts will know that I recently bemoaned my over indulgence in various free MOOCs which have occupied a lot of my time.

Having decided to pare down my “Moocdom” I got back to the joys of sitting down and spending a couple of hours immersed in a few good articles.

One article in particular caught my attention. It was called “Young At Art” and was about the artist Henri Matisse, who, in his 80’s and suffering from bad arthritis which made him unable to properly use a paintbrush, had the brilliant idea of cutting out paper to make shapes that could be hung as mobile sculptures.

Here is an example of one called “Blue Nude” (1952)


The article was not specifically about Matisse’s art but about creativity in the third age which so many of us are are now in and whose membership is set to grow and grow as we live longer and longer ( on average).

I am particularly fascinated by the potentialities that this situation presents for us. In my retirement I have increased my learning and in particular have become immersed in the subject of Psychology. Michael Weight, the writer of the article, used psychological research to investigate Matisse’s late flowering creativity.

He states:

“Though great artists respond to ageing in different ways, it is striking how many of them have found a final burst of energy and creativity towards the end of their lives. ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,’ as Samuel Johnson drily observed, ‘it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ 

Not everyone is as blessed with inspiration as lasting as Matisse’s, however. ‘Don’t imagine you’ll have it for ever,’ warned the writer Doris Lessing, bereft of creativity five years before she died. ‘Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plughole.’

But does it? Does creativity wane? The consensus on this subject has certainly tended to favour Lessing’s pessimism, ever since the publication of psychologist Harvey C Lehman’s influential study of the relation between age and achievement, which found that ‘superior creativity rises relatively rapidly to a maximum which occurs usually in the thirties and then falls off slowly .”

Later on in the article he talks about an interesting study by P.H. Franses, a Dutch professor of Applied Econometrics who looked at the creative output of 189 famous artists and came to the statistical result that the artists were on average 41.92 years old when they created their most expressive art. Franses calculated that the
Average fraction of their lives that this represented was 0.6198 and that this was just 0.0018 away from the so-called “Golden Ratio” which was so celebrated as ideal proportions in art, music and nature.

So is it all downhill from about the age of 42? Recent research in the field of neuroscience has shown that our brains have remarkable plasticity and we are capable of learning, growing and creating throughout our lives. Thomas Hobbes, the great political philosopher famously took up the playing of a flute in his late 80’s!

I did some internet research and found a really good article about late flowering creativity called “Find Your Inner Genius“. One of the stories covered as that of Daddy Mack, who decided to take up the learning of the guitar at the age of 45 and is now a very well respected Blues Guitarist with his own band which has made records and has gone on numerous tours in the United States and in other countries.

I find it comforting to believe that Matisse was not some freak of nature but represented the fact that we are all able to find our own creative potential at any age. The third age gives us the time and space to explore this and I for one will continue to do for as long as I can. I sincerely hope that this post has given some of you the belief that you can do the same.

About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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