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Aging and Creativity

April 7, 2012

I have recently read the biography of Steve Jobs.  Highly creative undoubtedly and with an ability to manage diverse streams of people to produce an amazing product. But he seemed to survive on stress, friction and social irritation…..

The Book.

For some time I have been working on a small book which will celebrate the 80th birthday of a Western Australian artist. All the drawings and small artworks that I have selected for the book come from a variety of sketchbooks which he has gradually filled between 1975 and 2012. That’s a period of 37 years….a record across time….

Creativity and age

Very few of the works have ever been exhibited as they remain within the sketchbooks. One sketchbook recorded the building of the Duyfken Replica (a tiny 18th century sailing ship built in WA).  This sketchbook is held in the Scholars Centre of the Library of the University of Western Australia.

Only the artists large colourful paintings have been exhibited in Australia from time to time.

Creativity and aging.

Producing this book has given me the opportunity to think about creativity and aging.

According to most researchers, (unsurprisingly) creativity demonstrates the usual pattern of decline with age. Researchers use mostly ground-breaking creative scientists from various disciplines as subjects. Musicians and composers or scholars are always included as all their work is quantifiable…..papers/books published, music/operas written and performed, etc. The visual arts is more difficult as what is considered “creative” can be so much more subjective (and, may I say, highly dependent on the fickle art gallery system.)

The Central Findings

The central findings on creativity and aging exhibit a rapid ascent in productivity (decelerating), a single peak, and gradual decline with age. D.K Simonton questions the reality of this curve and suggests that there are clear individual differences.

Moreover he suggests that quality of creativity can persist with age, depending on creative potential of course. He suggests that the age decrement (particularly in artists) is probably less due to aging per se than to other factors intrinsic and extrinsic to the creative process.

George Bernard Shaw’s mind at age 83 was seen as “not perhaps quite as good as it used to be, but it was still better than anyone else’s.”

Productivity

The drawings and other artworks contained in the artist’s sketchbooks I am working on cannot be faulted on production rate…..there are hundreds of them. The link between quality and quantity is interesting as I observed considerable repetition in terms of style interspersed with messy or fluid marking. Perhaps this related to periods when factors extrinsic to the drawing process were intruding. Recently in his 70’s more experimentation and freedom of expression is evident although the subject matter remains similar…his immediate environment, the desert, the park, the river, bridges, boats etc. Productivity has changed little over his life span.

Creativity and mental illness

Weisberg (1994) took the composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) as his test case. Schumann suffered from a bipolar affective disorder and left extensive records of his mood swings in letters and diaries. However although Weisberg plotted the productive capacity of Schumann against his reported mood swings, given the improved state of medical treatment today for the condition such a mapping could be difficult to plot. Like Schumann this artist was given a diagnosis of manic-depression somewhere around the age of 55-60years. Certainly as far as I know there seem to be clear periods of ups and downs with diurnal variation. But this is complicated by considerable social phobia and other features which seem to lie on the autistic spectrum. Who can tell exactly?

Building of the Duyfken 1998

Homage to Paul Signac

Here are some of the artworks and sketches from the book:

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