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May 15, 2003

Middle Age Again: How do they find the time?


I'm going through a complete history of science for the first time since I was a Sputnik-charmed kid. Fun to revisit the old landmarks, fun to run into the great old names: Galileo, Ptolemy, Copernicus. Seeing it all with the perspective of some experience, refreshing my familiarity with the basics, watching a few pieces of the story fall into a kind of place they didn't when I was a kid, etc. And pleasant to notice that a good part of my brain hasn't changed all that much -- it's like an older-kid version of its onetime younger-kid self.

But there's a whole new part of my brain that's churning away too. And here's the kind of thing that it's wondering about: How did these guys find the time and the energy? How did they pay the bills? Were they born rich? Did they have regular jobs? If so, what kinds of arrangements did they make to free up a little time? Could they really have been pursuing the research as hobbyists? Weren't they exhausted by the effort?

Not really looking to learn the answer to these questions. Instead, I'm marveling at the fact that I've developed such an intense interest in them. As a kid, you tend to imagine that factors like time, energy and money will take care of themselves -- at least I did. You hit middle age and you can find yourself almost entirely consumed by dealing with these factors. At least I do.

Speaking of which, more or less, I was talking the other night with a young woman who's going through a touching, familiar phase. She's making the discovery that almost all starry-eyed people do who go into the fine arts, which is just how many artists (and writers and poets, etc) are living on family money. Questions of talent, motivation and skill put aside for the moment, it's amazing how many artists are able to be artists simply because they can afford to be. (It's also quite amazing that college profs don't inform you of such things.)

It's a bitter moment when you make this discovery -- I remember it well. You think to yourself: You mean, in following the arts, to some larger-than-I-expected extent, we're just paying attention to the self-expression of rich kids? What point is there in that? And you wonder too: You mean, if we're going to make a living in the arts (as editors, journalists, agents, interviewers, photographers, designers, adminstrators, etc), we're basically going to be working as support staff, there to make them look good?

I tried to give her a benign, patient, encouraging smile. I wonder if she'll be staying in the field.



posted by Michael at May 15, 2003


I'm reading a good book that touches on the second subject of this post: "How to Grow as an Artist" by Daniel Grant. Apparently many middle age-ers are getting back into the arts because they can finally afford it!

He adds that this has a positive side because "Self-expression requires an understanding of oneself, which isn't always found in twenty-year-olds, and it may take time for ideas to percolate." But he says the negative side comes from a common feeling among art dealers because, "In most cases you lose money on artists in the first few years in hopes that they will develop over twenty years. Do you get the same rewards with artists who are near the end of their lives?"

Another line worth remembering, "Art frequently must wait until children are grown, or a nest egg has been established, or until just the fear of the word 'artist' has been over come. Sometimes, being older and wiser helps, for instance, in knowing not to personalize rejection or in understanding how to promote and market a product (in this case, art)."

Posted by: laurel on May 15, 2003 8:08 AM


Regarding your scientific luminaries and how they had time to do their groundbreaking work:

While Galileo came from an impoverished noble family, his father, a lowly musician, sent him to the University of Pisa in order to study medicine. Instead, Galileo took up mathematics and became an academic, being appointed a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua. He never married, although he fathered three children out of wedlock. He apparently maximalized his free time by delegating the task of raising his children to his mistress and ultimately shipping the two girls off to convents where they became nuns. In later life his fame led to a position with in the Medici establishment at Florence.

Very little is known of Ptolemy’s life, but he appears to have been a descendant of a Greek family living in Alexandria which had been granted Roman citizenship. From this we may guess at a certain family affluence, but that’s just a guess. The circumstances of his adult life—how he earned his living, etc.—seems to be a complete mystery.

Copernicus came from an affluent family in Poland; his father was a successful copper trader. However, after the death of his father when Copernicus was 10, his uncle—at the time a canon but later a bishop—became his guardian and directed his career path into the church. Copernicus was a sort of perpetual student, attending the University of Krakow for four years (without taking a degree), at the University of Bologna for five years (without finishing his studies of Canon law), and the Universities of Padua and Ferrara for another three or four years (he finally got his Canon law doctorate from Ferrara.) He then went back to Poland where he worked for his uncle the Bishop as a canon, a physician, and a private secretary. Again, typically, while being on the payroll of the Church his whole adult life, he refused to become a priest. He seems to have had no discernible private life, devoting all his time to his various studies and various administrative tasks, including organizing the successful defense of the castle at Allenstein during a war between Poland and the Tuetonic knights and the reconstruction of the surrounding district after the war.

In short, for bright boys (at least) in the past, the time for significant intellectual activity was obtainable one way or another—as long as one is willing to sacrifice an ordinary private life. Perhaps the real illusion your young friend is under is the notion that anyone—artists or scientists alike—can “have it all.”

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 15, 2003 9:56 AM

OK---on the one hand, all you guys do is talk about having sex with hot babes and relatively endlessly complaining that women like food better than having sex as much as you want (and I'll refrain from commenting on all the possible reasons for THAT)...and then you say you can't even imagine pursuing art or science and having to earn a living/take a bath each day---how would there be time or energy??

Either you are being lazy about art/science, or you aren't quite the sexual wildcats you present herein.

Posted by: annette on May 15, 2003 2:18 PM

Annette: I think the clue is in the title "Middle Age"

Posted by: Deb on May 15, 2003 2:24 PM

Drat, seen through once again!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 15, 2003 3:18 PM

Hey Laurel, Good to see you back. Sounds like a helpful book, thanks for telling us about it. How's the painting going?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 15, 2003 5:07 PM


Surplus wealth has always been a precondition for artistic enterprise. In fact, art is one of the greatest gifts wealth can offer the world.

What leaves a bitter taste in my mouth is that art has degenerated into "self-expression." I'd blame college professors for this as much as for their ignorance of economic reality.

Posted by: JW on May 15, 2003 9:38 PM what is creating art about in your opinion J.W.? I just want to hear your perspective. What role does "self-expression" play, if any?

Michael- My own artistic path...geez. It is slower then I had hoped. I feel like I'm moving a huge bolder with each step I take. I've switched mediums twice, I've done nothing larger then a 12x14, and sometimes looking at my drawing table makes my heart race with a sense of panic. How's that for your basic neurotic artist. I thought artists were cool and laid back.

But, the good side, I've created time to actually be an artist. And I haven't thrown myself into some other job or task to relieve the anxiety! I'm dealing with it. So, all in all I'm happy with baby steps I'm taking...sort of. Hey-I've probably told you more then you wanted to hear.

Posted by: laurel on May 16, 2003 8:27 AM

I think it's more interesting and useful to view art as a discipline of self-cultivation than as a medium for self-expression. In my view, the long, rigorous process of learning how to make art creates the artist's "personality." In the way so art is taught today, art is an act of psychic regurgitation by barely formed personalities. This view of art, reduces works of art to simpleminded paraphrases: "This expresses my rage." "This expresses my ironic detatchment from the world." "This expresses my opinion on US foreign policy." "This expresses my love of Neal Adams comics." Who cares?

If art=self-expression, than the best art is that which best expresses the "self" of the artist (whatever that "self" may be). It turns the process of making art into an attempt to found a cult of personality (today, most critics and tastemakers are all too happy to join this kind of cult), and underlies the careerism of the contemporary art world.

Self-expression shouldn't be looked at as the purpose of art: it's just a rather fortunate side-effect of the process.

Posted by: JW on May 16, 2003 9:54 AM

Thanks JW...nice perspective. I think that belongs on my bulletin board!

Posted by: laurel on May 16, 2003 10:49 AM

Hey JW, Good points, and if you'll poke around the site here a bit you'll find that we're on the same side where the cult of self-expression is concerned. Taking the occasional swipe at "self-expression" is something we live to do.

I'd tweak your "surplus" generalization just a bit, though. It needs to somehow account for folk art (blues, outsider art, hobbyist art, country music, quilts, native arts of many nonmodern cultures, storytelling, etc) , and it doesn't, darn it. But it's certainly true that prosperity never hurts, especially where the arts of the bourgeois world are concerned.

The possibly annoying point I'm trying to focus on here is the case in the fine arts, which is a world heavily subsidized by family money (a fact never taken into account by surveys of how generously Americans subsidize the arts). Book publishing, too, which depends heavily on young people with at least enough family money behind them to get them through the miserable early years of next-to-no-pay.

These conditions affect, as conditions of production will, the process and the product -- something I'd love to see more discussion of. The radical stance so often taken by modern artists, for instance? Means something a little different when you discover how many of them had trust funds. In an overgeneral way, it can semi-sorta-kinda be said, with at least a little validity: what's the big difference in this country between a fine artist and a commercial artist? That the second one has to make a living, and the first one doesn't.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 16, 2003 5:19 PM


I'd say that folk artists subsist of the surplus of wealth of the folk, in general, and, in fact, that's what makes them folk artists to begin with. That said, most actual folk artists aren't the disinterested carriers of tradition as romanticized by liberals: a blues player like Robert Johnson, for example, made a living playing all different genres of songs, wherever he could get paid for it. He made his records so they'd sell, hoping he'd get rich.

Likewise, the elaboration of domestic arts, also requires a relative surplus of wealth: you have to have a base level of financial security to pursue a hobby, or spend energy on the aesthetics of functional artifacts.

I'd agree with you that these kinds of "folk" art are more economically efficient (in some sense) than most "bourgeois" art.

Onto your next point, I can certainly understand why you find the subsidization of high art by family money so annoying. However, I can't help but think of all the great works of art, from the past at least, that owe their existence to these kinds of subsidies. What really annoys me is not so much the fact that family money supports so many artists, but that these artists tend to be, regardless of their talent, imaginatively impoverished. When their "radical stance" isn't simple, cynical careerism, it points to the complete lack of contact they've had with the real world. (Not surprisingly, there is an exactly parallel situation in academia, where professors who are paid by universities with heavy corporate subsidies preach against the horrors of capitalism. If these hypocrites really believed what they were saying, they should stop teaching, move to Vermont, and join a commune, or, at least, deliver all their lectures in Central Park, where anyone can hear them, and not just those with enough status and privilege to get into college).

This fundamentally affects art as process and product. The process has degenerated into the type of solipistic, masturbation that Norman Mailer proposes is the source of all writing in "Advertisements for Myself", without any of the pleasures Mailer offers (namely, watching the development of the personality of a first-rate bullshitter): just another kind of territorial pissing. The product is generally ugly, because the safe, normal bourgeois background of these artists compels them to strike out against its supposed values in the most obvious, literal way. These artists sneer at the genuine kitsch of the lower classes (although they usually condescend to appreciate it "ironically") without realizing their own creations are even more offensive to nature than plastic religious statues that have genuine meaning for their owners. The self-expression of these artists is no different in kind than the self-expression of a guest on the Jerry Springer show: it is, however, far more pretentious and hypocritical. (The comic book and movie "Ghost World" deals with many of these issues. "Eightball", the comic "Ghost World" was serialized in, often deals with the tension between high art and commercial art: I suggest reading the story "Gynecology" from the "Caricature" collection).

I also agree with your point about high vs. commercial artists.

[That's one of the reasons I find the early days of super-hero comics so fascinating. Someone as talented as Jack Kirby (who, in my opinion, is the greatest American visual artist of the century), first and foremost had to pay the bills. However, there was no way he could get even a relatively well-paying illustration job (thanks, in part, to anti-Semitism), and so he ended up cranking out as many pages of super-hero comics as he could. His work regimen, combined with the relative amount of creative freedom he had in what was considered a completely disposable medium, helped to switch something on in him: by the 1960s he had created a visual poetry of action, violence, change, sacrifice, decay, that towers over anything done in comics before or since. And he did it all for a paycheck.]

Posted by: JW on May 16, 2003 10:01 PM

Hey JW, Lots of fun points, thanks.

I think we're getting at many of the same things but may be tripping over terminology, "excess wealth" (or "surplus wealth") specifically. Maybe it'd be a good idea to chuck the term, or tweak it, or kick it around a bit.

There's a distinction that I find useful to be made between folk cultures and modern cultures where the arts are concerned, however fuzzy the line between them can sometimes be shown to be. Tibetan yak herders, for instance, (assuming there are such people) no doubt have their own arts and culture. They doll their food up with a spice or two; they tell stories; they decorate their clothes; they do some throat singing (or something). Yet I'm not sure that talking about the cultural goods created by Tibetan yak herders as functions of "surplus wealth" gets us very far. I mean, it's useful (as far as I'm concerned, anyway) to make a distinction between the kinds of things yak herders make and the creations of bohemians living on trust funds.

The best way out of this corner that I've run into comes from some anthropologists, who make the point that people in every culture create art -- every culture, that is, whose every last bit of energy and time isn't being taken up with the struggle for survival. The only people, in other words, who don't produce "culture" are those just a millimeter this side of death.

Yet I can't imagine many people would speak of hillbillies or yak herders as having a lot of surplus wealth. So how to discuss what they're up to? Maybe their cultural goods are a function of having "leisure time"? And people in such cultures are often said to "work" only four or five hours a day. So maybe that's a little better. But even so ... Baby-raising, hut-repairing, fish-hook-making -- I dunno, seems to me like that'd eat up a lot of time. And some anthropologists argue that people in such cultures often don't have a concept of "leisure time" as opposed to "work" (or of "culture" as a product of "leisure time.") Instead, these people are doing what, so far as they're aware, people do: busying themselves decorating clothes, plaiting the kids' hair, amusing each other with stories while killing woodchucks, whatever. The decorations, heighteners, entertainments, and rituals are woven into their very full lives. (It's we who go in there and see these things as "culture.")

So, mistakenly or not, I tend to find it handy to set aside concepts like "surplus wealth" and "leisure time" for use in discussing aristocratic, or modern, or modern-ish, life. You may disagree.

There's another distinction to be drawn that I find handy too, which is between "surplus wealth" and "leisure time" as they affect the individual, and as they affect the larger society. There's a big diff between whether or not Person A has enough money and time to indulge some artistic interests, and whether or not the society around him has a fizzy economy and a willingness to spend money on leisured or cultivated pursuits. The '80s in NYC, for instance, were interesting because there seemed to be a lot of money around, and it was loose and showy and self-conscious enough money that ambitious and lucky artists could hope to grab some as it floated by. It was a very particular environment, and it wasn't a function of whether any artist had a trust fund or not. Florence during the Renaissance, for instance: banking was booming, money was around, people wanted statues and paintings and palaces. As far as I'm aware, most of the Renaissance artists we remember were skilled tradesmen hustling up jobs, basically, and not trust-fund kids loafing around trying to figure out how to make an impact on critics and friends.

I know I'm being pedantic, but it's fun to go to the trouble of sorting these things out.

So, when I'm talking about rich kids, self-expression and today's fine art world, I find it useful to make a distinction between that phenom and folk art, as well as between that phenom and a fizzy economic environment that offers lots of business possibilities for artists.

Just between us, I've got nothing against rich kids or trust funds, or rich kids with trust funds going into the arts. May the rich be more, and not less, generous towards the arts. What does burn me a bit is that the pervasiveness of the phenom isn't more widely acknowledged and discussed. It's helpful to know about it when thinking about the art world's products: Knowing, for instance, that a lot of radical art has been made by rich kids does help put the radicalism of it in a little bit of perspective. (Ie.: "Easy for you to take that stance. You don't have to make a living.")

Another thing that can gripe me a bit is the way many people leap to conclusions: that, because fine art is above commercial art on the hierarchy, for instance, it necessarily follows that the people in fine art are there because they're better (more talented, better trained, more sophisticated, whatever) than the people in commercial art. Or that a literary writer is a literary -- and not a pop or commercial -- writer because he/she is a better/finer/smarter/more-talented writer.

Now, you don't make these mistakes, I don't, and the savvy people who visit this blog don't. But many people still do. (I do happen to think that there are differing degrees of potential formal complexity between the various arts. And I do think that the commercial world puts a lot of unfortunate, distorting pressures on people and their talents. But that's a whole different discussion.)

As a handy hierarchy, it may make sense in a centralized, old Euro country. In the States, it seems to me to be about 90% a kind of sentimentality. So it can be tonic to remind ourselves occasionally that one of the most important diffs between fine artists and commercial artists is something as simple and basic as: many fine artists don't have to make a living, and nearly all commercial ones do.

I often wonder why the profs, critics, and art historians don't make more of this. I also marvel (silly me) at the way that most of the ones who do have a boringly Marxist and deterministic point of view.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 17, 2003 1:03 PM

Thanks for sharing your interesting discussion. I was flipping through recent X-Men comics and was struck by the cruelty and sadism, the lack of common humanity compared to the comics I collected when I was a kid. To me the latest X-Men comics weren't about anything, just sound and fury signifying nothing. I could imagine a spoiled rich kid being the culprit behind this, but why would this type of person be given the writing duties in the first place ? Lack of better alternatives, a position of privilege ? Or are they just the tool of a master force bent on destroying Western civilization ?

One thing I considered during this discussion was whether significant, meaningful art had ever been produced by someone from a privileged background. If the answer is no, never, then obviously there is something intrinsically incompatible about being wealthy and producing art. But I suspect there have been important artists from wealthy backgrounds. So the question becomes, what is wrong with the children of priveledge these days ? What type of child rearing produces someone so alienated from the trials and tribulations of everyday people ? Spoiling your kids is popular among middle and lower class people as well. I think it may also be a factor of age. As I have gotten older and seriously considered aging, illness, marriage, it's been humbling and I feel more connected with humanity. Surely something similar must happen to the wealthy without it having to be a Buddha-like transcendence.

Posted by: Matt Leonard on May 17, 2003 4:59 PM

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