Art and Aging: A Perspective of The Art World as You Get Older

Guest Writer: Edward M. Cohen

When you are a child, you don’t understand anything; dynamics, relationships, feelings, even perfectly clear events leave you mystified. Adults seem terrifying, with all the power to love and comfort or to threaten, hurt or abandon you. And abandonment is a real threat. This is how it was for me. Emotions are heightened. Images are vivid. Events imprint themselves on your brain forever. 

This is how I perceived the world as a child. How I remember it. I can only guess this is true of other people; other artists. I know that every good thing I have ever written comes from those early perceptions and memories. Villains, my parents, school bullies, powerful teachers seemed like giants, even physically, certainly emotionally. I read my early novel and see that it is truly written from the vantage point of a twelve year old. That novel is very good.

Luckily for me, but unluckily as an artist, I have grown enormously over the years. I am now eighty two. I understand the world and how it works, what makes other people tick, how their threatening behavior comes out of their own fears. I understand me, what I am doing to make my life better or worse, how my unconscious desires shape my actions. I may not be able to change how I react and behave but, afterward, I understand what I did and why. I understand how the world affects me if I let it, how I can create my own safety. In this understanding, I have found some element of power so I am no longer afraid. My life is reasonable, manageable, calm and satisfying.

But what I have lost is that deep connection to my unconscious that haunted me as a young writer. To understand it, to control it, to communicate it, to myself as well as others, was the reason I wrote. I did not know it at the time but I was writing to release the demons of my memory, to recreate the terrors of childhood and put them out there for me to see and deal with. To explore them and dramatize them and play with them in the hopes that then they would lose their power. 

As life has become more reasonable and manageable, as I have conquered my early terrors, as other people have lost their power over me, as I am no longer at the mercy of real or imagined events, I have lost the need to stay in touch with my unconscious. Thus I have the lost the need and the ability to be an artist. 

I am not saying that I regret this. I understand it and I want to put it down on paper so I don’t forget it. So many writers lose their inspiration as they age. What they have lost is their connection to and their dependence on their subconscious because it has been overcome by reason and adult ability. That is natural and normal and good. When that transition does not happen, it may be good for the art but not for the life. (I am just now reading the biography of Diane Arbus and thinking of her).

I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, a teacher, an artist. I have a solid marriage, good relationships with my kids, a grandson who is an artist and has taken the most valued beliefs of my life as his own. Can there be any greater joy? I have an apartment in the city, a little cabin in the woods where I can often be alone, a condo in Florida when I need to get away from the cold for my arthritis. I have written some good stuff that I am proud of, though it never got the acclaim and attention it deserved. I have been an artist all my life, as a writer and a teacher and a mentor. Since my thirties, I have lived my professional life according to what was important to me and involved in what I loved. For the last year or so, since the failure of my last effort; a memoir, I have not written anything new. The longest period like this in my life.

I only write this down because it causes so much pain. It involves so much loss, it is hard to see the value in what is happening. I have seen other writers, my friends, struggle against what is happening, failing to understand that it is part of life and not to be seen only as loss. To achieve the kind of comfort and peace I have now in my life sadly involves the loss of what I had when I was young.

I leave the writing now to those who need it and still are intensely connected to the place from which art comes. Any other writing is not important. I have done my important work and now I am done.                                                                                                       

I also find that, as I age, it is so much easier to repeat what I have said before. I have told so many stories. I still remember them. I like to tell them. They are like tapes in my head that I can rewind and play back at any moment. But they are old stuff, not new. When was the last time I had a new thought? Maybe this morning when I thought about this and decided I needed to write it down. I haven’t felt the need to write something down in months and months, probably longer. I finished the memoir over a year ago. It was never published. This morning in despair, in boredom, in exasperation with myself, I thought about the fact that I am telling the same stories, thinking the same thoughts, over and over – without reaching for the new. Because it is easier, I suppose. Because there is such a store of them – stories, ideas, words. I wanted to write this new thought down.

 It is all I’ve got.

About Edward M. Cohen:

Edward M. Cohen's novel, "$250,000," was published by Putnam; his non fiction books by Prima, Prentice-Hall, Limelight Editions, SUNY Press. He has published over 35 stories in literary journals and articles in Cosmopolitan, Child, Parenting, American Woman and Out.