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the KIS.list: In Favor of Youth


In Favor of Youth

In response to my recent post about the maturing of an artist and the awareness of what you're writing/creating about, my brother, Mtume ya Salaam, had this to say (see photos below the jump):

When you were talking below about the levels of art-making, I was wondering why didn't you mention that unnameable something that I'll (mis)name 'the spark of youth'. If you want to actually see it, all you have to do is look at photos of artists in their twenties and then look at photos of them two decades later. Whether they went off the deep end with drugs and self-destruction, or, on the other hand, took great care of their bodies and minds, that wild, 'I can do anything' glow they all seem to carry around matures into something else. Something less wildly, fiercely creative. I'm not saying mature artists can't create awesome art. I'm not sure what I'm saying, honestly. But I do know there seems to be a self-editing process that occurs when we're older. And while that process reflects our growth as artists it also seems to reflect our unwillingness to be fantastically, spectacularly wrong.

Baba once mentioned a quote by a jazz artist that said something like: "When you're young, you're all creativity and no technique. When you're old, you're all technique and no creativity." Beth and I were talking about that the other day in reference to Toni Morrison. About how Toni's books have become increasingly labyrinth-like, to the point where she's written all of the damn _story_ out of the story. I was mentioning Stevie Wonder - how, in his younger days, he would do things with those keyboards that the Moog Corporation certainly never intended. He get everything 'wrong': beats off-kilter, production muddy one minute and then overly bright the next, rambling about God Knows What one second ("Hello, Jesus. Jesus children. Jesus children loves you of America." What, man?!), perfectly lucid the next... etc. etc. Then, in his post-Hotter Than July work, everything became 'perfect'. And so, so boring. Had he become wiser as an artist? More technically gifted? Almost certainly. But he also was no longer willing to record some crazy shit and then leave it in there just because he could. So where does that impulse fit in for an artist?

I remember Rick Rubin talking about his first production, a record named 'It's Yours'. Twenty-five years later, hardcore hip-hop fans like me still listen to that record, in no small part because of the jaw-rattling bass. Years after the fact, Rubin told an interviewer that his (Rubin's) only goal during that production was to "set fire to the speakers." Surely, he exaggerates. There are other elements in the record that required subtlety and diligence. But just as surely, there's some truth there too. I imagine Rubin as a 20-year-old, yelling at the engineer, telling him "More bass! MORE!'" And the engineer was trying to explain (this is true, by the way) that there was already so much bass on the track that it was bleeding out of its own channel and ruining the vocals. "That's your problem," Rick told him. I think they ended up putting null tracks in there just to handle the bass bleed-over. All of that is beyond ridiculous. And yet, these days, Rick produces elegant, slightly boring rock records for grownups and for those unfortunate young people who wish to sound grownup before they actually are. ("And Mama said, 'Take your time, young man. Don't you rush....'")

So, in wrapping up this Great Monologue Written One Foggy Morning When He Really Should Have Been Running, I guess I'm trying to say that youth itself--that inherent and untutored wildness: that willingness (that desire, even) to do whateverthefuckonewants--may be another level of artistry. How to retain it (or some measure of it) might be worth thinking about. Or maybe even the thought is foolish? Maybe, like quarks (or whatever those inconceivably tiny specks of matter are), it's something that cannot be directly observed or even considered because, to observe it is to destroy it. Ah well....

To underscore his point about looking at "photos of artists in their twenties and then look at photos of them two decades later. Whether they went off the deep end with drugs and self-destruction, or, on the other hand, took great care of their bodies and minds, that wild, 'I can do anything' glow they all seem to carry around matures into something else. Something less wildly, fiercely creative," my brother sent me these photos.

But, I wanted to know, what about the middle ground? What about the 40s? Before defeat? After wildness? What about that?

And he said: Forty's a good time. :-) Dare I say a sexy time, even.

This filled me with joy as I am soon to be 40. In the photos I see an interesting nexus between between wisdom, confidence, and continuing daring!


Blogger Farai said...

Hey Kiini and Mtume:

I love this conversation. I agree and disagree w/ different aspects of the conversation about the maturing artist. I think the question is more about when you are frozen in time (in the public's eye) and when you "monetize" your talents than about age.

Just being totally personal, I am best known as a journalist. But before I was a journalist I was a child artist (visual and written word). I now, in my 40s, find myself becoming more experimental in my fiction writing and returning to experimental photography. I remember in college my photography teacher telling me "when you're middle aged, you'll come back to art." I guess he could see I was ambitious about my actions in the nonfiction world. But at some point if you have an artist inside you, you need to pay attention.

So I have increasingly split my time between artistry and journalism. I am less fluent in art. I am still the colt on quavering legs. I have an adolescent energy in my art (written, visual) while I have a mastery level of journalism.

So if you are an artist by nature and trade and have found you are a marketable commodity, have had hits, etc., at a young age, then you will be shaped by that, if only to defend or forefend against your existing reputation.


8:21 AM  
Blogger Mtume said...

That's a great point, Farai. Everyone we were talking about (whether it is Toni Morrison in the world of literature, or the various popular musicians I mentioned) did have major success at a young age. (Or a certain age, at least.) And the public certainly does and will freeze you where you are at the time of your most visible success. It's true that that state of 'frozen-ness' is very different from one's ability or success as an artist.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Food For Thought said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Lynn said...

First I'd like to point out the Toni Morrison's first novel was published when she was 39 (not that 39 or even 40-something is "old"), which means all the stuff we revere her for most was done in her 40s and 50s.

But, more importantly, I've made a conscious decision not buy into the popular notion that brilliant creativity only comes out of youth. It is a popular notion, but not necessarily accurate when we take a thorough look. Precocious-ess, I think, is simply a much sexier story.

There was an excellent piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker on genius and precocity" (Oct 20, 2008).

A few notable excerpts: "Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth...A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true..."

He looked at poetry, film and art. "He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. [The top] eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, fortytwo, and fifty-nine, respectively."

When it came to film: "Yes, there was Orson Welles, peaking as a director at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. MarkTwain published “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe” at fifty-eight..."

Dare I use a cliche here? Age ain't nothin but...

5:11 AM  

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