I was recently in San Diego for a conference of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Of course, the first thing one must do in strange towns is leave the hotel and go walking in the neighborhood. The neighborhood of my hotel in San Diego was Horton Plaza, a postmodern carnival of a shopping mall where I ate a hot dog for lunch. The second thing one must do at conventions far from home is to have brought a book along to pass away the midnight hours. I had with me for evening reading Anthony Storr's recent book Solitude as permission not to share the late-night gossip of the hotel bar and as anodyne for the continuing echo of the tumult and tedium of the general sessions of the conference itself. It was on my first evening in San Diego that I found in Storr's book:
And for certain artists, it seems to me that their production lessens in old age, not infrequently ceases. Might it have been for them that their art was the continuation in adult life of that childhood play, that as adults their painting of the female model was the current embodiment of that same imaginative thrust which in childhood had created the house out of the chair and in infancy had found in the blanket or the cuddly toy not the substitute for but the extension of the warmth and security of the mother? Might it have been for them that the painting of the wounded cuirassier slashing back at his enemy from a rearing horse was the current embodiment of the same imaginative thrust that in childhood had recreated a horse out of a broomstick, not as substitute for but as extension of the protective strength of the father? And then might it have been for these artists, when their old age came, that no external object—no souvenir for remembrance or any work of art—was needed to speed the flow of an imagination by then so filled with the autumn leaves of years?
And might it be, too, that for artists like me who once painted images of the wan despair of great cities, or those like Kiefer who today paint the terrible panoramas of worlds destroyed, or for the architects who designed Horton Plaza as the ceremonial center of a consumer society in the land of the lotus eaters—Horton Plaza where today instead of eating lotus blossoms I ate a hot dog in a postmodern gourmet hot-dog shop—might our work also be the imaginative reaching back thorough childhood to some never-forgotten infantile foundation in a solitude too early, an experience too soon of a homeland ruined, a confirmation somehow even in the playpen that the 1950s world of Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club was somehow not real life. And then for certain artists, as the world's demand for their old age work slips away—in our society we don't generally buy the work of artists in their seventies; it's young art for young collectors and museum directors for whom, also, the legacy of Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbu (Cor-busier) is unsuited to housing the postmodern adult's realization of childhood fantasies of Sesame Street and the Mouseketeers—and so for certain artists in old age, as the world in its progress finds less need for the objects of overt play in which during every developing phase of life they had embodied the timeless thrust of imagination's leap forward, for these artists might it come to pass that obvious production would decline and the elaborate execution, the complex puzzles of subject and content of which they had been once so proud would be slowly abandoned? (I think of Paul Klee's multitudinous drawings made at the end of his life, when he forgot the intellectual puzzles which had so intrigued him in the 1920s for the simplicity of a few black lines and a red splash on a white ground to depict the drummer of death. I think also of the simplicity of form, of light and of the objects described in Rembrandt's Self-Portrait of 1660 compared to, say, The Night Watch of 1642 or the Self-Portrait of 1640.)
Yes, all that grand virtuosity and public display would fade and all those grand pictures would no more come tumbling from the studio because the artist's own eyes, which for a lifetime had moved ceaselessly over the surface and depth of the world, eyes which for a lifetime had sent the shimmer of all things rippling through the synapses of the brain, because at last that rippling within a mind whose senses have the dimness of old age, because at last that synaptic rippling would itself be enough, would be the purpose, would be the end.
The image is of an old man I saw once in Rangoon. It was late afternoon. A strong, sweet, warm wind blew in from the sea. We had come to Rangoon expressly to see the Shwe Dagon, the great golden pagoda that is the splendour of the city. The Shwe Dagon sits on a hill which adds further to its already very great height. The top of the hill has been leveled to form a circular platform paved with large black and white marble squares. Rising from the marble platform and around the base of the enormous central spire itself are hundreds of smaller pagodas, ten to twenty feet high, many in gold but some in white or white with red or black. The central golden pagoda spire rises more than three hundred feet from among the clusters of smaller pagodas ringing it.
There were a few people, some families with children, the children running, playing, laughing, as we walked among the smaller shrines and gazed up into the far golden heights above us. There were large gongs here and there which the children would occasionally strike in their play. The top of the central spire was capped with a bronze parasol where a century ago the King of Siam put his crown jewels so the British envoy couldn't get them. Bronze wind chimes hung from the parasol. The sea wind moved among the chimes, and the sound that descended was that of a far, continuous clashing of worlds coming to be and passing away.
I saw an old man seated in the lotus position on the black and white squares of the marble base upon which the great pagoda rests. He faced the great, rising, golden spire that shone in the late afternoon sun. I looked at his eyes. They were the blue of moonstones. They were covered with cataracts, and no external objects were needed to speed the flow of his imagination toward its dissolution in nirvana.
1 Anthony Storr: SOLITUDE, A Return to the Self, New York: The Free Press, 1988, pp.69-71