Art and the Myth of Midlife

Midlife is neither a crisis nor a myth as typically believed. The symptoms of someone in the process of change may lead to a crisis but I believe it’s something that can happen to anyone, at anytime in their life. There are commonalities with midlife periods in our lives. We are all human and experience life in similar milestones even though we are unique individuals with separate experiences. There may not be a crisis related to the change but only a period of reassessment and awareness of the present conditions of someone’s life. There can be a transformation in learning and growth. As an artist, I don’t believe I’m predisposed to these issues more than anyone else. Artists may have a better vocabulary to illustrate the process and emotions through their art while making the experience relatable to others.

Image for post
Image for post
Bronwen Hazlett, Laying Down My Cross, Blue Van Dyke with Inkjet Transfer, 2016

Two opposing myths underlie many people’s fears about midlife, inhibiting successful midlife change. The first, the myth of midlife as the onset of decline, is rooted in historically outdated conceptions. According to this myth, people end their productive lives and retire at age 65. The second myth is the notion of midlife as magical transformation. This myth, the fruit of the past few decades, has been fed by countless self-help books and magazine articles, and by a general cultural atmosphere. The myth tries to sell the illusion that if people have enough vision and willpower, they can be anything or anybody they want to be. Paradoxically, this doesn’t make midlife career changes easier — it makes them more frightening. (Ruttenberg) This article I am referencing from The Harvard Business Journal was written for those who spend their careers in business. It seems there is a self-imposed time limit on one’s validity of mind and body in this group. Possibly this was an effect of the introduction of the term “midlife crisis” by Elliott Jaques in 1965.

Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” based on his studies of clinical patients and artists, who were dealing with depression and angst about getting older. The term caught on like wildfire, because everyone knows someone who fits the mold. Most modern psychologists dismiss Jaques’ case studies as not representative of the average Joe. “Artists are known to dramatize their lives; it is their job almost. The more neurotic among us are more prone to crises in any life stage. “ (Nixon) I agree that artists of all types have a duty to be creative with their messages but if someone is prone to drama, there will be drama no matter who you are and what you do.

I grew up with this recognizable myth. It’s pervasive to our society and others as well. I have not recognized or legitimized it for myself up until recently. My role models, aka “Mom and Dad” are 79 and 81 years old. Both of my parents still technically work. It’s only been in the past few years that my Dad has stopped working full time and is only working 3 days a week. Maybe part of my denial of the existence of Midlife Crisis has been because I am a member of Generation X. We are now relatively middle age.

“My generation gets its reputation as reluctant to grow up. ‘It’s very hard to mature,’ he says. “In order to mature and become an adult, you have to shut off options. The way Xers were raised, there were always options — their parents told them to keep options open.” (Sribner) I can most definitely attest to this statement. My parents were separated before I turned 5 and divorced by the time I was 6. Both told me repeatedly while I was growing up “Don’t depend upon a man. Go to College and have a career before you get married.” So that is what I did because I was told it was possible. My goal was a great job and then maybe someone to marry. I never thought about having kids. I even bought my own house at 24.

“There’s this incredible denial of middle age going on,” Patricia Cohen says. “It’s part of this extended adolescence now going into your 40s and 50s. People want to hang onto their youth, so in that sense you’re young-young-young ’til you’re old.” (Sribner) I say “Whatever!” to that notion. I have always thought that age was in the mind. My Dad doesn’t belong to Generation X and he feels similarly. My 51-year-old fiancée doesn’t act his age and will #outworkamillenial on a regular basis. I think we need to separate the notion that midlife = old.

The quote that made the most sense to me again came from The Harvard Business Journal’s article The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change.

“Many people can anticipate and enjoy a second life, if not a second career. The task at hand is not as easy as the ‘just do it’ culture of self-help promises, however. True transformation at midlife does not reside in us, waiting to emerge like the butterfly from the cocoon. Self-actualization is a work of art. It must be achieved through effort and stamina and skill. Fortunately, the life force does not just extinguish itself at age 65. Indeed, there is no period better suited to inner growth and development than midlife, when many people learn to listen to their inner selves — the necessary first step on the journey of self-realization. (Ruttenberg)

“Many artists have been exceedingly prolific well into and past middle age. Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) of Spain was the most prolific of all professional painters in a career, which lasted 75 years. It has been estimated that Picasso produced about 13,500 paintings and designs, 100,000 prints and engravings, 34,000 book illustrations and 300 sculptures and ceramics. His oeuvre has been valued at £500 million (US$788millon). Picasso was a masterfully erratic pioneer with a hand in every art movement of the century.” (Guinness World Records)

Image for post
Image for post
Pablo Picasso light painting,1924

“This technique is almost 100 years old. Picasso (that man just loves to contribute to the art world.) decided to sketch a centaur mid-air using a torch.” (Design Tavern)

I chose this image because Picasso’s work was consistently ahead of his time. “Taken chronologically, his works show a growing tendency to withdraw from the empirical objects, and an increase in those elements which do not correspond to any outer experience but come from an ‘inside’ situated behind consciousness-or at least behind that consciousness which, like a universal organ of perception set over and above the five senses, is orientated towards the outer world. Behind consciousness there lies not the absolute void but the unconscious psyche, which affects consciousness from behind and from inside, just as much as the outer world affects it from in front and from outside. Hence those pictorial elements which do not correspond to any ‘outside’ must originate from ‘inside.’” (Jung, The Colleced Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 15: Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature)

What I found extremely interesting were portraits made months prior to his death. Picasso seemed to revisit and contemplate his own mortality over and over again. Maybe the reason he was so prolific was because he was continually searching for an answer and other possibilities. “I am happy to have stumbled upon the other portraits, giving us different glimpses of the idea of himself. Having such different works done in such a short time, gives testament to the complexity of all of our own self concepts. Just as I see the feelings of chaos, fear and acceptance in the works above, my own patients contemplating death can bounce from chaos, fear and acceptance sometimes in the span of a few hours.” (Pallimed Arts & Humanities)

Image for post
Image for post
Picasso, Self Portrait, June 28, 1972
Image for post
Image for post
Picasso, Self Portrait, July 2, 1972
Picasso, Self Portrait, July 3, 1972
Image for post
Image for post

This photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe is one of my favorites because it exemplifies her search for perspective. “Few major American artists have been as productive, for so long, in so many media, as Georgia O’Keeffe was during her extraordinary career. From her early, accomplished drawings — which caught the eye of her future husband, Alfred Steiglitz, in 1916 — through her firm studies of urban life and architecture in the 1920s and well into her gorgeous later works inspired by the natural beauty of New Mexico, O’Keeffe forged a unique, solitary path through the landscape of modern art.” (Cosgrove)

Georgia O’Keefe was 37 when she married photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Five years later, in 1929, she takes her first trip to Taos, NM. This was the beginning of her love affair with the desert she called the “faraway.” (O’Keeffe Country) This was the genesis of her painting the most known and loved artwork in history. I realize at Midlife not everyone is willing or able to explore and seek new adventures. If you are the type of person who is curious and willing to learn, there is always something new for your “self” to discover.

Image for post
Image for post

In 1971, O’Keeffe’s eyesight began to fail and by 1972 she was no longer able to paint. However, she met a potter by the name of Juan Hamilton who became her personal assistant. Hamilton introduced her to clay potting, so O’Keeffe was able to become a three-dimensional artist for the last years of her life. (Timetoast)

“Experience, not books, is what leads to understanding.” (Jung) There is no better teacher in the realm of art then the “hands on” experience. For me, earning a master’s in fine art and now rediscovering my long-forgotten skills in the darkroom has been a gift. Nothing on a computer can compare to painting chemistry on paper, exposing a negative on chemistry, and then processing the final print. It’s called a process for a reason. Just like the process of going through any change, you learn what works and is worth your time.

Image for post
Image for post
Bronwen Hazlett, Home, Blue Van Dyke, 2016

Works Cited

Cosgrove, Ben. Georgia O’Keeffe: Invincible. 30 10 2014. 10 05 2014 <http://time.com/3491091/georgia-okeeffe-invincible/>.

Design Tavern. Design Tavern. 01 01 2015. 10 05 2015 <http://www.designtavern.com/2008/11/lightwriting-from-picasso-to-lichtfaktor/>.

Guinness World Records. Most prolific painter. 01 01 2015. 09 05 2015 <http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/most-prolific-painter/>.

Jung, C.G. The Colleced Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 15: Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

— . The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 12: Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Apropriate. 01 01 2014. 10 2014 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/appropriate>.

Nixon, Robin. “The Midlife Crisis is a Total Myth.” 20 02 2011. Live Science. 03 05 2014 <http://www.livescience.com/12930-midlife-crisis-total-myth.html>.

O’Keeffe Country. Taos, New Mexico. 01 01 2015. 10 05 2015 <http://www.okeeffecountry.com/taos.html>.

Pallimed Arts & Humanities. Pablo Picasso: Self-portrait Facing Death (1972). 26 07 2010. 10 05 2015 <http://arts.pallimed.org/2010/07/pablo-picasso-self-portrait-facing.html>.

Ruttenberg, Carlo Strenger & Arie. “The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change.” February 2008. Harvard Business Rreview. 01 05 2014 <https://hbr.org/2008/02/the-existential-necessity-of-midlife-change>.

Sribner, Sara. “Generation X gets really old: How do slackers have a midlife crisis?” 11 08 2013. salon.com. 03 05 2015 <http://www.salon.com/2013/08/11/generation_x_gets_really_old_how_do_slackers_have_a_midlife_crisis/>.

Timetoast. Georgia O’Keeffe. 1 1 2015. 10 05 2015 <http://www.timetoast.com/timelines/25248>.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store