Don't trust artists over 30! The allure of youthful talent -- and the decay of artistic genius

Beethoven, Cobain, Plath, Keats -- artistic prodigies do their best work young. Why do talent, inspiration fade?

By Nicholas Delbanco

Published November 16, 2013 9:00PM (EST)

Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith      (Reuters/Lee Celano/AP/Arista Records/Robert Mapplethorpe)
Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith (Reuters/Lee Celano/AP/Arista Records/Robert Mapplethorpe)

Excerpted from “The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts”

“Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty, Youth’s a stuff will not endure . . .” — William Shakespeare, "Twelfth Night"

In "Lastingness: The Art of Old Age" (2011), I wrote of musicians, painters, and writers who worked till the end of their natural lives, and whose lives were long. They maintained and even advanced their creative enterprise past the age of seventy; think, for example, of Pablo Casals, Thomas Hardy, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Giuseppe Verdi, and William Butler Yeats. It seems self-evident that those who live extended lives will know some things they once did not; time is the currency with which we pay for incremental understanding of the distant view. Perspective does increase.

Starting out is not the same; we cannot tell for certain how long we will persist. By now I have been publishing books for nearly half a century, and to begin with I could not imagine what it means to keep keeping on. At twenty-three, when my first book appeared, I was sure some sort of Halley’s Comet would signal its arrival and everything would change. Today I understand, of course, that nothing of that order happens; nuclear annihilation remains a threatful possibility, and starvation and disease are problems not redressed by art (or in any case not by mine). To add a painting or a melody or a novel to the stock of those available is not to save the world.

Yet there’s still a small frisson of expectation: What next? The winner’s circle always beckons; the stirrup cup awaits. It seems to me the youthful maker must believe in the importance of what she or he makes; else how or why continue? There’s no foregone conclusion or retrospect involved in the prospect of a career; in our beginning is our end, perhaps, but the creative personality sees no easy outside limit to what he or she will attain. To live one’s life as an artist is to dream of immortality. I leave you this picture, this poem, this song is the young person’s clarion call, and though there’s rarely an answering cry, it may sometimes echo awhile.

“Late style” is a topic now current; from Rudolf Arnheim to Harold Bloom, from Edward Said to Helen Vendler, it has become the subject of critical discussion. Early expressiveness has been less often considered — as though it were coeval with the start of a career and therefore unremarkable, a necessary precondition of the work. But first acts too are crucial; beyond the pure pleasure of making, they predict the size and contour of any achievement to come. And when no further achievements exist, first acts are all we have.

Consider the poets Byron, Keats, and Shelley, or the composers Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Schubert. None of these towering figures attained the age of forty; Keats died at twenty-five. The list of those who can properly be called precocious — Thomas Chatterton dead at seventeen, Jean-Michel Basquiat at twenty-seven, Théodore Géricault at thirty-two — is long. Between the 1890s and the 1920s, think of Guillaume Apollinaire, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Rupert Brooke, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Katherine Mansfield, Wilfred Owen, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and too many others to name; not one reached a fortieth year. Even the descriptive term “old masters” points to the period of production and not to the age of the maker; the painters Caravaggio, Giorgione, Raphael — to take just three examples from the Italian Renaissance — expired in their thirties.

On September 9, 1513, when he was seventeen months old, James V became King of Scotland. James VI received that title even younger, at thirteen months, on July 24, 1567. In 1603, at the venerable age of thirty-seven, he succeeded Queen Elizabeth I and became James I of England — which he then ruled for twenty-two years. Louis XIV, the Sun King, succeeded his father at the age of four years and eight months; his country at that time had nineteen million people, and he “owned” their bodies as well as their property. Pope Benedict IX, when twelve, assumed the position of pontiff in 1032, the youngest in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. The current Dalai Lama was enthroned in Tibet at the age of five, in 1940; he remains the spiritual leader of his people although in exile from his homeland and unable to return. K’ang Hsi became Emperor of China in 1661 when he was not yet seven years old. He reigned thereafter for sixty-one years, with three empresses who presented him with thirty-five sons of his own. Power — at least in its titular and inherited guise — can come soon.

But what of power that is neither self-anointed nor appointed? Let me start with literature, since of the three modes in my study it’s verbally expressive and can describe the problem. As William Butler Yeats proclaims, perhaps a touch too loudly, “I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young / And weep because I know all things now.” In “A Defense of Poetry” (1821), Percy Bysshe Shelley asserts that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” His phrase too is hyperbolic, but what of those unacknowledged legislators we call important writers; when does their reign begin?

To die in one’s twenties or thirties is not necessarily to have been a beginner. The poet — or the musician or painter — may well confront mortality at an early age. When T. S. Eliot has his titular character J. Alfred Prufrock declare, “I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” the writer himself was in his early twenties and his alter ego only a little older. The spinsters in Jane Austen’s books are rarely more than thirty; when Shakespeare wrote his celebrated sonnet on old age (“That time of year thou may’st in me behold . . .”), he would have been what we consider young. The medical student John Keats, who recognized his own arterial blood while coughing, was no less aware of his physical decline than Walter Savage Landor writing “Memory” at ninety. When Patti Smith composed "Just Kids," her companion Robert Mapplethorpe had died years before — in his mid-forties — of AIDS.

Mortality has been a topic for painters, writers, and musicians all along. But life that ends at twenty is a different thing than life terminated at eighty, and many of our culture’s masterworks have focused on the former. A death that arrives in the fullness of time is less often the subject of elegiac lament than death that seems premature; from Achilles on Patroclus to John Milton on young Edward King, the literature of mourning deals with a lover or a friend “dead ere his prime.” (Near the start of his great elegy, Milton puts it this way: “For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, / Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer…”) When Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) composed “The Raven” or wrote grievingly of “Annabel Lee,” he was lamenting the loss of a maiden, not a mother or grandmother; in the various fables and myths where Death comes to claim a prized lady, it’s predictably a beautiful virgin, not crone, he carries off as prize. And when a life is over soon, the speculations on what if seem almost unavoidable, as though a second act might plausibly have followed with a second roll of dice.

A number of our gifted young die early and by accident as well as choice: the rule of time and chance. Had Wilfred Owen not been shot in the First World War, or Christopher Marlowe knifed in a tavern, their poetic output no doubt would have enlarged. Had Sylvia Plath or Hart Crane been medicated in the modern fashion, they might not have grown suicidal but rather continued to write. We know their names, but not the nameless multitudes of poets-soon-to-publish who instead have been consigned to unmarked graves. The musician with a racking cough or painter with consumption is nearly a stereotype of la vie bohème; think of all those figures on the opera stage or movie screen who address the score or sketch pad while the clock approaches midnight and their faces go cadaverous…

In this sense, early death is a central motif of the human condition, and one of the great topics of the tribe. From Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” to Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” our poetry instructs us: Carpe diem — seize the day. The lament “In Time of Pestilence,” by Thomas Nashe (who died at thirty-four, in 1601), contains this fearsome stanza:

Beauty is but a flower

Which wrinkles will devour; Brightness falls from the air; Queens have died young and fair; Dust hath closed Helen’s eye;

I am sick, I must die — Lord, have mercy on us!

* * *

That children love to draw and paint is a near-universal truth; the crayon and the coloring book are everyday enchantments. To walk into a preschool gathering or kindergarten class is to witness a triumph of color and shape; by junior high and high school the walls look less alive. The walls of lecture halls at the college and postgraduate levels are almost totally blank. Outsider art and folk art (as well as that of artists deemed insane) tends to blur those boundaries; the style of the few who stay innocent-eyed retains the feel and flavor of inspired play. For most of us, however, youthful inventiveness fades. Why this should be the case — a diminished willingness in adults to toy with light and lines and clay — is almost as much a mystery as the reverse: why some of those children persist.

Still, there’s a limit to the excellence of kindergarten paintings, no matter how unlimited the joy. And it’s fair to say, I think, that even the gifted young artist must be tutored in the skills of rendering and representation; no one first handles the chisel or the paintbrush with, as it were, perfect pitch. Apprenticeship has always been part of the process of growth, and perhaps the crucial distinction between those who improve and those who put their paint boxes away is the willingness to welcome such apprenticeship — to get better at drawing a human figure or a distant tree. To try again, again, again and not grow bored or angry is to enter the profession (or to succumb to the lure of it) at an early age.

So how do gifts declare themselves; how do we recognize and, thereafter, measure them? What constitutes a prodigy and what is mere precocity; where does one draw the line? The child playing Czerny exercises or reciting nursery rhymes to an audience of adults is a stock figure, nearly, and most parents think their son or daughter is special. Little Bob with his drum set or Babs in her tutu seem particularly gifted to the doting dad and mom. All those rainbows and smiley faces done with finger paint in kindergarten fairly clamor for a viewing on the refrigerator door. I don’t mean to disparage this; I too believed our children and now our children’s children were and are remarkable, each in their own way unique.

They are, of course; all human beings are one of a kind. No genetic pattern short of cloning precisely replicates another, and every mother’s son and daughter is in fact unique. But DNA is one thing and precocious genius another; the child who hears the St. Matthew Passion and can retain it note for note is not the same as one who hums the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” The young artist who can draw a perfect circle freehand (as Michelangelo Buonarroti is reputed to have done) is not the same as one who manages stick figures in front of a square house. A child prodigy does possess a kind of genius, if genius means having a quicker relation to the passage of time than that of ordinary mortals — a more rapid gift of comprehension and a skill set acquired with ease. John Stuart Mill learned Greek at three, Latin a little later; by the age of twelve he was adroit at logic and at sixteen an economist. When we call a child “a natural,” we mean something of the same: an effortless-seeming acquisition of skills that others labor painfully to learn. What X needs to study hard and stitch together thread by thread arrives to Y whole cloth.

Music offers us, perhaps, the clearest case of such “effortless-seeming acquisition.” The gift is declared early on. When children learn to sit and stand, then walk and talk, they navigate the world at an astonishing rate. Neurons fire; synapses expand; the rate of growth is exponential by comparison with an adult’s accretion of skills. An infant acquires information minute by hour and day by week; in a grown-up the process slows down. For the elderly it can reverse. And though I know of no governing series of genes, it does appear that certain individuals — a small and rare minority — acquire the language of music the way other children learn speech. It is as if the motor skills most people use to walk and talk are extended in the prodigy’s brain to learning chords and scales.

They would seem to listen to some unspoken set of instructions, hearing what we used to call “the music of the spheres” and knowing without conscious application which note must follow which. When they compose, it’s almost as though they take dictation, copying; what they write, they write at speed.

How else to explain the youthful achievements of Palestrina or the work of J. S. Bach? How else to explain the early symphonies of Mozart or Mendelssohn’s octet? Often this nature is nurtured; the children of musicians seem to have inherited an interest in and aptitude for the family trade. Often the training comes early; the fathers of Franz Liszt and Clara Wieck, to take just a pair of examples, urged their offspring on. In a house where music looms large, musical expressiveness may find a fertile ground.

Yet it still feels otherworldly when a prodigy comes out on-stage to offer a performance. Here the word edges up against the dictionary definition of “amazing or marvelous”; the young Claudio Arrau and Yehudi Menuhin playing the piano and the violin did so in ways that beggar understanding. This is not the same as starstruck parents encouraging their darlings to perform in school recitals or The Nutcracker; it’s as if some inner enabling power has taken these artists in hand. How is it possible, we ask ourselves, that they should have such physical dexterity or be able to remember all those notes? As I write, I’ve just finished watching a YouTube clip of a three-year-old towheaded maestro conducting the fourth movement of a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; he wields his baton with perfect precision and unalloyed delight.

In painting too it’s often, if not always, a function of home-schooling. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jacopo Bellini, and the rest no doubt expected their sons to enter in the studio, then guild. In the case of mercantile trades — basket weaving, plumbing, tile installation, and the like — we’re unsurprised when the son accompanies his father at labor, the daughter her mother while fashioning lace. These are stereotypes, of course, and gender-patterned expectations, but it’s nonetheless true that particular crafts were and often still are passed along from generation to generation. My people have always built boats is not in essence different than the kapellmeister’s assumption his children will join the chorale. It’s a family legacy, a family tradition, and those who make mosaics or carpets or symphonies may well commence at home.

The circus acrobat starts young; so do the Olympic swimmer and the equestrienne. The guitarist and the fashion model may well commence careers in their teens, and nowadays a mogul might be in his or her twenties — think Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle, YouTube, and the rest. The season’s fresh new face and ingénue, the publishing phenom and rookie of the year all share a rapid arrival. The next big thing, the breakthrough discovery — our television programs celebrate first acts.

There are forms of quick achievement and identity that are, of course, unhappy ones: think child soldier or child prostitute, and it’s clear precocity need not be glad or good. To be robbed of one’s youth is all too often the fate of the poor and downtrodden; there are early elders everywhere who wish time might have slowed. To be “wise beyond one’s years” is more likely than not to be unhappy or deprived. Yet by and large in Western culture we think sooner is better and soonest is best; the early bird gets the worm. A stitch in time saves nine. There’s a joke about procrastination — “Why put off till tomorrow what you can postpone till the following day?” — and the not-so-implicit attitude toward the idea of mañana is that it’s a lazy person’s way to pass the time.

Instant gratification is, by contrast, something to be wished for; think of all the ways we have of saying “fast.” “Two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” “lickety-split,” “in the blink of an eye,” “Speedy Gonzalez,” “wicked quick” — such phrases indicate the rising star will plausibly be young. And given this general attitude — never too rapid and never too soon — it’s unsurprising that in twenty-first-century society we put a premium on youthful demeanor and looks. Not so long ago we honored our elders and placed them stage center; now they’re in retirement communities and nursing homes or having face-lifts and hair transplants and tummy tucks. Off camera and off the record, we still may equate old age with sagacity; on camera and on the record, we look for new talent and “original” ideas. Ecclesiastes informs us that “to everything there is a season,” but to the promoter it’s always, only, spring.

* * *

Much art is romantic; artists are; the notion of bohemia has long been linked with a kind of behavioral freedom. By and large the art of youth entails a risk-taking bravado; the creative person (or so we imagine) lives life at society’s edge. Drink and drugs are part of it, as are “loose” morals and the revolutionary impulse and social/sexual experimentation. When Théophile Gautier wore a crimson vest or Isadora Duncan donned a diaphanous scarf, it was more than just a fashion statement. The marches and the rallies of gay and lesbian and transgender activists look jubilantly colorful and sound unabashedly loud.

This in-your-face aspect of liberation is one of the hallmarks of public display; épater le bourgeois was a stated aim of the Decadent poets in nineteenth-century France. Charles Baudelaire waved that banner; so did Paul Verlaine and his teenage lover, the astonishing Arthur Rimbaud. To “walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily,” as did W. S. Gilbert’s caricature of Oscar Wilde, or to stroll the Boulevard Saint-Germain with a lobster on the leash is to “shock the bourgeois.” “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” is a more modern version of the same idea. Young Icarus who flew too high — defying the instructions of that master maker, his father — is an emblem both of youthful aspiration and the risks attached. If we disobey our parents, we may first soar, then fall.

All rules have exceptions, and this one does too; not every artist delights in confrontation or goes to transgressive extremes. Many save their daring for their art. Joris-Karl Huysmans, the author of that “decadent” text À Rebours (1884), behaved more like a stockbroker than a revolutionary. And the children of the middle class — among them Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne, Gustave Flaubert and Robert Louis Stevenson — defy their parents’ expectations at some cost. To give up a career in medicine or law is not always to embrace a mistress and a scarlet waistcoat; by all accounts Degas and Cézanne were thoroughly conventional in their private lives. Flaubert remained his mother’s son and Stevenson indebted to his father no matter how far they roamed.

In earlier societies such contrariety seems less obvious; youthful artisans were members of guilds. In Greece or the medieval court a craftsman would be trained and thereafter expected to serve as goldsmith, harpist, or bard. Young women learned the piano and embroidery as part of their preparation for marriage; to sing or sketch was a domestic skill. And those aristocrats who painted, played, or wrote for their private amusement did so with no expectation of payment or public reward. The career of artist was, it seems to me, less often self-selected in previous times; you either were raised to be part of a guild or engaged in it for fun. It was either a profession in the mode of plasterer and weaver or an amateur’s pursuit.

But since the nineteenth century (and, in many cases, earlier: think of Peter Paul Rubens or Antonio Vivaldi), the professional creator chooses that mode of expression as a way to make a living as well as live a life. Our supreme poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, deployed his skills with language to become a man of property. On his return home to Stratford, he made a show of wealth. Even the man or woman of independent means is likely to go public with the artifact produced. And though the odds are long, they’re by no means insurmountable; we have daily evidence of money made in art.

When that happens, it too can be sexy, a subset and repository of the American dream. The young successful artist — like the athlete or entertainer — enters a charmed circle and goes to the head of the class. In a publicity-fueled cycle we learn constantly of “prodigies” who demonstrate achievement at an early age. And the earlier the better; think of the very young Tiger Woods driving golf balls in front of the camera, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Shirley Temple with her curls. Elizabeth Taylor performed (with her ballet class) before King George V and Queen Mary at the age of three. The teenage skateboarder, the child saxophonist, or the young actress has the advantage over his or her elders if only as a novelty and the season’s news.

Yet almost without exception we are made aware of success stories, not those of failure. The ones who never make it to the top are not on view. We know about men raised up by their bootstraps now living in mansions and driving fast cars. We join fan clubs of women once on the edge of poverty who have problems with addiction and the IRS. So we learn about their dreams and troubles, their romantic and business partners; we read about them online and in tabloids: grist to the rumor mill once they have names. Of the hundreds of singers and writers now silent, the thousands of athletes now weak-kneed and addled, we hear only distantly, rarely; it’s the winner who takes all. The nameless don’t get noticed or discussed.

Great talent, great intelligence, great good looks or luck may propel an artist forward; they do not guarantee a happy run. And the chronicle of early achievement — consider football players and computer programmers — includes a long listing of those who go wrong. Would Dylan Thomas, dead at thirty-nine, have drunk himself to death so rapidly if he had stayed unrecognized in his fishing village in Wales? Would Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain have ended their brief lives so soon if acolytes weren’t waiting backstage with a needle or a glass? Would Egon Schiele, dead of influenza at the age of twenty-eight, somehow have escaped that plague if he’d been self-protective and walled off from society? These are rhetorical questions that can nonetheless be asked: Does the art of youth entail its own extinction in the very act of creation, a male praying mantis or female Chinook salmon doomed to spawn and die?

Excerpted from “The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts” by Nicholas Delbanco. ©2013 by Nicholas Delbanco. Amazon Publishing/New Harvest; November 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Nicholas Delbanco

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