When I’m not writing think-pieces about the culture industry, I spend my time working in a university bookshop; ‘pyramiding’ (industry lingo for rearranging paperback stacks into something which in no way resembles a regulation approved monument), shelving books (shelf explanatory) and jotting down miscellaneous ISBN’s on receipt paper that I’ll leave in my back pocket to crumble in the spin cycle. This week, I found myself browsing the philosophy section in a spare moment and whilst shuffling books, a copy of Susan Neiman’s Why Grow Up? caught my eye. Originally published in 2014, the book’s cover displays a well-judged Wolfgang Tillmans photograph that features a suited and shirted man from the chest down with arms tightly folded. Reading through Kant, Rosseau and Locke, Neiman considers the stages of maturation and ‘becoming an adult’. She attempts to answer her own question, querying the concept of maturation as homogenisation and assimilation with the bland masses of unhappy adults. Capitalism pushes us forward, craving progress, assimilation and the wisdom of age, squashing teen spirit. Writing in the book’s opening chapter that, Neiman defines maturity as, “Renouncing your hopes and dreams, accepting the limits of the reality you are given and resigning yourself to a life that will be less adventurous, worthwhile and significant than you supposed when you began it”. Neiman is right to ask these questions and attempts to recalibrate conventionally pessimistic attitudes towards ageing.
Like every other twenty-something millennial graduate striving to survive whilst repressing an acute concern over the prospect of a babbling adult baby snatching the political reins on the 23rd July, I worry about our collective futures, a lot. What is an ‘adult’ career supposed to look like? Will we ever cut carbon emissions? Will I ever suit a bob? Offering something of a prescient window, FaceApp’s prophetically wrinkled portraits occupied all corners of social media this week, uncannily defying gravity, crafting wispy hairlines and virtually hard-set laughter lines.
When it comes to culture, we value the cultural products of senior artists because we make assumptions about competency and credentials. On the other end of the spectrum, we’re equally fascinated and judgemental with regards to talented children, from Shirely Temple to Billie Eilish. Young artists, musicians and writers are addressed primarily through the lens of their immaturity. We become fixated on their unnatural understanding of creative practices and the adult psyche. The artist’s age is presented like any other novelty aesthetic, waved in the faces of cultural consumers, diverting sustained attention to its substance.
Despite our best efforts, we hold unconscious biases over all cultural products within our spheres of interest. The notion of ‘ageism’ as a discriminatory label is defined by the World Health Organisation as “the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. Ageism is an insidious practice which has harmful effects on the health of older adults.” Directly combating ageist prejudices within creative spaces, The Carter Burden Gallery in New York was founded in the hopes of creating “opportunities for networking and responding to each other’s work, thereby invigorating the creative process”, through singularly showcasing work by lesser-known artists over the age of 60. Whilst any organisation which exists to uplift marginalised groups are positive, and on the other end of the scale, there is an abundance of networks which exist to support young creatives, does that mean the middle passage is the easiest?
Whilst Love Islander Michael Griffiths has keenly employed ‘childishness’ as a negatively charged descriptor, the boundless self-confidence and naivety of young people is a vital instrument of positivity in testing times. Age is just another aesthetic category, unrelated to the quality of cultural output and should not be used as shorthand for intelligent cultural analysis. Whether or not your visage will match your personalised Dorian Gray FaceApp portrait, I for one intend to grow disgracefully and impertinently old.