AAt 66, Veronica Ryan became the oldest ever winner of the Turner Prize. Encouraging news – and not just for fans of Ryan, the sculptor who created the first permanent public artwork commemorating the Windrush generation. There’s something universally cheery and comforting about the phrase “oldest winner ever” — designed to put a twinkle in the middle-aged eye and send lapsed artists everywhere rummaging through drawers for their box of watercolors. (Can they have another chance?) This is quite different, for example, from the awful phrase “youngest ever winner”, which is only designed to panic contemporaries, blow up their parents and send everyone else into despair.
The old ones are a relatively new discovery for the Turner Prize. Between 1991 and 2016, it had an age limit of 50, to encourage younger emerging artists. But if young artists once needed special encouragement, it is not at all clear that they do now. In the visual arts, in playwriting, in literary fiction, in music, we seem to have nothing but young emerging artists. The most celebrated literary stars of the past decade were mostly women in their late 20s and early 30s; the clutch of playwrights who now dominate the London scene look as if they could comfortably stage their own production of Bugsy Malone. The art magazine Apollo limits its annual lists of “the most inspiring artists, collectors and thinkers” to those under 40, while prizes and awards available to visual artists are rather fraught with “under 35” stipulations – as are those for writers. This year’s Booker shortlist had a 20-year-old on it. The music industry has always been ageist.
It’s hardly surprising in one way – “25-year-old prodigy discovered in backwater” is always going to be an easier sell than the 60-year-old striver whose 10th novel ends up being a masterpiece. But giving all the attention to the former and none to the latter does both a disservice. We need fewer awards for the young in the arts and more for the old. For one thing, the twentysomething who achieves dazzling fame cannot recover. Music and acting are littered with such casualties, but among them you can now also count writers: Lena Dunham, for example. Sally Rooney spoke of the “hell” of fame (her third novel can be read, perhaps unkindly, as an attempt to sabotage her way out of it). The red-hot beam of media interest can stunt a young artist’s development – how to express yourself when everything you say can be used against you? – and besides, they don’t let them go anywhere. Can you really top your world famous debut? Is your new job good, or just trade off your old stuff?
A fulfilling career is one that reaches its apotheosis in the 50s, 60s or 70s, not the mid-20s. Imagine if the highest awards for any other industry – for example accounting, or law – were handed out to 20-year-old pupils. Other workers would toil, salaries falling as they became “less relevant” even as their experience grew. Sometimes a 50-year-old would be “rediscovered” and handed a promotion, an event that would have the industry patting itself on the back. That would be no way to live.
People in mid-career in the arts need to feel that it’s still worth honing their skills, that they’re progressing, that great rewards may still be shining on the horizon – if they can just get this character right, or capture that chord, or it can trap light. After all, aside from the odd genuine prodigy, years of grinding are what make great artists. There is serious debate about whether mathematicians “peak” at a young age – some studies confirm this. There is no such pattern in the arts: in fact, most artists improve over time. Van Gogh’s first “significant” painting, The Potato Eaters, is unbalanced and dull – at 32 he has yet to properly master color and form; he is not yet the genius who will give us the sunflowers. John Updike was 26 when he published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, to deservedly poor reviews. Philip Pullman actually disowned his first novel, which was published when he was 25. (At his request it was never republished.)
Creating an award for young emerging artists may make patrons feel like they are striking a blow for equality, but awards for young people do not always favor the most marginalized. Some are delayed to the starting job by years working to pay off student loans, some by prejudice, or raising children, or struggles with chronic illness or disability. Better to remove age restrictions and help broaden access in another way.
When the Turner Prize’s age limit was introduced, it was partly to quell criticism that it had turned into a “lifetime achievement award”. But in 2022 we can do some more of that. Ryan’s work quietly matured for decades before being recognized with the industry’s biggest prize. It’s a pattern worth repeating.