The Life Cycle of Art

I was chatting with a woman at a fundraiser about her career at our local university. She described several roles she’d played. “Wow,” I said. “You must have been there quite a while.”

Thirty-one years,” she said. By the tone in her voice, it was clear she felt that amount of time was significant, meaningful, and also fully justified her decision to retire.

I’ve been hearing that number a lot lately, from friends in various fields and professions who are thinking about quitting, retiring, or switching jobs. “I’ve put in my 30 years,” they say, and they make it sound like such a long time!

I’m thinking about all of this because next week marks my 30th anniversary as a professional writer and self-employed entrepreneur. Earlier this year, I’d been looking forward to marking that date as a badge of honor. What a long time to hang in there in such a difficult, demanding, underpaid field.

As the date approaches, though, I’ve started thinking about the life cycle of work and art. My husband labors in corporate America where, for a long time now, the goal has been to put in your 30 years, take your gold watch, and ride off into the sunset. There’s an understanding that the company will go on without you. That even CEOs are eventually forgotten. Work hard, retire, and have fun. That’s the goal.

But artists are sold a different story. We’re told if we work hard, if we eventually realize our genius, our art will outlast us. It will live forever, hanging in galleries or being watched on streaming services long after we’re dead. To reach this end, many successful artists never retire. Not really. They may do so on paper—until they’re trotted out to speak at a lecture series or host an event—but many artists work until the day they die still hoping to produce new masterpieces. And we, the public, admire them, seeing their lifetime of work as proof of their purpose and passion.

Here’s another thought: corporate America constantly develops new products and rotates out the old ones, while artists often keep trying to sell work or styles we created years before, not because we’re egomaniacs, but because the work still feels so important to us even if it’s old. Or because our fans don’t want us to move on. They want us to keep singing those number one hits. Realistically, there’s probably a life cycle for most art. Why is it so hard to consider that?

I’m asking myself all these questions right now because my anniversary is giving me the opportunity to look back over three decades (how did they go by so fast?) of work of which I’m incredibly proud. But it’s also causing me to consider opportunities I missed or goals that failed to materialize. If I were in any other field, I’d be thinking about what comes next. But there’s no gold watch for artists. No pension. No retirement plan.

This is not a rant, it’s just an observation. As always, I’m just wondering. My husband’s friends who were psychologically and financially ready to retire now spend more time on the golf course or watching their grandkids or volunteering at their favorite nonprofit. And we applaud them for that. They completed the work cycle and they’ve earned their time off. They now get to pursue whatever makes them happy.

And maybe that’s what artists need to do, too, those who can afford to do so. Maybe it’s not about giving up the art, but giving up the rat race and shifting toward producing art for no other reason than it makes us happy to do so. Maybe try a new art medium, or mentor young artists, or volunteer at a gallery.

I don’t know what the answer is for me just yet. I’m still working on it. I know plenty of people, even in corporate America, who weren’t eager to retire. I’m not sure I am either. But for the first time in my life, I’m giving myself permission to wonder about just that.

By Teresa R. Funke

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