At 66, Veronica Ryan has become the oldest ever winner of the Turner prize. Heartening news – and not just for fans of Ryan, the sculptor who created the first permanent public artwork commemorating the Windrush generation. There is something universally cheery and comforting about the phrase “oldest ever winner” – designed to put a glint in the middle-aged eye and send lapsed artists everywhere rifling through drawers for their box of watercolours. (Could they still have a chance?) It is quite different, for example, from the dreadful phrase “youngest ever winner”, designed only to panic contemporaries, wind up their parents, and send everyone else into despair.
The old 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 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 last decade have mostly been women in their late 20s and early 30s; the clutch of playwrights now dominating the London scene look like 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 grants available to visual artists fairly bristle with “under 35” stipulations – as do those for writers. This year’s Booker shortlist had a 20-year-old on it. The music industry has always been ageist.
This is 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 is finally a masterpiece. But giving all the attention to the former and none to the latter is doing 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 can fail to recover. Music and acting is littered with such casualties but among them you can now count writers too: Lena Dunham, for example. Sally Rooney has talked of the “hell” of fame (her third novel can, unkindly perhaps, be read as an attempt to self-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 moreover leaves them with nowhere to go. Can you really top your world-famous debut? Is your new work good, or just trading off your earlier stuff?
A satisfying 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 – accountancy say, or law – were handed out to 20-year-old trainees. Other workers would toil on, salaries inching down as they grew “less relevant”, even as their experience grew. Occasionally, a 50-year-old would be “rediscovered” and handed a promotion, an event over which the industry would pat itself on the back. It would be no way to live.
Mid-career people in the arts need to feel it is still worth honing their skills, that they are progressing, that great rewards may still glimmer on the horizon – if only they can get this character right, or that chord down, or capture that light. After all, aside from the odd genuine prodigy, years of honing are how great artists are made. There is a serious debate over whether mathematicians “peak” at a young age – some studies bear this out. There is no such pattern in the arts: in fact, most artists improve with time. Van Gogh’s first “significant” painting, The Potato Eaters, is imbalanced and drab – at 32, he is yet to properly master colour and form; he is not yet the genius that will give us the sunflowers. John Updike was 26 when he published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, to deservedly poor reviews. Philip Pullman has actually disowned his first novel, published when he was 25. (At his request it has never been republished.)
Setting up an award for young emerging artists may make patrons feel they are striking a blow for equality, but awards for the young don’t always favour the most marginalised. Some are slowed to the starting post by years working to pay off student loans, some by prejudice, or raising children, or fighting chronic illness or disability. Better to take age limits off and help widen access another way.
When the Turner prize age limit was introduced, it was partly to quell criticism it was turning into a “lifetime achievement award”. But in 2022 we could do with a few more of those. Ryan’s work had been quietly maturing for decades before it was recognised with the industry’s biggest prize. That’s a pattern worth repeating.