Vita longa, ars longa1:
Aging, Longevity Extension Technology, and the Arts
Wilson, Professor, Art, San Francisco State University
editorial presented in Leonardo 40:1 (2006)
Historically artists patrol the
borders of culture. They alert us
to emerging developments and their cultural implications.
Leonardo's 40 year history has been
full of artists engaging technologies on the horizon that were only
grasped by the public. Here I focus on a development that promises to
profoundly reshape our world and which cries out for more artistic
aging. While this is not a particular technology, it is an issue that
because of the interplay of many technologies and social structures.
awareness of the urgency of this trend was stimulated by participation
(World Technology Network)2.
Believing in the power of serendipitous encounters, James
director of this organization,
brings together innovators in diverse fields such as medicine,
biology, materials science, government, art, venture capital, academia,
a yearly conference. One of the
last conference's speakers, Ziv Navoth, director of the Verve futurist
tank3, identified several themes including the changing
aging as critical for business and
governement to consider in long term planning. It
struck me that the arts have been strangely quiet on this
Navoth noted that the combination of birth control and medical
advances was radically altering the demographics of the developed world. For example, Italy and Japan's
birthrates have shrunk below replacement rates and Italy now has more
above the age of 65 than below 20.
Other countries will soon follow.
Many countries are facing a social welfare crisis because their
are based on pay-as-you-go with the shrinking younger generations
support the old. Many countries in
the developing world still have the historical demographics of a high
children to older people and relatively short life expectancy, although
begins to change as they develop.
Biological aging and longevity
research will accelerate these trends even more. Researchers are making
progress on several fronts to understand and perhaps slow down basic
of aging. For example, they have discovered that cells seem to have a
limit to the number of divisions they can undergo. Investigators have
success in delaying the aging and
death that seems programmed into the cells. One study resulted in worms
are living (and being healthy) 5 times their normal expectancy - i.e.
equivalent of 400 year old humans!
Another line of inquiry has studied peoples who have
longevity such as mountain peoples of Peru and Asia.
A key factor was found to be chronic undernourishment and
researchers are trying to understand the molecular processes
they can bring the longevity without the caloric restriction. These techniques do not just elongate
life; they seem to slow aging with corresponding delay in disease and
So how should the arts respond to these trends? Here
are some questions to start
The length and productivity of artists' life spans
is going to lengthen - what kind of art will 60-90 year old artists
traditional societies, the elders were valued for their experience and
wisdom. Often the old were the
ones who dealt with spiritual matters.
Historically, there are examples in art history of painters and
sculptors continuing to be productive even until old age.
In our change-oriented culture,
however, novelty and technological innovation have been highly valued
knowledge of the aged is often viewed as obsolescent.
Media and technological art is often valued for its
attention to the most current technologies and cultural issues.
artists drew on the freshness of their youth as an engine of artistic
response. Will aging artists
function like they did in their youth or in new ways that respond to
New practitioners may become active in the arts later in
life. Early in life people often
make career decisions based on economic security concerns.
They forgo pursuits in areas such as
the arts or philosophy. It is
possible as people live longer that they will have time to come back to
sacrificed interests. Buttressed
by the security of success in career and family, they will feel free to
indulge. Erik Erikson, one of
major psychologists to theorize about aging, is famous for his
of the main challenge of old age to be Integrity vs Despair. In part
means finding satisfaction and peace in what one has accomplished;
means focusing on regrets. The
delay of aging means that people will have additional chances to pursue
forsaken agendas. Ironically,
these pursuits assume a concept of retirement; some theorists suggest
combination of extended health and the social welfare challenges may
concept of retirement to disappear.
There may also be new audiences
for art among these older populations.
For both new practitioners and audiences, what kind of art will
interested in? How will their
previous experience and the fact of coming to the interest late shape
perspectives? What personal and
cultural issues will be considered important? What
kind of new institutional arrangements might be
necessary - for example art schools for those over 60, new kinds of
new kinds of career paths?
Artists focusing on the cultural implications of science and technology
find many new areas calling out for attention. Research
on aging, disease, waning abilities, neurology, and
death will take on great cultural significance. Technologies
of anti-aging intervention such as surgery,
pharmacology, bionics, and prosthetics will invite artistic reflection. Since these will be the enablers of the
aging revolution, there will be some urgency.
It is possible that the demographic changes
might not be so easy and benign as many might hope.
It is assumed in contemporary society that the elderly will
get out of the way while the next generation takes over business,
and cultural institutions. For
example, advertising has been primarily aimed at the young as the most
economic targets. The old may not
be so willing to make room. In the
arts, curators, critics, and successful artists may want to continue
privilege longer than historically they did. Cultural
commentators in media and art have pointed to the
importance of socio-cultural categories as vehicles for understanding
practices and narratives - for example, gender, ethnicity, nationality. It may be that more attention will be
required by age as a category.
situation might be complicated by geographic differences in age
The developed world might become increasingly aged while the
developed world remains skewed toward youth. The
developed countries will need to import workers to do
the jobs that require youth. To
the present day tensions between haves and have-nots, people of color
people without color might be added the tension of the old vs the young. Art as an important source of cultural
commentary will need to reflect on this new tension.
science5 are creating unprecedented changes in the human
experience of aging. It
will be a challenge to both the old and the young.
These changes are both an opportunity and a challenge for
A modified version of
Hippocrates famous quote vita brevis, ars longa (life is short
2. World Technology
Network - http://www.wtn.net/
3. Ziv Navoth - Verve -
4. Ziv Navoth
- Keynote address to WTN, 2005 -
summary of life extension technologies