Vita longa, ars longa1: Aging, Longevity Extension Technology, and the Arts

Stephen Wilson, Professor, Art, San Francisco State University
Endnote 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 faintly grasped by the public. Here I focus on a development that promises to profoundly reshape our world and which cries out for more artistic attention: aging. While this is not a particular technology, it is an issue that emerges because of the interplay of many technologies and social structures.

My awareness of the urgency of this trend was stimulated by participation in WTN (World Technology Network)2.  Believing in the power of serendipitous encounters, James Clarke, the director of this organization,  brings together innovators in diverse fields such as medicine, business, biology, materials science, government, art, venture capital, academia, etc. in a yearly conference.  One of the last conference's speakers, Ziv Navoth, director of the Verve futurist think tank3, identified several themes including the changing demographics of 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 theme.

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 people above the age of 65 than below 20.  Other countries will soon follow.  Many countries are facing a social welfare crisis because their systems are based on pay-as-you-go with the shrinking younger generations expected to support the old.  Many countries in the developing world still have the historical demographics of a high ratio of children to older people and relatively short life expectancy, although this 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 processes of aging. For example, they have discovered that cells seem to have a natural limit to the number of divisions they can undergo. Investigators have had some success in delaying  the aging and death that seems programmed into the cells. One study resulted in worms that are living (and being healthy) 5 times their normal expectancy - i.e. the equivalent of 400 year old humans!  Another line of inquiry has studied peoples who have extraordinary 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 sufficiently so 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 decay of capabilities.

So how should the arts respond to these trends?  Here are some questions to start thinking about:

- The length and productivity of artists' life spans is going to lengthen - what kind of art will 60-90 year old artists produce? In 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 and the 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. Historically 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 age and experience?

- 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 these 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 characterization of the main challenge of old age to be Integrity vs Despair. In part integrity means finding satisfaction and peace in what one has accomplished; despair 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 that the combination of extended health and the social welfare challenges may cause the 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 they be interested in?  How will their previous experience and the fact of coming to the interest late shape their 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 degrees, new kinds of career paths? 

- Artists focusing on the cultural implications of science and technology may 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, government, and cultural institutions.  For example, advertising has been primarily aimed at the young as the most active economic targets.  The old may not be so willing to make room.  In the arts, curators, critics, and successful artists may want to continue their 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 dominant practices and narratives - for example, gender, ethnicity, nationality.  It may be that more attention will be required by age as a category. 

The situation might be complicated by geographic differences in age demographics. The developed world might become increasingly aged while the economically less 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 and 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.

Technology and 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 the arts.

1.  A modified version of  Hippocrates famous quote vita brevis, ars longa (life is short but art is long)
2.  World Technology Network -
3.  Ziv Navoth - Verve -
4.  Ziv Navoth - Keynote address to WTN, 2005 - ziv_navoth_d_2_1.wmv_text.html
5.  Wiki summary of life extension technologies