The next Damien Hirst - at 50?

Is it ever too late to pick up a brush or pen and realise a vocation in the arts, asks Bruce Millar
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Indy Lifestyle Online
They might insist they do it for the company, for the escape from the everyday, or to learn something new. But deep inside every adult who signs up for an evening art class, hires a music tutor or heads for a week's residential course, there lies a small hope that they could be the next ...

The next who? There seem to be no artists of the first rank who have come to their calling late, and so no real evidence that such an ambition is even possible. There are plenty who toiled long and hard before reaching an audience - further proof that a long apprenticeship is required. Others may have turned full-time to art relatively late after long and conventional education; even Gauguin had been painting for several years before he famously threw everything in. But these examples are different to the discovery of a hitherto unsuspected gift.

The obvious barriers relate to technique and physical co-ordination. For self-expression to flower, technique has to have already become second nature. According to Linda Pearce, who teaches piano in London: "No adult would be able to find the time to play for four or five hours a day, as I did as an adolescent."

Pearce's adult charges do have advantages over their younger rivals - they may know the tunes - but they will never be more than competent performers. And the adult beginner who tackles the violin will have trouble flexing arm, wrist and fingers into the required positions.

Is mastery of technique of paramount importance for painters? No one can compete with the Old Masters in the physical application of paint to canvas, largely because the Old Masters undertook the longest and most rigorous apprenticeship imaginable. Among today's crop of young Turks, it is the quality of the ideas that is paramount - and why should ideas be the territory of the young?

Art schools certainly admit large numbers of "mature" students each year - more than the music schools. But it is not clear how well they prosper. According to Tim Maguire, a painter now based in France who used to teach part-time, mature students can be difficult to teach.

"Their very single-mindedness in taking up painting late can work against them," he suggests. "They know what they want to paint, and they'll paint it whatever you say."

According to Jonathan Watkins, curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London, today's stars emerge through an informal but powerful peer review. "That makes it unlikely that you will make it when you are older," he says

This strikes a chord with one of the cruellest tricks that music plays on the late-starter. Punk rock's discovery that you only require three chords to produce the songs should have been a gift to the more mature beginner. The drawback is that, played at speed, they are not much use for anything but inchoate rage.

Writing fiction seems to be the answer. Books pages may hype impossibly young and photogenic novelists but this is not true, according to Oliver Johnson of Century, who edits John Grisham, the lawyer-turned-mega-bestselling author. "We're mainly looking for people in their thirties, with some real experience", he says. Now that's music to the ears of the late starter.

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