Why All Artists Need the Bravado of Youth

The Annenberg Space for Photography is one of my favorite spots in Los Angeles; it features rotating exhibits of some of the greatest photographs I have ever seen. Subjects range from climate change and war to fashion and rock ‘n roll… all for free. I find something to love in every exhibit, but the current one struck me.

“Emerging” (on now through September 20th) teams the Annenberg up with the photo magazine PDN to highlight the work of young, emerging photographers. This is a new generation of artists who, according to the website, “bring a fresh perspective and creative techniques to professional photography.”

image1-2And they do. All of the pictures – from war and poverty to wild-life and sports figures – had fresh energy. I mean only the young would photograph scoops of ice cream to look like planets in the universe, right?

This exhibit reeked with the bravado of youth.

Which I love, but…

I turned 40 this year. What does this bravado of youth have to do with ME? Do I need that kind of boldness in my art as I age? Or am I better off standing on my experience and “wisdom”? (I do not feel wise nor old. I still FEEL twenty, even though I can see that I technically KNOW more)

In the 30-minute documentary accompanying the exhibit, a young photographer said if his fans like his work, great. If people don’t like what he is doing, “Then screw ’em you know?”…

To him, it doesn’t matter how many people
like him or buy his work.

Because he hasn’t had to pay the mortgage or buy diapers or get laid off right before Christmas. Because he doesn’t yet know how finicky business is, or how you need customers to eat, or how you have to sell this book in order to publish the next one.

I miss the bravado that comes with not knowing how much can go wrong. I miss not knowing how fast friends can die (cancer, man, you know?), how common hospital visits can become, how quickly markets fail, and bank accounts dwindle. There’s a freedom in not knowing…

There’s also a freedom in believing you are the first person to stand up and say, “what people think doesn’t matter.”

Old people don’t say such things! I am new! I am special!
I am unique! Because I don’t care who likes me and who doesn’t. 

You think you are the only one who has ever seen the world this way. You think you’re the only one who feels the way you do…

Another twenty-year old photographer featured in the documentary said, “Some 60-year old dude can’t know what it’s like to be a 15-year old girl — or any depressed 15 year old.”

While I agree that no MAN can know what it’s like to be a GIRL — At 40, I do still recall what it feels like to be 15 (with more vividness than I wish sometimes; the hard memories always shine the brightest, don’t they?). Yes, times have changed, but the hormones, the angst, the “eye-opening” wonder of youth — that’s all the same. At 15, I also felt no “old person” could possibly understand what I was going through. But now I’m certain that “60 year old dude” still remembers exactly what it was like to be 15.

In reality, it is the 15 year old who doesn’t yet know what it is to be 40, 60 or 90… They haven’t been there yet. How can they? At 40, I don’t know what it is to be 60, either — but at least at 40 (unlike at 20) I KNOW I DON’T KNOW what it feels like to be 60. There’s no way to explain what aging does to a person until you… age. I don’t know as much as my 70 year old mother, but at least now I’m glad about that. It means I still have much more to learn.

Do you remember the first time you read The Catcher in the Rye or The Stranger? Before you read them, you thought, I’m the only person who feels this way. After reading them, your mind was blown: OH MY GOSH! THIS WRITER IS INSIDE MY HEAD! THIS WRITER WROTE ABOUT ME! OTHER PEOPLE THINK MY THOUGHTS! I AM NOT ALONE! SOMEONE ELSE GETS ME!

Of course that freeing thought is quickly followed by:
Uh-oh. Maybe I am not so unique, after all…

That’s what was nice about this exhibition. It was inspiring to see a young photographers who didn’t yet KNOW they can lose everything or that their thoughts are the same as everyone else’s… Because before you know, you are still willing to put yourself out there. Still willing to express yourself in a bold way. Willing to fail.

As we age, we get scared. Not only of failing — of illness, injury, unemployment, bankruptcy, death — but of saying something unoriginal. So, we try too hard to control things. We try too hard to be “unique.”

But youth knows that each person IS original. That each of us has a unique perspective. That we don’t have to try so hard. Youth knows we just need to say something honest and true. Youth gives us the freedom to be ourselves.

So even if you ARE aging, hold onto some of that moxy: believe you cannot fail, believe YOU are all that matters, believe YOU are the first person to think the way you think and see the world the way you see the world. Because you ARE the only YOU out there

Besides, as age teaches us, none of us are really THAT original. We are all, ultimately, the same. So by being YOU and expressing YOURSELF honestly and truthfully, you will also express the honest and truthful thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams of everyone else. And when people see themselves and their struggles in your work, they will flock… to you.

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