Mike White writes: No-one understands participatory arts practice better than Francois Matarasso and he has just published a pocket-size reflection on art and agency in old age entitled Winter Fires. This slim volume is cogent, congenially illustrated and available free of charge through The Baring Foundation website.
The CMH invited Francois to Durham last autumn to present the book’s argument in our seminar on the theme of Transitions. Winter Fires’ key point is that engagement with arts in later life affords both the professional and amateur artist a sustained sense of agency whereby “we are truly human and not only the object of other people’s wills”.
The issue of maintaining agency through life is crucial as the proportion of over-65s in Europe is increasing from 10.7% in 1975 to 18.1% in 2025, and the popular understanding of the age of dependency has switched attention from the boisterous toddler to the frail ‘aged p.’. The book hardly ever refers to the infirmity or hassle of old age, however, precisely because it focuses on the positive factors of creative engagement that make for flourishing. The artist has a particular talent for adaptation in age, as evidenced in ‘late style’ and , say, a dancer’s intuitive knowledge of the body in age and space.
For those of us working in arts and health, an important distinction is drawn in the book between art that requires careful composition and art therapy. Francois spots a confused assumption in arts policy that art that is good and life enhancing is also therapeutic, but he offers the insight that “art can also make a person feel better, even though it cannot, as a drug can, remove the source of their pain”.
Arts for the elderly is often patronisingly viewed as a pleasant diversion when in fact it is becoming an articulation of the place and purpose of art in society. The grey vote will become increasingly important in sustaining necessarily subsidised arts in times of austerity.
Francois talks movingly of the responsibility that falls in old age to sum up life and its meanings, and his book is rich in examples of what makes older people’s ‘late art’ expressive and distinctive, crafting an imaginative world that can stand aside from the mundanity of age stereotypes and inadequate care services. Winter Fires is wondrous advocacy for creative ageing and the overlooked skills of the elderly to still make a difference in the world.