When Everything is Lobster Telephone

When I am between projects, I often read poetry and dip into surrealism in order to spark something new. I was reading a book of surrealist games. The surrealist movement was an answer to the tyranny of the rational, a quest to unleash the power of the unconscious in art making. The exercises in the book were designed to throw a random element into writing and to create odd juxtapositions. It occurred to me that what is different now than the 1920s and 1930s is that we do not need to go out of our way to encounter bizarre juxtapositions. We encounter them every day in our social media feeds. We are awash in unrelations. Basketball has nothing to do with genocide, and yet there they are beside one another in the Twitter feed and that is normal and you scroll on, movie reviews and calls for papers, and a clipping from a 1910 newspaper and a picture of a kitten…

Lobster Telephone 1938 Salvador Dali 1904-1989

It is all surreal. This is our reading culture. Everything is Lobster Telephone.

But the juxtapositions of Tik Tok or Twitter do not invite contemplation. Dali’s Lobster Telephone asks you to stop and engage because it’s odd. Twitter asks you not to stop looking, There is nothing surprising or startling about unrelated things coming together because the environment feeds this up constantly, unrelentingly. It is all distraction and no anchor. There is no separate lobster and telephone to begin with.

To me, social media feels like a slot machine where you keep pulling the handle waiting for a prize to come up. The prize, if you can find it, is something that you can comment upon, because the platform is fundamentally about expressing yourself, commenting. The deluge keeps coming, the trends go by faster and faster. To be part of the conversation you need to post before the moment is gone.

Entertainment and news blend. Human beings become metaphors. It is all part of the show. Back in 2019, I wrote a post asking what we should call this era in our artistic culture. “How does the self-conscious audience and the self-conscious creator– aware of how the work might be star-rated and dissected–shape the current art movement?” I didn’t come up with a name for this era. Today I was wondering what the art that reacts against this would look like? When everything is lobster telephone, what is the artistic corrective?

No comment.

That would be the opposite of this present moment.

You would have to leave your phone outside and sign a non-disclosure. You would promise that you would not speak to anyone about what you saw inside. No social media posts. No reviews. You would have to experience it without comment of any kind.

How would it feel to experience art that you knew you would not tell anyone about? How would the artist approach it having no element of “platform building” or “branding” or “exposure?”

Ars gratia artis (the motto of MGM, the little art film outlet behind Terminator and Indiana Jones.)

It’s hard to imagine.

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Oscar Wilde’s Tomb: Another Oscar’s Ghost Outtake

I have done a number of book signing and speaking events for Oscar’s Ghost, and invariably someone will tell me “I went to Oscar Wilde’s tomb in France.”

There was a little skirmish surrounding the sculpture that took place in Lord Alfred Douglas’s most litigious period. I had to leave it out of the book for space. It is tangential to the book I’m working on now as well, so having no book in which it quite fits, I will share it with you here.

Lord Alfred Douglas had been trying to get a picture of Wilde’s controversial tomb, the work of sculptor Jacob Epstein, for his book Oscar Wilde and Myself.

His innocent protestations to the contrary, as Robert Ross was behind it, Douglas undoubtedly meant to to show how inappropriate and immoral the monument was. Douglas had been successfully getting books banned and pulped, and Epstein did not want a noisy campaign against his work.

Douglas had the sculptor arrested for sending him a threatening letter which said, “If you attack my monument to ‘O.W.’ in any way derogatory to me in England I shall have you in the Courts. Should you disregard this warning I shall spoil the remains of your beauty double quick.”

Given the tone of the letter, and the fact that Douglas seems to have been stalking Ross at that very moment, the court appearance was surprisingly amicable. Epstein represented himself.

“Are you willing to be bound over?” asked the judge.

“What is that?” Epstein asked.

“That you undertake to pay the King any amount I may think fit that you conduct yourself and keep the peace. Will you undertake to pay £100 and to do that?”

“I will be satisfied with that.”

“What about costs?”

Douglas’s counsel said he believed they were entitled to costs.

“I wish to say that I only received the summons last night and I should like an adjourment until Monday,” Epstein said.

“Because of the question of costs?” asked the judge.


The judge turned to Douglas, “You will be satisfied if he is bound over?”

“Yes,” Douglas said. “There need be no trouble about costs.”

And so Epstein paid his fine and they went their separate ways.

When Everything Stops We Sing

I’ve been thinking about that Matthew Arnold quote a lot lately.

Wandering between two worlds, one dead
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

It is as though we got here via a bridge that collapsed behind us and we’re standing on a platform with the way forward obscured by heavy fog.

The support systems you would rely on when you’re going through a rough time are going through a rough time. Lots of great causes to donate to, lots of artist friends to support, lots of businesses you value that are stressed— and no money coming in. You just want to give everyone who is disrupted, anxious, depressed, broke, lonely, a hug.  And you can’t.

If we were oblivious to it before we are not now. We do not exist in isolation. We are interdependent. We need each other. We need a deeper connection than a social media feed. How can we share what it is to be human while keeping a distance?

A couple of weeks ago our ballet master class tour ended, and we faced some challenges getting my partner Valery Lantratov back home to Moscow. When Russia closed its borders to Europe, but not yet to America, I scrambled to find a flight from Detroit to Moscow that was affordable and did not go through Europe. It’s not so easy to find a flight to Moscow from here that does not go through Europe. I found one from Chicago on Azerbijani Airlines that went through Baku, but this was less than ideal, and so we had to drive to New York where we could catch a direct Aeroflot flight. Things were changing quickly at that time, and long story short, we got him back home two days before JFK closed for all international passenger flights.

It was an emotionally draining experience. Being in the airport itself was a bit like being among the last two people in a horror movie who have not yet been taken over by the body snatchers. To send him off and to be left alone there was even more ominous, especially given the uncertainty of when he would be able to come back.

I sought refuge at the home of nearby friends. He is a musician, and his work had dried up a couple of weeks before. Because he makes his living from playing live he was not sure when he would have income again, and of course, he missed playing and being with people.

We came up with a system, using a cell phone, and a tripod, to put on a little live streaming show. We didn’t announce it in advance, not knowing if it would work. We thought a few friends might log in. What happened was quite amazing. About 50 people discovered the feed and logged in, and they posted requests, and thanks, and said it was just what they needed. A half hour later the video had been shared and more than a hundred had seen it. By the next morning it was 1,500.

For the duration of the show people felt connected, music and art have always done that. They share an essential aspect of what it is to be human across distance and time.  To hear a familiar song, to know that others are experiencing it with you, is to remember that our culture connects us, that our humanity connects us, even when things around us seem to be falling apart. We are still us.

That’s why people are singing from their balconies, and dancing in the streets. We are still us. We still sing. We still dance.

The arguments we’ve been making for years for art tend to fall flat. The grant writers and the patrons of the arts ask for and give funding in spite of these arguments, not because of them. They are disingenuous. The people who make art don’t want you to support it because it helps downtown development. They don’t want to have music classes in schools because it improves math scores. They want art to be supported because art matters.

What we have learned this past month is that when the buying and selling stops we need to know that other people have felt what we do, and that it connects us. When everything else stops, we sing.

Here’s a song for the friends you’re thinking of who you can’t be with physically at this moment.





The Multi-Directional Public Pose

Watching Desperate Romantics on Pluto recently I found myself wondering about our current era in arts. How do we approach art making and receiving in our age? Who would the “pre-Raphelites” be?

Each age has an idea about what art aims to do, and argues over it. Having a sense of the goal of art allows one to critique it, to recognize corruption, how it deviates from the ultimate expression of that goal.

Writing this I am reminded of a scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society in which Robin Williams’ character John Keating has his students rip out the introduction to a book on poetry, which conflicts with his own philosophy of the purpose of literature.

The film came out when I was in college, and the perfect age to accept its message.  It is an age in which your whole life is focused on finding yourself and your place in the world. One of the great challenges is to separate what you really think and feel from what you’ve been taught you should think and feel. And at this moment, Keating’s view that the purpose of art is to lead the viewer to greater self-discovery and self-expression made perfect sense. I cheered the liberation that came with tearing the introduction out of the “Pritchard text.”

A number of years later my father gave me a book that was nearly falling apart. My father was raised in a home that did not emphasize book learning, and after dropping out of high school, he enrolled in the Marines which gave him the opportunity to take the GED and use the G.I. Bill to go to college. The book, Sound and Sense by Laurence Perrine.This book, along with a supportive teacher, was the gateway that allowed my father to become a professional writer.

When I started reading Sound and Sense something about it sounded familiar “Once we have answered the question, What is the central purpose of the poem? we can consider another question, equally important to full understanding: By what means is that purpose achieved?”

After a bit of research I discovered that indeed Sound and Sense was the model for the hated “Pritchard” text in Dead Poet’s Society. Perrine warned against the “false approach” to literature that “always looks for a lesson, a moral, a bit of moral instruction.”

Today I believe Perrine/Pritchard were in the right. The way to judge the value (The film version of the book calls it “greatness”) of a work of art is to measure the result against its aims.

I also recognize that Keating won the day. Today, judging by the many writing blogs I’ve come across, we tend to talk about art as self-expression. We use the word “creativity” to refer to inspiration, not the hard work of making something out of that spark of inspiration. We’re most likely to critique art in terms of the moral instruction embedded within it.  Art is affirmation, instruction and an illustration of how we should be in the world.

Arts movements are influenced by technological change. The invention of photography meant that a realistic image could be captured. This sparked Impressionism as artists tried to capture what a camera could not.

Our era is defined by the invention of ubiquitous computer technology and the interconnectedness that came with the internet.

I would argue that the biggest impact of this on literature is not that ebooks have changed the economics of publishing (although they have), but that the smartphone has fracutred our attention.

I recently went to the theater and during intermission, instead of sitting and talking about the first act, a large portion of the audience was checking their phones. Almost all experiences of art today are interrupted by the checking of Facebook and Twitter. There are pictures of friends, news headlines. Every experience becomes a mosaic or patchwork quilt.

At the same time, we edit out the pauses in some forms of entertainment. We watch an entire season of television in a week instead of over the course of a year with week-long breaks.

Creators can no longer count on their works being experienced in the form in which the artist envisioned them. Everything is remixed.

Books have always been enjoyed in isolation, and now, with streaming, you can enjoy music and theater the same way. You watch what you want, when you want, on a device that is always in your hand.

Yet, while we may experience these media in isolation, we do so with an awareness that we will be called on to act as critic, to give 4 stars or to post to a blog. We will have the opportunity to comment on the work and make that part of our public persona. That makes us self-conscious viewers.

How does the self-conscious audience and the self-conscious creator– aware of how the work might be star-rated and dissected–shape the current art movement?

My sense is that in the online environment, as we fight for attention and likes, and try to “build a platform” in order to have any chance of making a living, we are prodded to see ourselves more in competition for scarce resources than as a “brotherhood.”

It is common to say that the internet has made it possible for the first time for the audience to participate. Art used to be a one way street, the artist created and the viewer consumed. This is true only of the 20th century, when recording and broadcasting made it possible to reproduce and send works across space and time in one direction. For most of human history most art was participatory. People told stories by the fireside, they went to the theater in person, the popular songs were sheet music that you played at home, or songs that you sang at a party with friends.  Artists existed in communities, which supported them and knew them.

What is different in our era is having participation by an audience with whom you have no personal or physical connection. Today an artist can put something out, and it will be built upon, commented upon, and so on, by people the artist has never and will likely never meet. Unlike mass communication it is participatory, unlike the older forms, it is not community oriented.  This environment creates a multi-directional public pose.

So what should we call this moment?






Desperate Romantics

DesromsI have just finished watching the 2009 BBC 2 series Desperate Romantics, which is streaming for free on Pluto these days.  Ten years down the line, I imagine the statute of limitations on spoilers is probably passed, but if you haven’t watched this yet, I’m letting you know that I’m going to talk about plot points from the end of the series.

Desperate Romantics is a fun (it is customary to say “racy”) modern-paced, boy band version of art history. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the swaggering front man of the band. He gets all the attention and the women. John Everett Millais is “the cute one.” He’s the guy who can play six instruments well, can learn any instrument he picks up, he writes the tunes that bring the band to the attention of the hot critic of the moment. (Also he wears a fantastic purple coat.) William Holman Hunt is the drummer. They call him “Maniac.” Finally there is Fred. He’s the guy who loves music and musicians, and decides to be the manager.

As in any good VH-1 Behind the Music, we follow the band from its beginning as a brotherhood of struggling artists. Then life experiences and varying levels of success pulls them apart. At the end Millais is trying to get the band back together again but it seems the reunion tour is just not going to come together.

All three of the artists have amorous adventures with women that came into their lives as model/muses. Poor, loyal, Fred–the only one who is not paired up in the series– is the first to spot the aesthetically perfect milliner Lizzie Siddal. All of the artists fight for the chance to paint her, and Millais has the first success. But she is drawn to the bad boy Rossetti, who promises to bring her into the world of artists by teaching her to paint.

The drama centers more on love making than the art making. The only painting that is really dwelt upon is Millais’ Ophelia. It is used as a foreshadowing device, and Lizzie Siddal by the end of the tale, becomes Ophelia, driven mad by love of an inconstant man. This Ophelia drowns herself in laudanum.


Each episode begins with a disclaimer that historical liberties have been taken. Not knowing a great deal about the historical figures, my commentary will focus on how they were interpreted as television characters.

Millais is the marrying kind. He is serious and stable and blissful in his family life. Hunt is driven by an internal conflict between a religious desire to renounce the flesh and his lust for a woman of low birth. Rossetti is a selfish womanizer whose brief marriage to his co-muse is depicted as disastrous. The a-historical Fred is mostly there to narrate it all.

The passionate relationship between Rossetti and Siddal gets the most screen time and attention. Siddal is drawn to Rossetti because of his talent and because he can usher her into a new world. She has artistic ambitions of her own, and he helps her to realize them, in spite of his own occasional jealousy at her success as he struggles.

She worries that he will never marry her and give her security. His inability to commit is chalked up to his enjoying the chase and only wanting what he can’t have. Yet, after Siddal almost dies from an overdose, Rossetti reluctantly marries his great love. Rather than being happy ever after, it is the beginning of the end. For Siddal’s artistic mentor John Ruskin stops giving her financial support and tutoring after she is a married woman, and Rossetti is already flirting with his next model at the wedding.  The distraught Siddal takes her own life.

Rossetti is crushed and vows to change his ways. He throws a book of poems that he wrote into her grave. In the last scene, however, he digs the grave up in order to retrieve them.

Thus the problem is cast as Rossetti, and by extension, Hunt, valuing art over relationships. The drama seems to come down firmly on the side of relationships over art. These men could not really love, and that is a tragedy.

In our culture, we tend to attribute characters’ actions to innate personality and character and we give much less weight to societal and external factors.  Was Rossetti broken emotionally and Millais healthy or could there be another explanation for the successes and failures of their relationships?

All of the members of the brotherhood prioritized creating art. Rossetti had less commercial success. To prioritize art, for him, meant financial struggle and irregular income. (He is squatting in someone’s atrium for most of the story.) Millais had early, and continuing, commercial success. This allowed him to prioritize art while making the kind of comfortable living that would allow him to raise 13 children with the help of various servants.  If Millais were squatting and only getting the occasional commission he might be as reluctant to marry as Rossetti. If Rossetti were rich he might have bought a palace for his muse, and even if he did have affairs, it might not have threatened her entire sense of safety.

It strikes me that while we do tend to chalk male character’s actions up to “character” we make more allowance for the effect of social forces on female characters. We’re quite ready to see female characters as being acted upon, in spite of their best efforts. Although Lizzie Siddal is a strong character, with talent and ambition in her own right, she is thwarted time and again by social forces. When she marries she becomes, in society’s eyes, a wife, and loses her external financial support for her art. Yet, she is not married to a man who can give her the traditional role of wife. He is reluctant to have children. He is powerless to support her career. He is not even able to stay focused on her when he finds a new muse model.

After her death the brotherhood sits with Rossetti and discusses the tragedy of his character, his inability to love what he can have. We’re not invited to question Siddal’s love for Rossetti. Does she also prioritize art over love? Is she attracted to Rossetti because she believes the only way to realize her art is to attach herself to this man?

Whether Siddal actually took her own life, or whether it was a tragic accident, has been much debated.  The official report was accident, but Siddal as Ophelia is a much better story.

Watching this series got me to musing on what artistic period we’re living in today, and that will be the subject of a future post.











A Lean Knife Between the Ribs of Time

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices. Yet, as it turned out, it was not simply the act of building it that consecrated it, but that people continued to read it and inscribe stories in it…

bosieThis article, from Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post, on Notre Dame de Paris as “a great stone book” had me thinking again about art as a desire to speak across time.

It reminded me of Lord Alfred Douglas’s City of the Soul, written while Douglas was living with Oscar Wilde in Naples.

Each new hour’s passage is the acolyte

Of inarticulate song and syllable,

And every passing moment is a bell,

To mourn the death of undiscerned delight.

Where is the sun that made the noon-day bright,

And where the midnight moon? O let us tell,

In long carved line and painted parable,

How the white road curves down into the night.

Only to build one crystal barrier

Against this sea which beats upon our days ;

To ransom one lost moment with a rhyme

Or if fate cries and grudging gods demur,

To clutch Life’s hair, and thrust one naked phrase

Like a lean knife between the ribs of Time.

Naples, 1897.

The Mystic Nature of Places

Years ago, long before I’d written any books, I was walking in London. A stranger came up to me and he said he could see my aura. He said the spirits were talking to him and they had a message for me. They said I should be writing and I wasn’t. They said that “the mystic nature of places” was how I would connect.

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My first novel was all about the mystic nature of places. It was about mountains and cathedrals, spaces of such grandeur that they inspire awe. The grand cathedrals, like the mountains, are ancient enough to inspire temporal as well as spatial awe. In their presence you become small and for a moment you are reminded of your proper relationship to the forces of the universe– humility, reverence, wonder, gratitude. There is an interruption. A call to contemplation and silence.

Do you remember the first time you experienced that sense of displacement and image1wonder? I do. I was a 16 year old exchange student and my host family took me to Notre Dame. I had not toured Europe or seen great stone cathedrals. I was not Catholic. So the power of the space surprised me.

I lived outside Paris in 1985 and 86, before the days of ubiquitous photography. This fading snapshot is the only picture I got. Looking at this picture, I see that there must have been crowds, but I don’t remember them. I remember the negative space, the silence, the sunlight streaming through the rose window, the candles lit for memory. I wondered, “How didn’t I know this? That a building could do this?”

I tried to look back on my old diaries from the period and realized quickly that at 16 I would not have had the language for what I remember feeling. But perhaps I had to be that age to experience the fullness of that moment and to remember it as transformative.

There are utilitarian places–places created to be filled by people who are busy doing things. Then there are places that are created for people to experience. The architecture itself defines the mood and the spirit you are supposed to have inside. The spirit is waiting for you before you enter.

A grand cathedral is different from a mountain. It is the embodiment of history, culture and values. As you stand in your smallness, you realize that you only hold this splendid torch of life for a moment and you have a responsibility to pass the torch, to breathe in all that the walls contain, the years of art and culture, all we have said and painted and sung; our baptisms, weddings, funerals. You are small, but the weight of all of these fleeting moments is huge.

No one knows who first built Notre Dame de Paris. But whoever they are, they are there centuries later.

I must have carried that moment with me when I traveled to Mount Rainier and found myself wondering what a mountain and a church have in common. I must have carried it with me over the years that I made that my main writing exercise.

Paul knew that there was a value in architecture, in arts, in beautiful things. Why do those things matter? Because they do. The only way to make a convincing argument for architecture is with poetry, and people who don’t care for art are immune to poetic language as well. You either understand it in your soul or you don’t.”

I heard someone today say that he was not feeling emotional about the fire at Notre Dame. He said that he was sure the French would rebuild. I believe that is true. But there is a time to every purpose under heaven. There is a time to rebuild and rise from the ashes and there is a time to mourn what is lost. At this moment it is a time to mourn.

Quote of the Day: To Call an Artist Difficult

…it helps us to understand the powerful dynamism present in the artist’s personality. It seems contradictory to call an artist both shy and conceited, introverted and extroverted, empathetic and self-centered, highly independent and hungry for community–until we realize that all of these qualities can be dynamically present in one and the same person… this approach offers us an additional way to understand what it means to call an artist difficult. By that label we usually mean that an artist is narcissistic, high-strung, flamboyant, arrogant, or self-involved, but we can rightly also mean that the artist is difficult in the same sense that a complex novel or string quartet is difficult. The artist lives in a state of greater dynamic tension than the nonartist and so is likely to demand more, desire more, withdraw further into himself, witness better, laugh harder, and bellyache louder. This may not be easy for anyone to take–the artist included– but it is a reflection not of a single quality like selfishness but of a whole array of interactive qualities.

-Eric Maisel, A Life in the Arts

Maturity, Arts and Resignation

master-copy2Today I decided to dig back into the cache of notes I saved “for further reflection.” Two old clips, back to back caught my eye.

1. Why Grow Up?, by Susan Neiman | Books | Times Higher Education

Each of us has to move from childish wonder to the realisation that things are unjust, that there is a gap between the world as it is and as it should be. But it is easy to get stuck in this sceptical phase and to remain the adolescent who has seen through adult hypocrisy and convention, determined that “we won’t get fooled again”, as The Who put it. This itself can become a sort of dogmatism, and we need to work through it to the next stage in which we learn to think for ourselves without succumbing to despair, and try to fight injustice. “Can philosophy find a model of maturity that is not a model of resignation?” asks Neiman, and she looks at various Enlightenment philosophers who have tackled the problem of “growing up properly”.

2. Why Do Depressed People Lie in Bed? | Psychology Today

So this alternative theory turns the standard explanation on its head. Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals. They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing badly. The idea that depressed people cannot disengage efforts from failure is a relatively new theory. It has not been much tested in research studies. However, the idea is well worth exploring. It fits well clinically with the kinds of situations that often precipitate serious depression — the battered wife who cannot bring herself to leave her troubled marriage, the seriously injured athlete who cannot bring himself to retire, the laid off employee who cannot bring herself to abandon her chosen career despite a lack of positions in her line of work. Seeing these depressions in terms of unreachable goals may be useful clinically, and may help us better understand how ordinary low moods can escalate into incapacitating bouts of depression.

Is there a maturity that is not resignation? Conform or be destroyed?

Another word for resignation, perhaps, is acceptance. The real question is not whether resignation is good or bad. It is when to surrender and accept things as they are, and when to persist no matter how difficult it seems. When is holding onto a goal foolish, and when is an unobtainable goal a brilliant guiding star?

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp…

Artists are especially prone to the type of depression described in the Psychology Today article. We can’t imagine giving up the art–or the dream of succeeding with the art– without surrendering parts of ourselves. Yet the world does not cooperate and grant us the success we would like. The sculpture that took years to craft doesn’t get a gallery showing. The royalty check is for $1.36. The corporation that hired you to do a great new show shelved it and it will never be seen. You finished the novel but it isn’t as good as it was in your head. The reviews are bad or non-existent. When are you going to get a real job?

At some point, the American ideal that if you have talent and you work hard you’re sure to succeed starts to mock you. Well, maybe resignation is the wise choice in this situation. Not expecting a best seller, a film adaptation of your novel, a seven figure advance, a Pulitzer or an Oscar, even a regular salary. Accepting that this is the reality of this particular life is adaptive.

This is a very un-American point of view. Accept failure? Never! But if you don’t want to quit, and you have no control over whether or not you succeed, you had better find a way to enjoy the ride.

Instead of looking to the outside world for meaning, you force your life to mean.  You are not stuck in this place, you are living in this place. Art for art’s sake. Imagining Sisyphus happy. Finding nobility in the quest for the unreachable star.



Does Art Belong to Its Audience or Its Creator?

…For many other artists, however, the arts network proves an unmitigated disaster. Sometimes it’s just that the freewheeling thought patterns that lead to artmaking don’t lead as gracefully to tidy record keeping. More often, though, the same artists who diligently follow a self-imposed discipline (like writing in iambic pentameter, or composing for solo piano) prove singularly ill-equipped to handle constraints imposed by others… Ideally (at least from the artist’s viewpoint), the arts network is there to handle all those details not central to the artmaking process… If all this evidence of the reach of today’s arts network still fails to impress you, consider the sobering corollary: once you’re dead, all your art is handled by this network.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

As the artist works away, creating, revising, failing and starting again, she never knows if her work will live beyond her, if it will be cherished or forgotten; if it will be deemed classic or garbage. Much of this has little to do with the artist or the quality of her work at all. To become “a classic” a work has to have a champion who is determined to share it after the artist is gone. It has to have teachers who present it to students. It has to have archivists who deem it worthy of preservation. These are the artist-makers. Their passionate enthusiasm transforms a struggling artist, who may have died penniless, into a vital part of our culture. Sometimes these executors carry on in accordance with the artists’ wishes. Sometimes they do so in spite of the artist.

The Atlantic today featured a review of Benjamin Balint’s forthcoming Kafka’s Last Trial, a book about the posthumous legal battle over Kafka’s manuscripts. In his review Adam Kirsch wrote:

At the time of his death, in 1924, at the age of 40, Kafka hardly seemed like a candidate for world fame. He had a minor reputation in German literary circles, but he had never been a professional writer…

Famously, he had tried to keep it that way. Before he died, Kafka had written a letter to Brod, who found it when he went to clear out Kafka’s desk. In this “last will,” Kafka instructed Brod to burn all his manuscripts, including his letters and diaries. But Brod, who admired Kafka to the point of idolatry, refused to carry out his friend’s wishes. Instead, he devoted the rest of his life to editing, publishing, and promoting Kafka’s work—even writing a novel about him, in which Kafka was thinly disguised as a character named Richard Garta. In this way, Brod ensured not only Kafka’s immortality, but his own. Though Brod himself was a successful and prolific writer, today he is remembered almost exclusively for his role in Kafka’s story.

The question of whether Brod acted ethically in disregarding Kafka’s dying wishes is one of the great debates of literary history, and it lies at the core of Balint’s book. As he notes, “Brod was neither the first nor the last to confront such a dilemma.” Virgil wanted the Aeneid to be burned after his death, a wish that was also denied. Preserving an author’s work against his or her will implies that art belongs more to its audience than to its creator. And in strictly utilitarian terms, Brod undoubtedly made the right choice. Publishing Kafka’s work has brought pleasure and enlightenment to countless readers (and employment to hundreds of Kafka experts); destroying it would have benefited only a dead man.

Does art belong more to its audience than its creator?

Put another way: Is the life of the work of art more valuable than the human considerations of the artist and his relations?

Robert Baldwin Ross, who became Oscar Wilde’s literary executor a number of years after his death, was one who placed a high value on the life of works of art. In response to an editorial that said in a burning museum anyone would save a child over an old master, Ross wrote that he hoped he’d have the courage to save the art.

One of the great debates in Wilde circles is how closely Ross’s actions on behalf of Wilde’s estate followed Wilde’s wishes. Nowhere is this more relevant than in his handling of the manuscript of Wilde’s prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis. Ross was determined that the work was important, and he went to great lengths to preserve it. His efforts proved painful and detrimental to Douglas, and ultimately to himself as Douglas battled against them.

We, the modern-day readers and researchers who benefit from the continued existence of De Profundis, are grateful for Ross’s choice and therefore there is a strong bias in favor of the idea that Ross did act in accordance with Wilde’s wishes. We would like the ghost of Wilde to be pleased at his literary resurrection and our interest in his life.

There is reason to doubt that Ross did follow Wilde’s instructions when it comes to the manuscript. He did not follow the only written instructions that were preserved– they said to send the handwritten original to Lord Alfred Douglas, which did not happen. He claimed to have received different verbal instructions. Of course, the only evidence for this is Ross’s own statement.

Ross did not always follow Wilde’s instructions when he disagreed with them while he was alive.  After Wilde was released from prison, they had a minor falling out over how The Ballad of Reading Gaol should be published. Ross felt, for artistic reasons, that it should only be put out as a book. Wilde’s concerns at that point were more down to earth and human. He’d lost everything when he went to jail and he wanted the biggest, fastest paycheck. That meant serial publication.

Unable to persuade Wilde to think long-term, he went behind Wilde’s back and tried to enlist Leonard Smithers in preventing serial publication. “I hope you will refuse to publish [the ballad] at all if the market is going to be spoiled by having it published in an English newspaper.” Ross wrote. When Wilde learned of this he was understandably annoyed with Ross.

One thing that I found interesting in Kirsch’s article on Kafka was the speculation that Kafka chose his literary executor precisely because they disagreed.

And in choosing Brod as his executor, he picked the one person who was certain not to carry out his instructions. It was as if Kafka wanted to transmit his writing to posterity, but didn’t want the responsibility for doing so… Brod, for his part, had no doubts about the importance of his friend’s writing.

Was a similar dynamic at work in Wilde’s reliance on Ross’s contrary advice and his decision to name him as his literary executor? Did he chose someone who he instinctively knew would value the art over even his own point of view about it?

Or would Ross’s handling of De Profundis have, in the words of their mutual friend Reggie Turner, “pained its author.”

Even Wilde’s desire to have Ross as his executor is contentious– a fact that has largely been forgotten. Ross’s position as executor was only won after lengthy litigation. His success in court was based on a single line in one of Wilde’s prison letters, the same one in which he instructs Ross to send De Profundis to Douglas.  The exact line is “If you’re going to be my executor you should have [De Profundis].” Ross used this letter in court to prove that he had the authority to be Wilde’s executor and also that De Profundis was his personal property. My personal theory is that Ross may have destroyed letters that contained more of Wilde’s instructions regarding the manuscript, but he had to retain the letter that called him Wilde’s executor. It was easier for him to make the claim that Wilde had given him verbal instructions that contradicted his first written ones than to support the claim that he had any right to act on Wilde’s behalf without it.

If he did edit the record to make his actions on the estate’s behalf clearer should we care? What if he took actions that went counter to Wilde’s own wishes? Should we care about that or is Wilde’s own view ultimately less important than ours as the audience?

I believe three things: First, I believe (though I cannot prove) that Wilde’s desires for De Profundis changed after he reunited with Douglas after his release from jail. Second, I believe (and also cannot prove) that Ross disregarded at least some of Wilde’s instructions for what he thought was the greater good.  Finally, I believe that the preservation of De Profundis was, in fact, a greater good.

What do you think?