Art

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?

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Books and Ballet

I am on a ballet tour, but I am not a dancer.

My primary career is writer, and my other job is ballet master class tour producer. It is not a “day job” it is a five months of the year job. Twice a year– two months in winter and three in summer– I bring over a Russian ballet dancer and we travel the country. He teaches classical ballet classes. I do the bookings, the driving. I play the music. Five months of driving across 47 U.S. states. Five months of plotting tour routes, checking in and out of hotels, keeping track of class times. The dancer is the star of the show. In Hollywood, I bought a t-shirt that has “crew” written on the front as an inside joke about my apparent role in things.  I’ve been called Mr. Lantratov’s helper a number of times. His assistant more often than I can count. One student said “it sounds like you’re his slave.” In reality I am the manager.

For a writer, it is a fragmented life. Ideas that come behind the wheel get written on hotel scratch pads and stowed away until I get home and have time to make them into novels, research, or book proposals. (Although I do some writing on the road as well when the situation warrants it. Parts of Oscar’s Ghost were written in a hotel in Dallas, most of the revisions of The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation were written in Cincinnati.)

Years ago, in a draft for an abandoned novel about a performance tour, I wrote:

Ballet, especially every day road ballet, is an endurance sport. The principal dancers glide effortlessly on stage, but once they’ve crossed the threshold of the curtain into the wings, they put their hands on their knees and bend forward, their chests and stomachs pumping in and out with every labored breath. They are sweaty, of course, and a little dazed from the rush of adrenalin and hormones. And after a few moments, they capture their breath, and leap on the stage again, looking, for all the world, like they are suspended by wires and need no energy at all to perform the feat.

That’s performing. I don’t know if it applies to what I do: writing. Having a front row seat to my partner’s work as a ballet master teacher, I find that while they are both arts, writing and ballet do not have much in common. In many ways, they seem to be opposite arts: the verbal and the non-verbal, motion and stillness.

They are, however, both old forms of expression that seem a bit antiquated in a modern digital world. There is something pleasingly quixotic in trying to preserve and pass along these arts to a new generation.

Touring involves both constant novelty and the constant familiarity of hotel and road life. It informs the imagination and produces its own kind of creativity, but opportunities to sit for a while in solitude and just write are few and far between. I come to find that writing in a state of flow is a bit like a drug. You crave it when it is missing.

I started reading ballet dancer David Hallberg’s memoir A Body of Work. He is the only author listed on the cover, no “as told to.” So if he had no ghost writer (authors always wonder about such things) he has a writing talent. He writes about the memory of being in an artistic state of flow, and missing it when he is away from the stage.

I remember what it feels like to dance. To move so freely that my body releases ad creative intuition takes over, leading me beyond the worry of executing technique to a realm where nothing exists but the movement, the music, the emotions… Moments like this are worth it all. The doubt. The sacrifice. The injuries. The scrutiny. The burden of expectation. Those moments of living so intensely and fully on the stage are why I danced. Now, each day, I face one towering question: will I ever experience that euphoria again?

Flow is common to artists. It is why we persist in ridiculous careers. Yet as with most things ballet and writing, the process is inverted. For the dancer, the moment of flow is a culmination. For a writer, flow is that moment of inspiration. The writing that comes before the hard work, the revising, the attempts to get published. It all happens long before there is an audience.

The downside for the performer is that he needs the audience to have that moment. The writer can sit down and write no matter what, a lack of an audience is no barrier to achieving the state of flow. The downside for the writer is that this results in a constant lack of closure. By the time a book gets to its audience, it is disconnected from the writer, there is no great sense of culmination. The only soothing balm is to go back and write and start that process again.

 

Now I need to check out of this hotel and get on the road…

What Book Reviews Have in Common with Dating

In many cultures there is a tradition of incorporating a deliberate flaw into a work of art. This shows humility and a recognition that only God (or the gods, as the case may be) is perfect. In Japan they celebrate the concept of finding beauty in imperfection is called wabi-sabi.

To put in a flaw on purpose seems redundant to me. I am quite capable of creating work with flaws without making a special effort, thank you very much.

Still there is something comforting in the idea that art should be imperfect.

Putting your work out in the world has all of the anxiety and vulnerability of dating.

As I have often said, a book is a relationship. It is not completed by the writer but by the reader. So of course a writer is anxious for reviews: to know how the this thing she spent so much time and energy crafting has been received.

Some relationships are better than others. Some books and readers fall in love and others just don’t hit it off.

Putting yourself out there you open yourself up to rejection. Rejection hurts. It hurts in proportion to the amount of love you invested in it.

It would be flattering to hear “you’re perfect in every way.” That rarely happens, in love or literature–or at least in the context of dating, when it does, it doesn’t last. The best case scenario is when two people find each other screwed up in ways that they are willing to accept because they like each other so much otherwise. Relationships have a way of making you aware of your flaws and foibles.

Book reviews are like that too. The best of them say “This was a worthy book but…”

There are different kinds of criticism that show up in reviews. There’s stuff you simply disagree with. It’s a matter of taste and you wouldn’t change a thing. I find I am not bothered by this sort of review.

It’s the stuff where you read and think, “You know, I could probably have done that a bit better,” that tends to sting more.

The problem with a book review is that unlike a relationship, there is no way to work on it. Once you are getting reviews the work is done. It’s printed and set.

So there it is, with all your human imperfections on full display. The existential reality hits you that this thing that you love, that you made the best you could, fails to match its Platonic ideal. It will never be as good as it was in your head.

That’s the time it helps to think about those deliberate flaws in art. It’s not supposed to be perfect. Human beings made it. This wonderfully imperfect thing is beautiful.

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

Make Some Sacrifice for Your Art…

“Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you.”-Oscar Wilde

Wilde wrote this to an aspiring author in a letter discovered in 2013. Like a lot of Wilde’s observations, I suspect this one is more artistic than true. It contains, I notice, a rare Wildean hedge “disappointment may come to you” rather than “will come to you.” That disappointment will come if you ask art to sacrifice herself for you is not the part that I doubt. It is the assertion that if you make some sacrifice for your art you will be repaid. On this, interestingly, Wilde does not hedge.

Yet there is no guarantee that your artistic efforts will be rewarded in any meaningful way. Make some sacrifice for your art and your art will be created. That is the only real promise you can make about art.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit as I have finally delivered the last corrections on Oscar’s Ghost, a book that I worked harder on than anything I have ever written, and which will be released by Amberely Publishing in August. I would like to believe that Oscar was right and the effort will have been worth it. I guess we will soon find out.

Quote of the Day: Space for Imagination to Play Out

We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future.

-Neil Farnan from an interview in Furtherfield on Utopoly, a version of the board game Monopoly that encourages players to imagine society based on values beyond the economic monoculture.

Oscar Wilde and The Irony of Atonement

wilde-fansEngland feels really bad about what it did to Oscar Wilde.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that they just posthumously pardoned him, along with thousands of other gay men. The apologies continue at the National Portrait Gallery where portraits of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas are being displayed side by side to mark society’s change in attitudes. The Evening Standard reports that this is part of a show marking the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

We’ve come a long way since William Powell offered to paint Wilde out of his “A Private View at the Royal Academy” in the wake of Wilde’s trials.

There is a small irony, however, in using Wilde to celebrate the 1967 change in the law.
If Wilde had been tried under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967,  he would have received a five year sentence rather than the two year sentence he did under the LaBouchere Amendment. The law that decriminalized gay sex set the age of consent at 21 and almost all of Wilde’s partners mentioned in court were younger than that, the youngest being sixteen and seventeen. (In 1994, the age of homosexual consent was lowered to 18 and then, in 2000, to sixteen bringing it in line with the age of heterosexual consent.)

To paraphrase our president: Who knew that history was so complicated?