Last year DJ Taylor wrote an article for The Guardian called: ‘Literary Hero to Zero’. He proffered the idea that posterity was the key to literary success and – by extension – any artistic life.
Can that really be true and does it actually matter?
Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most famous examples of an artist who would have been considered a failure during his lifetime. He sold few of his paintings; mostly to his brother, Theo, and committed suicide at the age of 37. Van Gogh’s posthumous fame is virtually unrivalled; his paintings are now sold at auction for up to $100 million and he has a museum devoted to his work in Amsterdam. Is Van Gogh’s case a cruel irony or is he perhaps the personification of the ultimate artistic ideal – that the work lives on, well beyond the death of the artist and inspires those who come after; that the creator of the photograph, play, novel, painting, etc is merely a conduit?
John Kennedy Toole spent years trying to get his novel A Confederacy of Dunces published. Like Van Gogh, in complete despair about the lack of interest in his work, he committed suicide. After his death, his mother continued to submit the manuscript to publishers and continued to receive rejections. She eventually contacted the novelist Walker Percy and the book was published to huge acclaim – winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. 12 years after the novelist killed himself. Was Kennedy Toole destined to write one Classic and disappear – like Harper Lee and JD Salinger? Lee and Salinger didn’t kill themselves, but may have made the decision that leaving an aura of undiluted genius around their work was enough to guarantee them posterity.
In Taylor’s article he cites the example of Iris Murdoch; that interest in her work is in “freefall” and by implication she won’t be remembered in years to come. I don’t believe a word of that. When Richard Yates died most of his novels were out-of-print and remained so for a long time. Sam Mendes adapted one of those novels (Revolutionary Road) into a film and Yates’s work was subsequently reissued.
The death of the artist does not mean the death of the art.
These days, with the seemingly endless rise of social media and the availability of DIY artistic release methods, it seems as if Andy Warhol’s famous statement at an exhibition in 1968 that, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes” may well be coming to fruition. Is that a good thing? Do we really want every wannabe Kim Kardashian and Simon Cowell becoming famous for being famous?
I think EM Forster summed up the missing link between art, success, life and the beyond in his novel Howard’s End: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.”