This last year in the arts seems to have been dominated by dead people. Maybe that isn't inappropriate when a millennium grinds to a close.
For example: One of the most eagerly awaited movies of the year, Eyes Wide Shut, was released soon after the death of its director, Stanley Kubrick. Such were the circumstances of its appearance, and such was Kubrick's reputation, early critical responses were positive. It was unthinkable that the final work of a major artist could be anything other than a masterpiece. It took time before the requisite mind-set adjustment permitted the film to be judged for itself rather than for the romantic swan-song ethos surrounding it. Once that occurred, though, everyone recognized its staggering awfulness, noticed we'd been presented with a cinematic Edsel.
Of course, Kubrick's fans and defenders were quick to protest that the director didn't live to complete his final edit. File that apologia under the heading Grasping at Straws. This was a film so poorly conceived, so inelegantly written, so badly shot, so incompetently lit, so portentously acted, no editing could have salvaged it.
And two of last year's best-selling novels--Juneteenth (attributed to Ralph Ellison) and True at First Light (ostensibly by Ernest Hemingway)--stand out because their authors, highly esteemed novelists both, hadn't actually been numbered among the living for many years. This isn't of minor significance; death, according to conventional Hollywood wisdom, can be a good career move, but it also has a disconcerting tendency to be detrimental to the production of further work.
It's true that with both of these books, critics were unanimous in noting a decline in authorial mastery. But surely that's secondary. The wonder, as Dr. Johnson said about the dog that could walk upright, is that they managed it at all. And even more miraculous, this was Hemingway's third posthumous book! Coming almost 40 years after his death! No wonder he's considered a tough guy.
To be fair, the posthumous production we witnessed last year has ample precedent and shouldn't be viewed as an exclusively millennial phenomenon. Nor is it necessarily a product of crass commercialism, at least not solely. Once we've experienced the complete canon of a favorite artist, it's natural to feel frustration that all the ore has been extracted from that particular lode; it's only human to want more. We're frustrated that Beethoven's 10th symphony and sixth piano concerto exist only in sketches, never to be completed (the former interrupted by death, and the latter abandoned when the composer's deafness made a new vehicle for his virtuosity supererogatory). We want a solution to the murder of Edwin Drood. We want to see Michelangelo's Slaves liberated from their blocks of marble.
But sweet Jesus, what a marketing opportunity! The historical model for the commercial exploitation of posthumous art, along with the resultant controversy, is Mozart's Requiem. Mozart was still composing the piece on his deathbed, and after he died, his widow commissioned his pupil Franz Sussmayr to complete it. When it was offered for publication, she insisted that all that had remained unfinished about the work was a mechanical filling-in any competent hack could accomplish and, further, that her husband had explained to Sussmayr how he intended to proceed with the piece.
Many critics and musicologists have taken her statements at face value. But it's useful to remember that she was riding a wave of enthusiasm for the recently dead composer--he'd been both victim and beneficiary of changing fashion throughout his short life, and the process continued after his death--and she was now making good money selling off his manuscripts. It was in her interest to present the Requiem as an authentic part of the canon, a finished product, a final masterwork. My ears, frankly, tell me otherwise. I hear passages of extraordinary beauty sharing space with music of transcendent banality. It seems reasonable to attribute the latter to Sussmayr.
If these examples all seem to suggest that work published after the death of its creator is necessarily of inferior quality, that isn't my intention. Most of Schubert's music was published posthumously, after all; so, for that matter, were the plays of Shakespeare and the full text of Ë la recherche du temps perdu. So was the reconstructed performing edition of Alban Berg's Lulu (by George Perle); so was the beautiful Gershwin song "Our Love is Here to Stay," prepared for publication by Vernon Duke. He did a better job than Sussmayr.
A reasonable question to apply to phenomena such as these is, did the artist responsible regard the work under consideration as finished and publishable? As to the books by Ellison and Hemingway mentioned earlier, the answer is clearly no; Ellison's actual manuscript was lost, tragically, in a fire, and the attempt to reconstruct it from miscellaneous notes can't be assumed to represent the author's intentions. And Hemingway chose to abandon his book rather than revise it and offer it for publication.
But there's a problem with this test. And the problem is--well, let me relate a story that doesn't merely illustrate the problem, but embodies it. Before his death, Franz Kafka enjoined his good friend Max Brod to burn all his unpublished manuscripts, manuscripts that included most of his stories and every one of his novels. He exacted a solemn promise from Brod.
And in the event, Brod betrayed his friend and repudiated his pledge. Almost all of Kafka's work, work that is now considered among the most profound and most influential of the twentieth century, was deemed unpublishable by its author. We read it now despite his determination to see it destroyed. Is there anyone who thinks Brod made the wrong decision?
In general, though, despite a few examples like these, the logic behind bringing out unfinished work by dead people remains the logic of marketing, of commodification. We are all of us, as consumers of home electronics, personal hygiene products, clothing, wine, and, yes, culture high and low, reliant on brand names. Brand names narrow the field for us; they make selection (and frequently, response) less risky; they reassure us with their apparent imprimatur of quality. Mediocre art with an impressive brand name is often preferable--or at least safer--than art of obscure provenance. The latter might be excellent, but given the odds, it probably won't be.
Despite its superficial branding advantage, art from dead people is a tenuous refuge. Alas, art, like life itself, is something of a crap shoot. ¤
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