Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fame, Legacy and Iconography--from music to art

(NOTE: I started this sometime ago and didn't finish it until now)

So, as I mentioned in the dream post, I went to see the Edward Hopper exhibit with my now former boss DS. As we were walking in, I asked, "Do you like Hopper." And she said, "I don't know his work." I think I gaped at her--how do you grow up in America, esp. being her age (65) and not know the works of Edward Hopper? I said, "I think you'll recognize the paintings once you see them.
When we approached Nighthawks, arguably Hopper's most famous work, I said, "You have to have seen this--or at least a parody." "Nope," she said.

Now, Nighthawks has been reproduced so many times that I'm a little sick of it. There's the one with James Dean and Marilyn:

And doing a quick search, CSI, the Simpsons and Inuyasha and Edward Elric. Also, I'm told, one with characters from Cowboy BeBop, and many others I didn't copy.

In addition, many others of Hopper's works have an iconography in American culture that is rivaled only possibly by American Gothic by Grant Wood.

And so, I was thinking--what is more important, the artist's name, or the artist's work? That many/most people in America could not name the artist of American Gothic, or have seen one of the numerous, numerous parodies and never the original is both sad and interesting. Certainly, I would think that an artist would rather his work live on rather than his name. A name is for fame's sake, not for true, lasting impact. Likewise, how many people know whether it's Byron or Shelley who wrote, "She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies?" As I think about it, I suspect that many people think it was Shakespeare (it's Byron--Byron and Shelley--morphed into one by time and indifference.) always a pretty good shot in a game of trivia. Is imitation the truest form of flattery and is it good that at least something is remembered of an artists time on earth, even if it isn't quite what the artist intended?

Recently too, Simon Schama (proving that what you really need to be a historian in Britain is a big enough ego and speech impediment) left off discussing the British monarchy to basically run a show on his favorite paintings. This week's episode was centered around this:

The Death of Marat
I had seen this painting many times, but from the purely theatrical stand point of its relationship to the play:
The persecution and assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade (generally known as Marat/Sade) by Peter Weiss.
It is such a striking image that it too has been parodied and paid homage in many things, from other art to movie images.
I had no idea what the name of the artist was. It's Jacques-Louis David.
David is not considered a great painter by most art historians partially because politically he was such an embarrassment. He was essentially a propagandist of the first order. This is his only other famous painting:

He was part of the revolution, but managed to escape death at the end of the Reign of Terror, and then hoped on the Napoleon bandwagon. After the fall of Napoleon, he was exiled and when he died, his relatives were refused the appeal to bury him in France. (I realize I should note that Marat was a prime mover of the Revolution who's writings in his own newspaper stirred to crowd to greater heights of blood lust--in making him a hero and a martyr in this painting, David was serving the demand of the other Revolutionaries such as Robespierre).
So, is it a good painting? Shama thinks so. It is a painting which has outlived both its artist and its purpose.
As someone who creates things, what are we to make of that? What is the purpose of art--fodder for tomorrow's advertising (I remember my horror when I realized that Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies would be remembered as "Smurfberry Crunch is fun to eat."
Is it better that it be remembered at all? There are countless pieces of art in all fields which will disappear without even a poor imitation to their name. I am depressed just reading lit mags, thinking of all the people who will never see this poem or this story, or this drawing.
It stops me from creating. Clearly it doesn't stop others--I put this out to Writing Life x3 and Mirror as people who actually do create and produce things in there spheres.


patrick said...

I've been thinking about this post for a while. You raise a bunch of different (and interesting questions).

The question of does it matter if your work is remembered, or if it will even be widely seen or noticed is one I've thought about a lot. As an artist, I definitely strongly desire for my work to be seen and remembered. Writing, is after all, partly a passion to communicate with an audience.

The remembrance part, I don't think too much about that. However, I recently bumped into someone from Denver who remembered seeing a play of mine that was staged there, ten years ago. Knowing that someone would still remember the play and production ten years later was a thrill.

When it comes to actually sitting down and writing, though, I don't think it helps to worry about whether the project at hand will reach a broad audience. For me, I am conscious at the very start of a project, when I'm framing some of the basic direction of the piece, as to whether it has a remote chance of being published and widely seen or read. (I do like marketing after all.)

But once I've committed to the project, I have to write the truth of the piece for me, whatever that is. (That sounds so hifalutin, doesn't it?) The production or publication process is so drawn out, that there's no point in trying to second guess the market, or even consider the latest fads, while I'm writing. Who knows what will be interesting people by the time I'm done? The trick is to get whatever depth out of it that I can provide. That, and a bit of good luck, is the only thing that gives it a chance to reach people after that.

As for them remembering it later, again, I think that's luck as much as quality.

I do like reaching an audience, no doubt. But if I let worrying about them (or the possibility of failure ) stop me, then I'm guaranteed to sputter and fizzle.

Novel said...

The dilemma for me(and there are many, many self-help books out there that address it) is how to put that horrid little voice out of one's head that says, "No one will ever read this. Why are you bothering."

patrick said...

Yeah. It's tough to get that voice to shut up. For me, having a writer's group helps a lot. I actually belong to two of them, and in a way, it gives me a guaranteed baseline audience. And it ends up that if you write something that will amuse six of your closest writer friends (assuming they're good writers and tough when they should be), that work will often have appeal to the rest of the world. But it's nice if you just have to worry about getting laughs (or tears) from six at a time.