We’ve all heard the stories of artists gaining recognition for their work after they’ve died: Vincent Van Gogh’s work was known to only a small group of people up to his suicide; Emily Dickenson published only 7 of her 1800 poems in her lifetime; and more recently, Vivian Maier took 100,000 photographs while the children she nursed hardly knew she owned a camera. Sometimes, geniuses are unknown or unappreciated in their own time whether they desire fame or not.
There has been a recent onslaught of artists’ deaths: John Pinette, Alistair MacLeod, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bob Hoskins, Mickey Rooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman – forgive me if I’ve forgotten another important name – which have caused slight ripples in appreciation for their work. A friend is finally reading 100 Years of Solitude, Pinette quotes were pinballing through a number of my circles, and I even recently attended a “literary wake” in Toronto to honour Alistair MacLeod.
I feel particularly bad about the latter death for two reasons: I had started reading MacLeod in university, loving every word I encountered, and wanted to read his entire works (which aren’t high in number); I also had the peculiar desire to meet the man. I don’t often have this desire, but reading his work, not knowing what he was like or how I might be able to contact him, I immediately wanted to know him (it attests to the power of his writing). Flash forward through the unproductive years of not chasing that goal to when I received the alert that Alistair MacLeod had died. I failed. I missed my opportunity. And I feel even worse for not having read his complete works before he died.
I mention this event in my life because it also brought into question why the death of an artist suddenly pushes people to give them the attention they deserve. Why is there this sudden desire to engage in an art, knowing the creator has perished? Why have I just now started to read through every MacLeod story?
Art has the stereotype of being entwined with tragedy and perhaps death elicits that long standing connection. But that alone doesn’t push me to be interested in something. I hesitate to say it, but strangely, I feel MORE connected to reading the remaining words or looking at the only photographs of a dead artist, knowing that there is never going to be any more. The growth has finished. The work is complete. There is only a limited number. It places a greater importance on what has been created already. It may even elevate the quality (yes, we live in a subjective world) since there is now a definable limit of the art. “Be careful with this,” my mind is saying, “there’ll never more added to it.”
I find it beautiful (as a way to honour) as well as saddening since it took the death of a creator in order to become reinvigorated. But I’m interested to know what others think, so I’ll restate the question this article started with: does an artist’s death make you interested in their work? And furthermore, is that a good reason to appreciate them, or get someone else to appreciate their work?