Life After Death
Almost as remarkable, experts noted, was the fact that the artist — despite having produced well over 800 paintings — had sold only one in his lifetime, mere months before his suicide at the age of 37, for the equivalent of less than $1,000.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), now celebrated as one of the greatest figures in American literature, published only 10 poems during her lifetime, leaving behind 40-odd volumes whose contents would not see the full light of day for half a century.
Metamorphosis author Franz Kafka (1883–1924) saw collections of his stories published in literary magazines, but to scant attention.
Neither of John Kennedy Toole (1937–1969)’s novels were published during his lifetime. When The Confederacy of Dunces appeared a decade after his death, however, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
The list of those who sought to change the world and only received their due after death is remarkable, including such figures as Socrates, Galileo, Bach, Keats, Poe, Thoreau, Melville, Monet, Kierkegaard, Anne Frank, Robert Johnson, Nick Drake and Biggie Smalls.
Most were tortured by their own apparent irrelevance. Many suffered from mental illness and died young, several by their own hand.
Which raises a number of interesting questions for those today who see the world in a different way, who toil in obscurity to create works, from artistic expressions to philosophical statements, that often appear to have no market.
These include: Am I on to something, or am I simply disconnected from humanity? Am I a narcissist? Am I wasting my time?
The Paradox of Authenticity
The year after Van Gogh’s (first) record sale, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor published a slim volume, The Ethics of Authenticity, which may help frame an answer.
Taylor’s prime target was a type of radical individualism which had gained popularity in the aftermath of the century’s devastating world wars, and the shadow of socialist totalitarianism that had fallen across much of the globe.
The movement saw its roots in the thinking of economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek who believed there was no better guarantor of collective flourishing than individual self-interest, fanned to cultural fame by figures like Ayn Rand, drafted into the mainstream by politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
For the “communitarian” Taylor, a major problem with this philosophy was an incoherence at its core: no individual form of expression could mean anything without a society to consume it. The very language we use to express ourselves is a social construct, in which is embedded many values and assumptions of which we are often unaware. (Consider, for example, that many American conservatives are in fact “liberal” by global standards — and the rest are “radical”).
The risk was what Taylor called a self-referential “atomization” — a solipcism in which only that which an individual perceives directly is actually real, a narcissim so radical that it would leave only a “dialogue of the deaf” of the kind we have since seen overtake public life in the US and much of the West. And as the word “atomization” implies, the result could be a pointless tearing apart of many things that make us fundamentally social creatures, and life worth living.
So I am wasting my time with this unpublishable novel, may be the obvious takeaway, if Taylor is right. But his point was more nuanced than the suggestion that we should make greater efforts to empathize with other human beings (though that was arguably his central point).
In fact he was arguing for an authenticity that goes beyond what he called, per Aristotle, “instrumental reason”: that is, seeking to have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people.
True authenticity was grounded in a deep appreciation of our very humanity, which might well — and in his view, did — go beyond the view that we are all self-loving individuals seeking to appeal to the self-love of others.
True authenticity, artistically speaking — something Taylor was more apt to address in his public lectures at McGill and elsewhere than in print — lay closer to the injunction E.M. Forster made in his 1910 novel Howard’s End:
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
This turned on its head a view shared by many European thinkers centuries earlier, per the historian Albert Hirschman, that passions were fundamentally selfish and divisive, and the pursuit of “interests” more conducive to the common good. Forster’s creative take was that the expression and communication of passions, including anger and anxiety as well as love and joy, could in fact be a source of human connection and happiness in its own right.
Which in turn can begin to seem like the common thread running through the works of Van Gogh, Kafka, et al.
When Dickinson wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers”, she was speaking not only to herself, nor simply trying to find a publisher, but was articulating something that would help readers connect with their own passions, thus experiencing a truth that could bring them not only a deeper appreciation of their own life experience, but that they could share with others — and paradoxically, for a woman who spent most of her final years alone in her bedroom, feel less alone.
The implication of all this for the unsung artist? If you are creating something simply because you think it should sell — and getting nowhere — you are probably not being authentic.
If you get lucky, catch the attention of the right agent at the right time, you might enjoy some measure of success. But it may well be transitory — the fame of the one-hit wonder or Salieri whose popularity will not last beyond your producing years.
But write or paint or perform for yourself in a way that you are seeking to truly connect with your own humanity, and you will be providing something of real value to those who ultimately do stumble upon your work — even if that only happens after you are not around to appreciate it.
Seek to connect, and you will. Your audience doesn’t need to be huge for you to have an impact. For your efforts to have purpose. This very blog attracts only a few dozen readers per post — but readers have included widely-read opinion makers, Fortune 500 executives, a global political leader, even a well-known filmmaker.
“Entertainism is the science of amusing yourself in order to amuse others.”
Create for yourself, and share your product.
Rest easy in the knowledge that the authentic will connect — even if you don’t immediately see how.