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Posterity is an Ass


Our misplaced faith in it.

That's another another important theme in The Fate of the Artist, my new book. We used to place a lot of stock in our presumption that posterity, in its greater wisdom, would be the decider, that the measure of great works of art is that they would 'stand the test of time,' and be forever enshrined in the affections of a future world.

Then one day I asked, why should we expect posterity to be any less stupid than the here and now? Taste tends to follow a trajectory from grand to paltry. The first thing you notice in action is the filtering effect. I remember the way that my old college tutor, Derek Boshier, used to be included in the standard historical handbooks of the pop art movement in Britain and now he does not tend to be found there or at least not the last few times I've looked. I remember the most useful thing he ever said to me was, 'You don't want to get mixed up with "the art world,"' and whether that was his permanent opinion or if he was just in a bad mood that day, I do not know. (And if anyone trying to teach me back then was mystified at the failure of my art education, well, don't worry — it all turned out fine.)

The Fate of the Artist
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But all that was back in the day when we still thought of art as a continuous linear narrative and not to be in it was not to be in anything. When monumental music was plentiful, we had more than enough of the eighteenth-century greats so that we were happy that all others paled besides Mozart. We could rule a straight line from him back to Haydn, without having to swerve for detours and the world merrily consigned almost all the other names to forgotten dust-tracks. Now that the course of 'serious music' has gone where it feels no obligation to please or even to engage, all those wonderful obscure people are lately rediscovered so that they may provide the agreeable music the world feels it is missing. Take Louis Gabriel Guillemain, a violin virtuoso who wrote most of the encyclopedia entry of his life in the last hour of it. He ended his days by inflicting fourteen stab wounds upon himself while en route from Paris to Versailles. (Perhaps when his coach was swerving for one of those detours.) The authorities swiftly buried him the same day, presumably in the hope of avoiding having to explain any of it.

Then there is Anton Filtz, a Mannheim composer of whom it is passed down that his friends were concerned that his fondness for eating spiders could not be good for him. (I'm no expert on any of this — I just pay attention to the cd booklets.)

No, posterity is an ass, I say. Its selective memory favors the morbid and the outré.

On the other hand, a curiosity for those very qualities every now and then revives the work of a true one-off. Such is Harry Stephen Keeler (1890 - 1967), who I have only recently discovered, thanks to Neil Gaiman. Keeler was an American eccentric who wrote mystery stories with such titles as The Case of the Two-Headed Idiot, The Mysterious Ivory Ball of Wong Shing Li, and The Man with the Magic Eardrums. I have heard that McSweeney's is just about to publish something of his.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Fate of the Artist Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. The Fate of the Artist Used Trade Paper $5.50

Eddie Campbell is the author of The Fate of the Artist

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