Why is this interesting? - The Legacy Edition

On death, art, and remembrance

Today’s edition comes from previous WITI contributor Sam Valenti (6/24 - The Factory Records Edition). Sam runs Ghostly, a unique brand that collaborates with musicians and artists who make amazing things. - Noah (NRB)

Sam here. I was headed to the airport in LA when I heard that Kobe had died. The radio newscaster made a point to say how “people felt they knew him”. Fame creates intimacy. Legacies are as much a function of when as what.

A day after the Kobe news another public figure died. He was nowhere near as famous, but Jason Polan was a friend and collaborator. And then just last week, the passing of an underground music hero, Andrew Weatherall, filled my feed. Put together, this year has left me spending a lot of time thinking about grieving and remembrance. 

People, like art, go through waves of appreciation beyond well beyond their time. Their lives are re-examined as both new evidence and cultural contexts emerge. Upon Andy Warhol’s passing and the planning of an official museum archive, no major NYC institution dared fund the building of it. The museum finally found its home in his native Pittsburgh. The assumption in 1989 was that Warhol was “once-great,” even though he was arguably cemented as the most influential American post-war artist. Last year the Whitney hosted the most ambitious Warhol show to date. What happened? Taste? Distance? Hard to tell.

Hollywood has found a way to re-seed influence through the biopic. Be it Straight Outta Compton, or The Imitation Game, these films have been an effective way to recontextualize and re-assert the importance of the subject. Our expanded cultural sensitivity around race and sexuality (for those two films at least) allow for an appreciation that was absent, or at least uneven when the person or group was alive and working. Death reminds us of the impermanence of life, but art constantly reminds us of the impermanence of culture.

Why is this interesting?

The AFI published a list of 100 greatest movies in 1998. It was updated in 2007. It will surely be revised again. These changes aren’t just to add new entrants, but also to redefine what “great” means. Films like Parasite and movements like #OscarsSoWhite have forced Hollywood to reappraise the canon, looking outside the typical stories told in American filmmaking. Best is a mutable thing. 

Anyone who cares about art knows the “top” album or movie of the year is not indeed (ok maybe rarely) the best in hindsight. They are often what publicists and critics can agree on that year amidst the fog as being “award-worthy” which is a particularly time-sensitive accolade. 

In music, reissue culture, as explored in Colin’s recent piece on the lost Disco Jazz album, threatens hierarchy too. What if we haven’t heard or seen what is best yet? Obscure catalogs coming online and becoming readily available aren’t likely what large corporations want you to watch or hear.

Also, there is increasingly more backstory involved in our understanding of culture. Thanks to loads of new documentaries and long reads on what have long been considered “niche” topics, we have become more interested in the arc of a career, the rising and falling (and rising) action which is what defines life itself. And perhaps just as importantly, who you were and who you inspired, is maybe more important it seems. In thinking of my friend Jason Polan or Mr. Weatherall, the lion's share of notes about them are less about a perfect image or album, and more about character, perseverance, and kindness. I’ve become increasingly unsure if perceived fame whilst living is the true marker of immortality. We’ve seen artists posthumously come back to life, be it Arthur Russell in music or Mary Blair in illustration/animation. In some ways, I wonder if what fame chips an artist doesn’t cash in life might be returned in reputation on the other side. 

The bigger truth is that what we do or did in our life may not “stick to the wall” at all. In the ephemeral age, our actual work very well may be forgotten amidst the noise. And that might be ok. In one of my favorite scenes from a flawed (or maybe great) film, F Is For Fake, Orson Welles stands in front of Chartres cathedral draped in Johnny Cash black and a large-brimmed hat, gazing in awe of its beauty. He muses, on the work before him, on its authorial anonymity, and perhaps his own melancholy as a once-great artist. It’s a meditation on legacy and how we lack control of it at all.  

Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash—the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures, and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die. "Be of good heart," cry the dead artists out of the living past. "Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” 

Welles concludes, “Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much.” (SV4)

Thing Of The Day:

Jason Polan’s goal was to draw everyone in New York. He knew it was unattainable but that was the joy in it. Jerry Saltz documents his encounters with Jason and his drawings: “Polan was an illustrator-drawer-artist of modern art and life. There was no irony in his work. His was an art of taking pleasure in and appreciating the people, places, and things of the world. His oeuvre is a mirthful illustrated encyclopedia of modern life, body language, styles, and habits.” The outcome is the wonderful Every Person in New York. (SV4)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Sam (SV4)

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