A few years ago I reconnected with an old college friend. She and I had been close for a couple of years – close enough that if we both hadn’t been involved with someone else, more might have developed. But it didn’t and we both went our separate ways. Her marriage lasted (and resulted in three children); mine did not. But, by the time we corresponded again, I had some plays produced, stories sold, a novel published. As I said to her, we both had created something to be remembered for. After I said that, I never heard from her again.
A lot of artists think of their work as somehow equivalent to children; those with actual children might disagree. Children of artists might disagree even more strenuously, especially if their parents seem to care more about their art than they do their children. Some famous figures in the art world were reputed to be terrible parents – Hemingway, Picasso, Ezra Pound – though you might want to check with their kids before making a final judgement.
Perhaps artists recognize that while your children might remember you more intensely and with greater passion, your art will spread your memory more broadly. After all everyone has some notion of Shakespeare’s plays but who can say anything about his descendants?
Still, I realize that the comparison must be odious to some people – and rightly so. Especially since fame is so fleeting – at least for most of the famous.
Take Luise Rainer. Who? The first actor to win multiple Oscars, she was also the first to win two in a row. And until she died last year, she was the longest living winner of the award. It’s not that I’m a big fan of her films; I happened to come across her name when I was looking for something else. Her fame – or lack of it – is now well documented digitally. But there is no assurance that digital fame will last. Some significant parts of our digital history have already been lost – to think the rest will last a hundred years is unlikely.
Fame in the present day is no guarantee of fame tomorrow. We recall Shakespeare and Marlowe but after that only a few people can name five of their play-writing contemporaries – I certainly can’t. We recall Dickens but Bulwer-Lytton, a far more successful contemporary, is only remembered for a bad writing competition. Bob Dylan reached fame when he went electric; how many of his folk contemporaries are still part of popular culture?
Fame, in any case, is a mixed blessing – for society at least if not for the individual. Lately, we have seen how the famous do more damage than good – entire books have been written about the distortions they create in our social, political and scientific understandings. Whether it is Paltrow’s bad diet advice or Jim Carrey’s ill-informed rantings about vaccinations, their pronouncements may be wrong but, sadly, are more likely to be believed than the scientific evidence.
Perhaps history can’t move fast enough to obliterate them from the public consciousness.
But that’s ten minutes.