Should an Artist’s Wishes be Honored Posthumously?

 

Unknown When I heard that Harper Lee planned to publish a second novel, I got to thinking about whether or not artists should have a say in what happens to their unpublished works after they die. Harper Lee is still with us, of course, but how “with us” she may be is a matter of some dispute: she suffered a stoke in 2007, and has not been the same since.

I first pondered this question years ago when I read that Frédéric Chopin had requested on his deathbed that his unpublished manuscripts be burned. His mother and his sisters ultimately declined to honor this request, and went on to publish 23 of his piano works. Among them is one of his most famous compositions, the Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor.

My instinct is to honor the artist’s wishes. While the Fantasie-Impomptu certainly seems like a fully realized work, only the composer can know if a work is actually complete. Another good example is Mahler’s 10th Symphony, which he was composing when he died in 1911. With the exception of the Adagio — which was almost certainly completed by the composer — conductors like Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, and Claudio Abbado refused to perform what was left of the work. Mahler was a meticulous composer, often making adjustments to his symphonies long after their premier. For this reason, it is a fairly safe assumption that he would not have wanted any part of the 10th Symphony to be performed. The same applies to “Blumine,” the movement Mahler dropped after the premier of his First symphony.

There are scores of examples of much loved posthumous works in music and literature that we would never know had the artist’s wishes been honored. For me the question is unresolved. Should artists’ wishes be honored after they die?

There are 23 comments.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Not if it involves destroying works. Artists, especially the good ones, are often their harshest critics. Now, should there be some sunsetted moratorium on publishing the unfinished works or a restriction for scholarly use, at least for a time? That is not so bad. But to destroy without a trace what came out of an artist is unfair to the world.

    My favorite author apparently burned a lot of his work right before contracting lead poisoning. There were still two unfinished works in other hands, though, that were eventually fleshed out and published posthumously. I’m glad I got to read them, even though they were not as perfect as he might have made them. They still firmly had his stamp upon them.

    • #1
  2. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Artists are an odd lot. Often self-defeating. Honoring in life seems enough to me.

    • #2
  3. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Isn’t there a reason manuscripts are locked in desks until one is satisfied enough to publish them? Witness Patrick O’Brian’s ’21′”…Just plain sad…

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Nanda Panjandrum:Isn’t there a reason manuscripts are locked in desks until one is satisfied enough to publish them? Witness Patrick O’Brian’s ’21′”…Just plain sad…

    While I agree in general, and understand that I am an author myself, restrictions on publication are different from destruction. Being able to keep works in process for scholars to study and others to perhaps do something more with is what I suggest. If the author is popular, someone someday will write a sequel, whether they should or not. It is better for them to have the notes the author left than making it up from whole cloth.

    A good example is that H. Beam Piper wrote three “Fuzzy” books, and two were published before his death. The third went missing for decades. In the meantime, Bill Tuning wrote his own sequel, Fuzzy Bones, based on the direction he thought Piper had been going. Of course, Tuning was a liberal anti-capitalist, and he basically ruined Piper’s characters, turning one of Piper’s self-made men into an overweight, middle-aged buffoon. (Piper was a classical liberal gun-rights and capitalism-always-works-better-than-government advocate.)  When the manuscript for the third book was finally found, it was nothing like Tuning’s story. So, much better to have the outline from the original author. Had that manuscript not escaped Beam’s fire, we would never have known.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Let me take this from another angle. As a writer, I cannot fully claim what I produce. Yes, I do work hard. I use certain disciplines to help the ideas flow. But when the words are flowing best, it is not I, but the Father within who does the work. I am, at most, co-creator with G-d.

    So, to ask that all of my unfinished work be destroyed would be a vanity, for it is not my work alone. That does not mean that it should be published as is, which was a terrible injustice in the case of 21. But it should be available for scholars to learn from, and perhaps, for another to finish.

    • #5
  6. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @

    The famous example is Kafka, who directed his friends to burn his works. He didn’t, and now I have fears of waking up as a monstrous vermin. So thanks for that.

    From a legal standpoint, though, isn’t a will like a contract that must be followed? If it’s the artist’s intellectual property, I presume it’s his/her right to destroy it if he/she wishes. The argument against always seems like the scary villain in the movies who justifies his actions by saying “Humanity needs this!” Kind of like the scene in Good Will Hunting where Will burns the proof he was working on.

    Then again, what if, for some reason, a doctor finds the cure for cancer, but dies, leaving his will to say that it must be destroyed? Strange hypothetical, I know, but still an interesting one. I’d love to hear Richard Epstein do a Libertarian podcast on the subject of wills.

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Once the artist is dead, things belong to the estate, not to the artist. Lawsuits can and have overturned wills often enough. At the very least, there can be a stay from destroying works. Part of it depends on what the heirs want.

    • #7
  8. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    True_wesT: My instinct is to honor the artists wishes.

    As is mine, though my indignation toward this being applied toward good artists long dead is… weak.

    • #8
  9. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    True_wesT: My instinct is to honor the artists wishes.

    As is mine, though my indignation toward this being applied toward good artists long dead is… weak.

    Ethical intuitionism points to the correct answer.

    • #9
  10. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    If the artist wants it destroyed, they can destroy it themselves.

    Anything published after death has to have an asterisk: the author did not release it. Which is some protection for the reputation of an artist who did not consider that work ready, for whatever reason.

    • #10
  11. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Isn’t this covered by copyright law? I’d be interested in what legal standards are applied in that case.

    • #11
  12. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    a) Why didn’t he burn ’em before he died?

    b) Shoulda released ’em to the public domain so his heirs wouldn’t have a profit motive to deny his request.

    • #12
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Dead men file no lawsuits.

    • #13
  14. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @Manny

    I think there are laws concerning this.  There are heirs to a person’s property and when that person is deceased, then the property is transfered, including unpublished papers.  If a writer does not want something put out after they die, they will have to take care of it themselves beforehand, i.e. destroy it.  Of course an heir can honor that artist’s wish, but that heir will have an heir at some point too.

    • #14
  15. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Misthiocracy:a) Why didn’t he burn ‘em before he died?

    Good question. If an unfinished work was not destroyed, then it is probably because the author considered it the root of something greater or an idea which could be appended to another. I have many riffs which I would be embarrassed to share but have hope of developing one day. The better ones are not separate from the worse ones. Only the author knows which he or she favored.

    One fear of exposure might be the need of context which only the author himself possesses. Stream-of-consciousness journaling is a common brainstorming practice of writers. These ideas are often wild or disturbing in nature. Some of those ideas are based in the author’s own experiences, desires, and philosophies. Others are pure fiction and are created for dramatic effect. Only the author knows which are which. Left to posterity, these ideas are ripe for scandal and misrepresentation.

    Unpublished ideas are like a diary full of memories, fantasies, joys, and horrors. Independent of the author’s ability and freedom to judge the merit of his own works, his fragmented dreams are apt to confuse if not ruin his postmortem reputation.

    • #15
  16. user_428379 Thatcher
    user_428379
    @AlSparks

    Once a work of art is published, it no longer belongs to the author or artist.  Even copyright laws, which have been extended way too far have an expiration included, the implication being the copyright holders really don’t own the art, it’s just a way for the author or artist to monetize it.

    • #16
  17. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    There remains the question of whether an artist has moral (as opposed to legal) ownership of his unpublished works postmortem. I’m not sure how to answer.

    I believe that suicide is not a morally acceptable option because it denies not only hope but also God’s sovereignty over our lives. If we do not fully possess even our very lives, then can we fully possess our works? Probably not.

    As a Christian, I perceive my creativity as participation with God. Inspiration means I am His willing instrument, so His beautiful and excellent creations are filtered through my own limited abilities and free will to produce works of varying quality. And indeed artistic creation often feels that way. I discover a melody or character conversation in my imagination as a photographer discovers a scene worth recording through his craft and proceeds from that discovery. God paints the picture. I only translate it (dimly, haphazardly), frame it, and present it.

    It might be unclear to a postmortem audience what the artist perceived to be a recording’s deficiencies, but if there is any beauty then at least some aspect of it is the work of our Creator.

    Does that then belong to all God’s people? Free will is a gift from Him, so I suspect that it would remain the artist’s choice to offer or withhold his productions. Unlike Democrats, we conservatives do not believe that charity can be forced.

    If eternity and God’s perpetual glorification, rather than earthly fame and fleeting pleasures, are what really matter, then even hidden works can be worthwhile (like love letters to God) and lost works can be redeemed without publication.

    • #17
  18. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Aaron Miller:There remains the question of whether an artist has moral (as opposed to legal) ownership of his unpublished works postmortem. I’m not sure how to answer.

    The answer is no. Clearly.

    Death = non-existence. Something that does not exist cannot have property rights.

    • #18
  19. True_wesT Member
    True_wesT
    @TruewesT

    Chopin may have intended to burn his unfinished works, but his decline was rather sudden. Besides, I suspect you don’t want to do that kind of thing until you’re sure. I doubt they had much advanced notice in the 19th century.

    On a slightly related subject, J.K. Rowling wanted to end the Harry Potter series in a way that would discourage anyone from continuing the story after she died.

    • #19
  20. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Misthiocracy:

    Aaron Miller:There remains the question of whether an artist has moral (as opposed to legal) ownership of his unpublished works postmortem. I’m not sure how to answer.

    The answer is no. Clearly.

    Death = non-existence. Something that does not exist cannot have property rights.

    Burkean conservatives believe we live “in contract” with past and future generations. We honor them in our lives both in respect of their memory and because we believe in their immortal souls.

    I’m reminded of a story about a woman with advanced Alzheimer’s. Her husband visited her every day, though she no longer recognized him. A doctor asked, “Why do you come every day? She doesn’t even know who you are.” The husband replied, “I know who she is.” The ways we share life are not always active or vividly impressed.

    • #20
  21. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    I’m most familiar with the issue within the classical music world, where there’s an exaggerated reverence for the supposed omniscience of the creator. I vote mostly no on this question.

    If the work is crap, or vile, the market will do its job to bury it. The only danger is that the author’s reputation may suffer if poorly-expressed, half-baked ideas are treated as the author’s true opinions. Let the work be published with clear disclaimers if it appears to be of interest and leave it at that.

    • #21
  22. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Aaron Miller:

    Misthiocracy:

    Aaron Miller:There remains the question of whether an artist has moral (as opposed to legal) ownership of his unpublished works postmortem. I’m not sure how to answer.

    The answer is no. Clearly.

    Death = non-existence. Something that does not exist cannot have property rights.

    Burkean conservatives believe we live “in contract” with past and future generations. We honor them in our lives both in respect of their memory and because we believe in their immortal souls.

    I’m reminded of a story about a woman with advanced Alzheimer’s. Her husband visited her every day, though she no longer recognized him. A doctor asked, “Why do you come every day? She doesn’t even know who you are.” The husband replied, “I know who she is.” The ways we share life are not always active or vividly impressed.

    There’s a difference between “honouring their memory” and “conferring rights upon the dead”.

    • #22
  23. Foxman Inactive
    Foxman
    @Foxman

    Did anybody read Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story? In it the widow of a writer is harrased by scholars trying to get at his unfinished works

    • #23

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