Sunday! On a Vivian Maier Exhibit

[Note: By a coincidence, Jaybird was looking to take a little break on Sunday posts, while I was looking to post more regularly about art, culture, literature, music, etc… Let’s see what happens. -Rufus]

Sunday! On a Vivian Maier ExhibitVivian Maier was a nobody.

She worked as a governess for wealthier families for many decades before she died in fairly extreme poverty. So extreme, in fact, that her possessions and life’s work were sold off prior to her death for failure to pay the rent on a storage space. The people who purchased the contents subsequently found that Maier had taken tens of thousands of photographs over the years. What’s more, the quality of her work was amazing. She spent years taking photos of passersby in the streets of New York and Chicago with an uncanny eye for composition, interesting subjects, and undisguised humanity. Imagine the best photos Life Magazine never published around mid-century taken by a photographer with the narrative skills of Tolstoy.

So, naturally, the purchaser of the largest body of her photos and negatives wanted the world to know about this unknown genius. A young real estate developer purchased a great number of her works at auction in 2007 and, presumably, only found out who Vivian Maier was upon her death two years later. According to the documentary film the collector has made about Maier, he put up some of the photos online to see what other people thought of them, the response was overwhelming, and so he has dedicated the last decade to creating a legacy for a great artist who was socially invisible- as a woman from the lower class- throughout her life. This is a particularly charitable interpretation though. Legally, it’s complicated. Very complicated.

The art world seems to be taken lately with these stories of undiscovered geniuses, outsider artists, and individuals who created massive bodies of work, compulsively, and then died poor and unknown. Individuals like Henry Darger give us a feeling of sonder– that the shabby stranger passing on the sidewalk might contain multitudes. There an element of mystery to these secret universes; the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) exhibit I visited with my partner alludes to the question of how Maier kept this great body of work secret from the world. Now, she would have 15,000 followers on Instagram- if, that is, she ever wanted her work to be seen in the first place.

Of course, how you view this “mystery” depends on your vantage point. If you’ve ever worked these types of domestic service jobs, it’s actually very easy to believe she could have kept her rich inner life hidden from those around her, since employers generally don’t worry about the quality of their servants’ inner lives. I work with cleaners whose art staggers me- it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever hear of them. In all of these decades of Maier carrying a camera around her neck, did anyone ever ask to see her photos? The question seems almost absurd.

Sunday! On a Vivian Maier Exhibit

1954, New York, NY

My partner, who is very creative, very working class, and highly secretive about her own work, connected strongly with the exhibit. At one point, after spending considerable time with the self-portraits, she asked the question the AGH would not: Do you think Maier would have ever wanted this exhibit to exist? It’s a tricky one because, by all accounts, she would not have. The collector who made the documentary about his discovery apparently paid a distant cousin $5,000 for the rights to Maier’s work and later had to pay Cook County, Illinois, which is the executor of her estate now. The other major distributor of her work found another distant relative in France, refused to pay the “estate”, and his feeling is “if the material has a positive and inspirational purpose, it serves a much better good being made available to the public.” Like I said, it’s complicated.

But I’m less interested in the legal question “can they?” than the question “should they?” It’s clear is that neither collector bought the work directly from the artist, or has any concrete idea of her intentions, so what right does anyone really have to capitalize off a dead woman’s work?

The exhibit brought to mind a few local artists whose works I adore, but who are self-doubting and self-sabotaging to the extent that I could very easily imagine them living their lives without the recognition their work deserves- not coincidentally, they are all women. (But, hey, I’ve written three books, four plays, three screenplays, and over thirty one-act plays that I have made almost no effort whatsoever to sell, or share, or show.) For some, the process of creating is enough. It’s almost a cliché really: blah, blah, smart people are filled with self-doubt, while the banal are all enrolled in MFA programs. I try to encourage my talented friends to share their work with the world. But, also, I tell them to make sure to write a last will and testament!

Sunday! On a Vivian Maier ExhibitInterestingly enough, the local exhibit unintentionally corresponded with an AGH round table on “gentrification and the arts”. Hamilton’s average rents have risen by about 26% in two years, although in the cheaper east end, it was more like 45%. Overall, our rents have increased faster than any other city in Canada. It’s on people’s minds. The AGH wanted to know “how artists can address gentrification”. One imagines they’re a bit more focused on paying their rent at the moment.

Luc Sante made the case that when people decry “gentrification” they mean something like: buying properties on the cheap in a depressed area, raising the rents, and waiting until there’s enough of a cultural aura around those properties to raise their value- pretty much what gets called “speculation”. Sante noted this wasn’t some creation of the 1980s: Greenwich Village was basically “gentrified” by the first World War.

Which raises the question: what does the art establishment do at this point that wouldn’t be considered “gentrification”?

The “working class artist” is an anachronism. Essentially, it seems that the social and cultural invisibility of roughly 40% of the population has created two interesting figures: the “outsider artist” whose worth increases upon their death, and the better-connected aesthete “collector” who discovers and revives what was once invisible to their class. In the end, I am glad that we have Vivian Maier’s work to enrich us. But I do wonder how many great artists there are living today who won’t be said to “exist” until they die.

So, what are you reading, watching, playing, or pondering today?


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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26 thoughts on “Sunday! On a Vivian Maier Exhibit

  1. As for the root question, I think it has to do with the whole “we, as a society” thing.

    If the emphasis is on the individual, then of course we should follow the wishes of the individual and err on the side of maintaining privacy if there is any question about the wishes of the individual artist.

    If the emphasis is on the society, then we should have the art be seen by as many people as who would want to see it and err on the side of publicity if there is any question about the wishes of the individual artist.

    I mean, if Vivian Maier was an amateur botanist and came up with a better tomato strain or redder beet that made richer dyes, we wouldn’t have a problem with that stuff coming to light. Hrm. But we might have a problem with Monstanto or GSK making billions off of it…

    But this is art that I am pleased to have seen and feel embiggened for having seen it. To say that this art should have been kept from me seems only to make sense if the emphasis is on the individual to a huge degree (rather than the emphasis being on the whole “we, as a society” thing).

    And there just aren’t that many areas anymore where the emphasis is on the individual to that extent anymore.

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    • I think it also depends on how you feel about the soul. I mean, if there is a soul and an afterlife and all of the great et cetera, it’s a bit different to share someone’s work after they go below ground.

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      • I’ve also heard of a playwright whose works were supposedly phenomenal but who insisted they not be staged after his death. I think that has been honored but maybe because everyone knows that he wanted that. In this case, it’s not like anyone knows for certain what she wanted.

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        • Well, I don’t have where-to-stand when it comes to issues of the soul but I am willing to say that I am selfish enough to be pleased by a world that has more art and more music and more amateur photography that is easily confused for professional.

          I have approximately *ZERO* qualms with looking at pictures taken by dead people, reading books by dead people, and listening to music by dead people even if they wouldn’t have wanted me to when they were still alive.

          If it’s high quality, it makes the world a better place and we’re better off having it.
          If it’s low quality, it’s likely to be drowned out by professional low-quality stuff and it’ll effectively be burned anyway.

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            • I already expressed my views that I’m not sure how much weight the desires of the dead should have on the living in perpetuity. I find that an oppressive concept. This includes the powerful and the not. My example was Barnes, the PA pharma multi-millionaire who developed a great art collection and some really idiosyncratic ideas on how the art should be arranged and viewed. Effectively, this made it very hard for the public to view the art even though he created a foundation/museum. It was a decades long legal struggle to get this opened up.

              I’m not sure how one can go head held high and defend the view of Barnes that the art should be effectively sealed from the public yet many do.

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          • I think I said something about Max Brod below? But he definitely comes to mind, partly because I read something recently about how he was a great writer and realized I’d only ever thought of him as the guy who didn’t burn Kafka’s work. I think his explanation was that Kafka must have known he would never do it, or he would have asked someone else. That I can understand. I have some friends who would tell me to burn their work upon their death and I’m fairly certain they know it wouldn’t happen.

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  2. Gentrification is a provocative analogy. I guess it’s apt, although one of its implications (the displacement of the poor) doesn’t apply in art. One person creates art for her own satisfaction; another person publicizes the art for his own reasons (money, prestige, and societal benefit are likely among them). No one gets less than they expected going into it. I don’t see how other people’s use of an artist’s work negatively affects the artist, or sets a precedent that could hurt people. There’s an icky sense of exploitation, but it’s only a sense. The really weird thing is that Instagram is in some sense the hero of this story.

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    • Ya know, my tongue is always at least 15% in my cheek. I’m riffing off the thing in the art world where everyone is a collector who appreciates art on a deep and profound level and certainly not a speculator, which is the most vulgar thing you could call someone. They’re not buying sharks in formaldehyde because they see it as a blue chip investment- they’re aesthetes.

      You’re right that the good aspect of all of this is a handful of artists become superstars and it’s not like it makes the others poorer.

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  3. As a legal note, people dying on their own without any known heirs or close relations is hardly new or unique. Every county in the United States has a probate office whose job it is to find the closest thing that they can to intestate heirs to disperse of property. The New York Times ran a fascinating story about one such search a few years ago.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/nyregion/dying-alone-in-new-york-city.html

    These people are very good at their jobs.

    I’m not sure whether the dead should be able to control the living world long-after their death. This includes Barnes trying to keep his amazing art collection out of the eyes of the public even though he officially turned his collection and house into a “foundation/museum.” Outsider artists without formal training have been a thing for a long time. Henri Rousseau was an outsider artist. Grandma Moses was an outsider artist. Some alleged outsider artists are very good at playing the art world game like Joseph Cornell.

    But gentrification at this point is a word that seems void for vagueness and it can roughly translate as “middle class people doing something I don’t like.” Some of the leading anti-gentrifiers are often middle-class people who moved to New York or wherever expecting it to be like the 1970s New York forever.

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    • I know, you’ve said this before in other posts, but I’m not citing the leading anti-gentrifiers. I’m citing Luc Sante’s argument that when people talk about “gentrification”, they mean the effects of a type of real estate speculation that’s been gonig on forever. It was a small note in an extremely entertaining book:
      https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374528997

      I can’t say either if the dead should control their wishes in a world they no longer inhabit. Should Max Brod have obeyed Kafka’s wishes and burn his work after he died? I’d think it was a tragedy if he had done so.

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      • Low Life is a great book that provides a very vivid look into working class life in the late 19th and early 20th century urban United States. What strikes me most about these photos is that life looked a lot more intense in the past. Since people had fewer indoor amusements but a lot more money and free time than at previous times, life was lived outside the house more. Everything seems less septic and more vibrant even though everybody was much less wealthy economically speaking. And I’m saying this as a member of a demographic group that had a very rough go of things before the mid-20th century for the most part.

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      • I think Kafka’s situation is somewhat ambiguous. According to Brod, when Kafka said that he would be leaving instructions for everything to be destroyed, Brod said he wouldn’t do it.

        Ultimately, Kafka, a competent lawyer, did not express his wishes in a will, but in two letters addressed to Brod in his desk drawer. The first asked him to destroy everything (his correspondence, his notes, his diary, and his creative output). The second exempts a number of listed pieces from this request and IIRC, some works were added over time. These were creative pieces that had been submitted, or were about to be submitted, for publication. While Kafka was dying in the hospital, he was still editing his own work and presumably would have added to the excluded list over time.

        Brod clearly failed to comply with the bulk of the request as it pertained to personal writings (letters, diaries, etc.). This was an invasion of privacy and unbeknownst to Kafka has helped foster a reductionist interpretation of his work. As to the creative pieces, most of the known short stories were exempt; it is the novels that are circumspect. One could argue that Brod was entrusted with making a literary judgment as to which works were complete. Perhaps only the obvious fragments or abandoned pieces that should have been destroyed.

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        • My gut says that there’s a big difference between finished works, unfinished works, and personal correspondence / diaries. I’ll grant that it can be tough to tell the difference between finished and unfinished works, if they’re not published. Even then, artists can revise their works. In any case, works other than letters and diaries were created for the art, whether or not that art was intended to be shared. Letters and diaries may have artistic value, but typically the primary purpose of personal papers is utilitarian. If something like a diary or a letter would be read only for the insight it gives about the artist, rather than for the artistic merit of the writing, then I’d lean toward treating it as private, and I’d be inclined to honor the artist’s wishes.

          It just occurred to me how much of this subject mirrors the contemporary discussion about online confidentiality.

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  4. Rufus, this is great stuff!

    What this brings to mind for me is Go Set a Watchman, which is pretty clearly a very early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that Harper Lee never intended to publish, but which was just as clearly going to be a highly profitable literary event if it ever came out (as it was).

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  5. Mikail Bulgakov famously burned the manuscript for Master and Margarita, knowing that it could not be published in his lifetime. He rewrote it from memory, again knowing that it could not be printed. But it was saved and brought forth in the ’60s. And made the world a better place for it. John Kennedy Toole never submitted A Confederacy of Dunces and it never would have seen light if his mother had not found a smeared carbon copy after his suicide. He may have never wanted it released, but we are richer for it.

    I don’t think there is an answer to this that would fit any one person’s mind as acceptable in each case. That said, I tend to break to the side of getting it out there.

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