Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Burning Question

Michelangelo burned most of his sketches and drawings. The Seattle Art Museum currently has a show titled: Michelangelo Public and Private: Drawings for the Sistine Chapel and Other Treasures from the Casa Buonarroti, Oct. 15-Jan 31st, 2010.

The primary focus of the exhibition is M's preliminary work for the Sistine Chapel in Rome, including a selection of working drawings for the Sistine Chapel and the LAST JUDGMENT. Together, these drawings give modern viewers insight into the artist's working process. "The exposure would have appalled Michelangelo who burned many of this drawings, hoping to sustain the idea that divine inspiration was responsible for his celebrated masterpieces." (This is a quote taken from the Seattle Art Museum website).

"If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."

"I wouldn't have wanted to go down in history as a literary arsonist."
---Dmitri Nabokov on his decision to publish his father's unfinished novel despite Vladimir Nabokov's wish that it be burned.

When Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, he left instructions for his heirs to burn the 138 handwritten index cards that made up the rough draft of his final and unfinished novel, THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA. But N's wife, Vera, could not bear to destroy it, and when she died, the manuscript went to her son, who has finally decided to publish it. However, one wonders how Nabokov would have felt. The final card in the manuscript is a list of synonyms for efface -- expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate.

Any Artist will tell you he's really only interested in the stuff he is doing now. He will, always. It's true, and it should be like that.
---- David Hockney

So, to burn or not to burn? Should artists have final say over their works? Should their wishes be respected and honored? Should the world be denied their last piece of great works?


M said...

Several years ago, I attended a seminar called Estate Planning for Artists. It was a real eye opener with the presenter bringing up more examples of what can go wrong with an artist's work once they die. One thing that stood out to me was the importance of transferring your copyright in your will. There was a lot more. This post will prompt me to find my notes and summarize some of the issues that came up. I don't know if Canadian law is different but I'm sure there are things that can be applied across the board.

As to your question, an aritst's wishes should be respected. That is why it is so important for artists to be very conscious of including directions in their will regarding what should happen to their work. It doesn't hurt to have an executor who actually understands some of these issues.

.Trudi Sissons said...

Absolutely respect another fellow human being's dying wish....his son should be prosecuted. I would never read the book.

SusuPetal said...

Respect the wish, like you respect any human being.

Ian Foster said...

I fully agree with the views expressed in the previous comments, the artist's wishes should always ben respected. Unfortunately greed often overturns this.

Caterina Giglio said...

as an artist, I definitely want my wishes upheld!

sukipoet said...

absolutely. I believe any person's wishes should be upheld, as someone else said. I will throw in here though that Anne Beattie when she first began writing would throw away her stories (so the story goes) and her hubby dug them out of the trash, sent them in to publishers, and they were accepted and her career launched. Or something like that.

I heard the NPR program about Nabokov's book. I think he is turning in his grave. An artist deserves to burn or tear up his work which he finds unsatisfactory, his early drafts.

Now some artists like this sort of material to be display to show precisely that sometimes art/writing does not just appear but is a process. But these things should be published etc only if the artist/writer says it's okay.

mansuetude said...

sometimes one wonders why some things are held and found and later populated among the various eyes and hands of world.

If Nabakov really wanted it burned he might have done it!

I personally think there is a lot to learn about "process" in the right hands editing a writer or artist; (like Jung's The Red Book, so much "mystical" idea has become mainstream now; not such a big burden of "outsider".

Also, it is so wonderful to actually burn one's own work, writing and other things. Like taking twenty pounds off, though i have never gained it; except mentally, psychically... imaginatively. But like a good Monkish soul, i am always wanting to clear or get back to the white page; not the noise; not the attempts of "saying" ...

fascinating post.

Blue Sky Dreaming said...

Donna, This was all very thought provoking. I know I shred my journals yearly and save out what I believe to be something I treasure. My artwork goes to my sons and they can do as they please...I hope respectfully.
I believe if you want it while you are alive!

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Well how about a compromise?

I believe that the wishes should be respected but also that the work should not be destroyed. I also go as far as saying that it should never have been published, so why save it but not publish it?

Those who seriously study an artist or writer, any creative person, should have access to a persons complete work by viewing original documents, as we have with American presidential libraries, so it also should be for those in the creative field.

Any reactions??

Warmest regards

Lisa said...

Interesting post. I had a friend who was an accomplished painter and he used to fear that when he was gone all his private sketches and drafts would become public pieces.

One does wonder how Nabokov would have felt.. but alas we'll never know.

Ivan P. said...

My opinion is that a piece of art always has a life of its own, so the less an artist cares about what will happen with his or her art in the future, the more natural it is.

Of course, there could be very serious reasons for an artist's desire to annihilate something. Thinking of that, I always recall the case of Chopin, who destroyed every sketch he didn't want the descendants to play, and it seems to me that this is the only kind of behavior, in that particular context, which does not look mincing and finicky at all.

Nancy Natale said...

I think that artists have to take responsibility for their own work and destroy what they don't want made public. Perhaps an artist might take an overly critical view of their work at the end of their life and ask that it be destroyed, but the heir(s) might know that the work has value and preserve it. I am thinking of Emily Dickinson, for example, who asked that her work be destroyed after her death. Much of it was, but if it had all been burned, the world would have been deprived of her work. And wouldn't that be a great loss?

For myself, I usually get rid of works that I don't think stand the test of time or that I don't want anyone else to see.

It's a tremendous burden to dispose of the belongings someone has accumulated during their life and so much gets lost or devalued. Much just ends up in the trash. How much better to make decisions during life instead of passing the buck.

Sue Brown said...

I think artists are not always the best judges of there own work. Once we have done our bit, the making of the work does it really matter what happens next?
Perhaps we should keep nothing from genereation to generation, then every idea will look like a new one and we will all be less angst ridden about what we create?

Judy said...

Oh my, what a brilliant topic. I have loved reading all the comments and find it all so fascinating. I think one should respect the wishes of the artists, its the only ethical thing to do. Thanks

Penelope said...

As an artist, I tend to believe that while what I do while I'm alive is inherently for me it belongs to the world when I am no longer here to think about it.

I don't think I'll ever be the kind of artist who refuses to have their roughs and studies seen by public eye. I've got piles of journals and sketchbooks, filled with all kinds of thoughts and images. Some of it is very out of date, some of it is deeply personal and alot of it doesn't really represent me well at all. But would I roll in my dust if it were published? No.

I don't think it's about money 100% of the time. A lot of people have a genuine understanding of fans wanting an inside look at someone's unfinished creative work. It gives you access to an artist's mind, something that until blogs came along, we didn't really know. There are diaries and what-have-you, but they're rarely as authentic and honest as the work-in-progress stuff.

I agree with the son, he was right to publish. Artist's are so dramatic- if he'd really wanted it burned he'd have done so before dying! I've burned my old work and old diaries, but only as a purge of old wood, not as an attempt to escape sub-standard product. In fact most of it I burned to keep warm when the gas was cut!

Unknown said...

Donna, This is an excellent post, and, by the responses, you've obviously raised a very interesting question! My personal philosophy is to leave nothing to chance (or, as little as is possible). Therefore, I destroy what I don't want others to see. Every year I do a spring cleaning in my studio and determine what I should keep, destroy, or reuse (paint over). I do the same thing for my personal files and notes. I love an trust my family, but there are no guarantees that they'll survive me to carry out my wishes. And then, there's the emotional factor ....

jo horswill said...

I think it verges on selfishness, that any artist should leave such a huge responsibility to anyone else, whether it be family or others...
I agree with the comments that if the artists "really" wanted the work to vanish, they would have done it themselves...
I have burned countless drawings over the years (like a cleansing). Great post Donna, :)

Anonymous said...

Fact is, it takes the world a long time to catch up to where an artist is..

thatis one of the functions of an artist;
to clear the way for others to see,

so it might take that long for one's work to be seen as valuable.

And anyway, you're dead aren't you?
What are you going to do, haunt your stuff?

Anonymous said...


perhaps I should add I've never been good at being told what to do ,

he he he!

ZenDotStudio said...

What a fabulous post and such wonderful conversation in the comments. It shows us what a complex issue it is. My mind is generating many ideas but none of them conclusive. In Zen practice it is always said that each situation should be decided on it's own merit as they are all slightly different. Generalizations can get us to a dangerous spot. They are easy but can be deceiving in a given situation.

Yes, if someone specifically asks me to do something I think I should try my very best to honour that request. And yes artists are not always the best judge of their own work. And it would pain me t destroy something beautiful and something that might contribute to a greater understanding of the artist, especially a very famous one. But if the motivation is money, well then....

I, like a number of others here, regularly tear up and throw up old journals ( I write embarrassing crap sometime and I might get hit by a bus one day!) I also toss old art work that seems like it belongs in the bin (if I can't paint over it).

Thanks for making us think so hard!

Gwen Buchanan said...

All I know is that I almost always enjoy the sketches and preliminary work more than the finished work.. it has more life... It is the Process I Want.. Always the Process... I want to see how they came to the finished piece. .. it makes me feel closer to the artist and understand his thinking at the time... to know the real person... the evolution of their ideas...

when an artist's work is public.. I think we should be allowed to see it all... if anyone wants to stay warm, I say, burn some firewood...

Lucky Dip Lisa said...

Contemplative post! I think I would have kept the work and not destroyed it but not published it either! I wonder if the Son struggles with his conceince?

nancy neva gagliano said...

brings to mind 1972 when a friend who'd finished his mfa asked me to film his final project. i said yes. i got to his studio, and there was a huge pile of painting in front. i filmed. he set it all on fire. he'd called the fire dept. to let them know, or get or permit or something...i was a bit shocked. . .but i understood, and understand even more now that i've done some pieces...but it was his call, and it would be mine. i'll make my wishes known, and ... i have a feeling, there will be few directives. in the moment. like your proverb: we're a candle before the wind.

great conversation above that you facilitated!

xxx said...

this is a tough and interesting question...
and one that I'm not definite about a yes of no kind of answer... I'll just say depends.

best wishes
Ribbon :)

Mostly Turquoise said...


Quite an interesting question this is! After having read all comments and having thought the subject over a few days, I try to declutter my head from the pros and cons, the this side and that side.For me the answer is, now, to keep it pure and simple:
being the heir: respect the artist's wish
being the artist: simply destroy what you don't want to be seen, read... after all it is just paint, clay, fiber or thoughts and words. I know, simple and down to earth, yet that's how I see it now

Coffee Messiah said...

It's an obvious answer, too bad some don't adhere to it ; (

Did you hear the NPR interview last week about Norman Rockwell, using photographs and one of the photographers: Clemens Kalisher speaking about his experience with NR? It was last Sunday and gave me an insight into his work (NR) that I never thought about.

Towards the end of his interview, they asked if he'd sell the photographs he had taken. He said never, as they had nothing to do with anything, although "if I were sick and dying and needed a few dollars, maybe I would." (paraphrased)

I like this man alot and have a letter going to him soon.


John M. Mora said...

To me, simple man I am, I think he could not burn it so he must have wanted it to live.

To Exist. He could not himself destroy it. You can't take it with you (to burn).

shayndel said...

Hi Donna,
Thank you for your comment on my recently opened worksonpaper site.
Yes, they are my paintings:)
Recently I have been doing more 'finding' and 'writing'. Though maybe you and Leslie and the wonderful artists I meet here will influence me to go back to picking up a brush and a palette knife. Actually, I am thinking about silkscreen. Have you done silkscreen?
I can relate to the David Hockney quote (one of my inspirations by the way from way back when, I love his work and thought), about
'the stuff' we're doing now.
I'm glad my finding is leading me back to collage, and I can see painting or printing in some way coming back be honest, I started to feel 'bogged down' in the materiality of painting, but surely there is a way put to visual ideas into form without too much 'stuff'.
Your work and thought too has a focus on 'im-materiality' (is that the right word?) which I admire.

And back to your post, I can relate to the artists desire to have the work burned, that too reflects the idea of im-materiality in a quite severe way!! I wonder...

shayndel said...

PS "im-material", I used this word about your work but mabybe I used incorrectly---
of course, your work deals very much with'materials' and the beauty and touch of paper, collage, so in that sense is "material", but I meant the way it has a minimal quality, and a sparse quality, and a quality of using just what is needed;
see, I'm using too many words to describe something that should require few!!always the challenge.

prashant said...

espect the wish, like you respect any human being.

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