Magazine article The American Prospect

Opus Posthumous

Magazine article The American Prospect

Opus Posthumous

Article excerpt

This last year in the arts seems to have been dominated by dead people. Maybe that isn't inappropriate when a millennium grinds to a close.

For example: One of the most eagerly awaited movies of the year, Eyes Wide Shut, was released soon after the death of its director, Stanley Kubrick. Such were the circumstances of its appearance, and such was Kubrick's reputation, early critical responses were positive. It was unthinkable that the final work of a major artist could be anything other than a masterpiece. It took time before the requisite mind-set adjustment permitted the film to be judged for itself rather than for the romantic swan-song ethos surrounding it. Once that occurred, though, everyone recognized its staggering awfulness, noticed we'd been presented with a cinematic Edsel.

Of course, Kubrick's fans and defenders were quick to protest that the director didn't live to complete his final edit. File that apologia under the heading Grasping at Straws. This was a film so poorly conceived, so inelegantly written, so badly shot, so incompetently lit, so portentously acted, no editing could have salvaged it.

And two of last year's best-selling novels--Juneteenth (attributed to Ralph Ellison) and True at First Light (ostensibly by Ernest Hemingway)--stand out because their authors, highly esteemed novelists both, hadn't actually been numbered among the living for many years. This isn't of minor significance; death, according to conventional Hollywood wisdom, can be a good career move, but it also has a disconcerting tendency to be detrimental to the production of further work.

It's true that with both of these books, critics were unanimous in noting a decline in authorial mastery. But surely that's secondary. The wonder, as Dr. Johnson said about the dog that could walk upright, is that they managed it at all. And even more miraculous, this was Hemingway's third posthumous book! Coming almost 40 years after his death! No wonder he's considered a tough guy.

To be fair, the posthumous production we witnessed last year has ample precedent and shouldn't be viewed as an exclusively millennial phenomenon. Nor is it necessarily a product of crass commercialism, at least not solely. Once we've experienced the complete canon of a favorite artist, it's natural to feel frustration that all the ore has been extracted from that particular lode; it's only human to want more. We're frustrated that Beethoven's 10th symphony and sixth piano concerto exist only in sketches, never to be completed (the former interrupted by death, and the latter abandoned when the composer's deafness made a new vehicle for his virtuosity supererogatory). We want a solution to the murder of Edwin Drood. We want to see Michelangelo's Slaves liberated from their blocks of marble.

But sweet Jesus, what a marketing opportunity! The historical model for the commercial exploitation of posthumous art, along with the resultant controversy, is Mozart's Requiem. Mozart was still composing the piece on his deathbed, and after he died, his widow commissioned his pupil Franz Sussmayr to complete it. When it was offered for publication, she insisted that all that had remained unfinished about the work was a mechanical filling-in any competent hack could accomplish and, further, that her husband had explained to Sussmayr how he intended to proceed with the piece. …

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