Home Arts & Lit Should Private Artworks by Artists be Posthumously Released?

Should Private Artworks by Artists be Posthumously Released?

In light of the recent release of Prince's vault of work, Katie Belej discusses whether work should be published after someone has passed away.

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Almost all of us by now will have read a novel or listened to a song which was left incomplete by its’ creator. An artist may choose not to finish their work but most often it is their death which interrupts their creative process and means their work is unfinished. Should these works be published even if the creator cannot give their consent? More importantly, if works are private do we have the right to make the intimacies of the artist public knowledge?

We must separate an artists private works from those intended for the masses. Novels left unfinished, such as those by french authors Honoré de Balzac or Marcel Proust, formed part of a series and were clearly intended for publication. If the author’s intentions are clear and we can confidently assume that they wanted their works to be added to their published collection, the question becomes more simple to answer.

Does anyone else…have the power to overrule the wish of the creator himself?

However, it is when the author has not wanted to publish their work or if their work is particularly private that the matter becomes more complex. For example, the vault of unreleased music found in world famous pop-star Prince’s house, should arguably be left untouched and he chose not to release these songs. Again, Max Brood, friend and biographer of Franz Kafka, chose to publish unfinished writings of the author, which Kafka had clearly stated he wanted destroyed. Does Max Brood, or anyone else for that matter, have the power to overrule
the wish of the creator himself? There was equal debate over the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s unfinished novels, with scholars believing it not to be in the power of artists’ relatives of publishers to decide what to publish. The version of The Garden of Eden, omitted two-thirds of the original manuscript. However, both Kafka’s and Hemingways’ posthumously published works went on to become iconic in the literary world.

We must also consider the reason why an artist did not want to publish their work. Perhaps like Van Gogh, El Greco, and Paul Cézanne, artists felt they were not appreciated by their societies and shied away from publishing their work. If they knew their work would be adored and celebrated in today’s world perhaps their wishes would have been very different.

Is it fair to unveil the secrets of any other person?

We must also consider work which seemed to have had no intention of being published at all; works like private diaries, such as the famous diary of Anne Frank, or private letters been family members or lovers such as those between Jean Paul Sartre and his life long partner Simone de Beauvoir. We are all private creatures at times and it is frightening to imagine our deepest intimacies being revealed for all to see. Is it fair to unveil the secrets of any other person, be them a renowned artist or not, alive or dead, as surely everyone has the right to keep their private lives private.

However, we could argue that publication of all works, even if undesired is the price the celebrated artist must pay. Perhaps in being blessed with talent, insight and a reputation around the world, the artist is also cursed in that everything he creates will inevitably become available to the public. It would seem so, it would seem it is too tempting to publish any work which we know has been created by a genius. It seems too great a loss to keep something of such importance so private. These private works could, and often do, make a great difference to the studies of academics and in the lives of the artists’ admirers, rendering private works perhaps just too valuable to be kept secret.

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