Should artists’ last wishes be honoured?

How should we respond to an artist’s last wishes after they’ve passed away?

Sarah Tunstall
12th March 2022
Vivian Maier self portrait. Image credit: www.flickr.com

This question is quite difficult in its approach, if regarding any other person, you would expect their wishes to be completely honoured and fulfilled but when faced with an artist does the idea of the consumer take over this decision? Can you read a book that the author never intended to be published? Can you listen to a musician’s songs if they never wanted listening platforms to keep playing them? Can you create an exhibition, even in commemoration, if the artist never intended for their art to be shown? Vivian Maier for example and her undeveloped storage of film photography that was found and published later after her death.

Prince, a good example here, pretty much spent most of his life sharing how against he was with the people that controlled the record industry, and now, here we are 5 years after his death, and I have the majority of his catalogue downloaded on my phone from Spotify. From the consumer’s perspective I also think of how Harper Lee didn’t want Go Set a Watchman (the sequel to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird) to be published, yet a year before her death, I see it in my local WH Smiths in hardback. I never read it as I have never read the first book, but I wondered if her dedicated fans respected her wishes to not read it even before she passed away or if the excitement of their favourite author publishing another book got to the best of them. 

Once you start looking at these artists as who they are, people, the continued publishing and ‘celebration’ of them feel wrong. 

If the consumer wants more art, be that from an author, musician, or artist, how far are the wishes of the passed artist followed? You could argue the continuance of publishing books/music, exhibition displays or the selling of art are instead, a commemoration to the artist rather than dismay to their wishes. But once you start looking at these artists as who they are, people, the continued publishing and ‘celebration’ of them feel wrong. 

Would Prince be excited by the new streaming platforms we have? Would Harper Lee forgive her publishers if she saw her fans devour her book? And would Vivian Maier, a childminder in her time, be happy to see her storage pictures hung in a gallery? These are questions I don’t think we can ever really answer.

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