Artists Getting Popular After Death

I started listening to a podcast and it opens by talking about an obscure artist who got popular 40 years after she died. One of her paintings sold for $2.5 million at auction recently. (How obscure was she really? They mentioned she did an NPR interview. That indicates elite social connections. But I can easily believe she didn’t make nearly so much money while alive.)

So I was thinking about why people get popular after they’re dead. There are various reasons. It’s mentioned in Atlas Shrugged. Sometimes it just takes a long time for ideas to catch on and spread. My friend says it’s partly b/c other ppl in the field may like it, appreciate it, and start copying or using some bits and pieces of it. Then once lots of artists have done similar stuff, people will like it (just like how they like songs that they’ve heard 3-5 times) and see it as ahead of its time.

My new thought is this: If you give high social status to someone who is alive, they can use it to say things you don’t like. They can criticize their own fans, disagree with interpretations of their work, and speak out about controversial ideas. I think a lot of obscure artists would have some things to say that mainstream society would have some problems with. Once someone is dead, they’re safe. They no longer have a voice. They can be given high status with no risk they’ll annoy anyone.

It’s a little like if you appoint someone your king/ruler/leader, that’s risky – they might do rules/actions/policies you dislike. But if you appoint a dead person as an honorary king, that’s safe. Respecting dead artists is an honorific that doesn’t cause trouble.

Partly, I think many of the better artists socially sabotage themselves while alive. They annoy people. They’re too critical. They have strong opinions instead of bland ones. They don’t suck up to everyone enough. So that gets in the way of their popularity. Then 10 years after they’re dead, most people forgive and forget that stuff, and there’s no threat it’ll recur, and actually the people who had conflicts with the living artists can now use that to their advantage: they can claim to have been better friends with the artist than they were, and if the artist gets popular they can ride on those coattails a bit. People have an incentive for their former associates/colleagues/friends/etc – even if they kinda disliked them – to get famous after death, so they can step in and speak for the dead person and overstate the relationship.

I do the thing of preventing my own popularity. I annoy people who want to like me by saying they’ve misunderstood me, their claims are wrong, they shouldn’t just accept X and Y while believing a bunch of contradictory stuff – they should also accept my other ideas like Z too. etc. If I was dead, the CritRats would praise and spread my work – and misinterpret it however they wanted with no fear that I’ll contradict them. But they don’t like me being alive. That’s inconvenient for how they want to misuse my work contrary to my goals, intentions, judgment.

If CritRats give me social status today, I can use it against them, criticize them, and spread ideas they dislike. if they gave me social status after I died, they could promote only the ideas they like and ignore the others, and I wouldn’t be a threat to them, so they wouldn’t have the same downsides from promoting my work. If Dennis promotes me today, I might use that attention to attack him, e.g. calling him a plagiarist and demanding he apologize for libeling me. So he doesn’t want me to have any popularity or voice. But once I’m dead, it’s safe for him to promote some of my stuff.

I think this is related to why my own fans won’t praise me or my work much. They don’t want to look like a fool (as they see it) by praising me and then being criticized by me. They don’t want to say my opinion matters when I might use it to say something they don’t like – and even something directly negative for them. It’s hard to say that negative judgments about you don’t matter when they come from someone you just said is smart, wise, etc. Lots of other people who get a bunch of praise from fans are safe to praise, despite being alive, because they predictably only say negative things about the outgroup. And that brings it back to the issue with a lot of obscure artists, that I think is a major reason they stay obscure while alive: they aren’t tribalist social climbers who limit all negative opinions (that they say in public) to the outgroup.

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