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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 01/24/2000
Column 37

"The matter of creation fascinates me more and more. Not only the definition but the usage and the background of the (?) or a concept. Everybody and his brother is a creator these days. In their own eyes, anyway. I put a little package of recent issues in the mail to you. Something to light a fire in your mind and/or your stove. "
--Robin Snyder, publisher of The Comics.

Thanks for lighting the fire. I've been a while getting back to you on this, but I'd like to recall some lines uttered by a major protagonist of my first novel, The Blowtop, (Dial 1948 )which I'm hoping at long last will see republication as "the first beat novel."

"Once you've created something, it isn't yours anymore." my character declares. He's speaking of his own paintings for which he received meager payment although dealers subsequently soldthem for far greater sums . Of course, Giordano, the character, wasn't talking about property, he was talking about art, his art on which he felt he no longer had any claims. He had produced it. That was essentially enough.

I should also note here too that Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the great art historian and former curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, always made a point of announcing at the beginning of his many distinguished books that anyone who chose could copy and use any of the material in the work, freely and without cost. He'd already been paid, in the joy of creating the work itself. Coomaraswamy was not a wealthy man. He even advised his wife to learn secretarial arts to be self supporting in case he could no longer provide her that support.

You may remember that I mentioned the anthropologist Herbert J Spinden in my An Unlikely Prophet. Spinden was probably the most learned man I'd ever met. He insisted, however that Coomaraswamy with whom he'd worked on an anthropological problem involving, of all things, the banana, was beyond doubt the most learned man he'd ever met. But remember, Coomaraswamy was discussing creation as a spiritual matter. You, it seems to me, are discussing it as property, with an outlook derived from a social system centered around property. In fact, the notion of private property (as opposed to personal property) is rather recent in human history, and arises out of recent non-tribal concepts of self, self aggrandizement and otherness, and really has very little to do with art or the creative process, but rather with anything that can be bought, sold or converted into cash--like celebrity.

But property has nothing special to do with art since anything that's not art can also be considered property. Where does that leave us? For one, the great comedy of complaining writers and artists (and I share their complaints) against the comics publishers in a society where every battleground is shaped by the drive to control property based on arguments about who created what and when.

And may I add that, by great good luck, the new copyright laws that have recently so favored the heirs of Jerry Siegel have also, in a small way, favored yours truly since DC now is sending me a fairly regular series of small checks for reprinted works for which I'd already received a single payment. That was supposed to have been the end of the matter, since this emolument which I was never offered or promised by the old regime of Donnenfeld and Liebowitz (every check from them surrendered, as you well know, all right title and interest in the material once you signed it)-- so I assume that being paid for reprints probably was developed as a basically benevolent policy by the editors of DC, people much closer to the creators and was, in effect, a purely voluntary thing on their part. I refuse to look for more self-serving reasons, although, possibly they exist.

However, with the new copyright law, I now get paid ROYALTIES-- which means, as long as the same works continue to sell, I get paid. Very nice. Is it more fair to the creator? In a property centered society, fairness has little meaning. There are property centered reasons for it. But I'm certainly willing to admit that it's very nice. And I suppose in some ways I'm accidentally indebted to the trial lawyers who achieved what they did for the Siegel heirs.

But all of it has nothing to do with myself as a creator. Creation is a gift of the spirit which like absolute pitch in music, or a sense of composition or color in art (when carefully nurtured) produces soul-stirring work. Even in comics, as we note sadly with the passing of Peanuts.

Aquinas defines art, by the way, as simply the right way of doing things. Ars recto ratio factibilium. Some of the Eastern thinkers I find interesting also tend to advise that we do the work for its own sake not for the sake of fame or material rewards.

Of course this raises the question--doesn't the artist have a right to earn a living by his art? In fact, in almost all societies, the artist was indeed rewarded, the way a craftsman or skilled worker was rewarded because, the deeper satisfaction was presumed to be, in fact, the creation of the work itself. In certain tribal societies, all were considered artists or creators and contributed work to the tribe. In medieval society, artists and craftsmen, banded together in guilds, created the great cathedrals and remained anonymous. Their credit, if you like, lay in the hands of God. In almost all modern societies, it seems, great art tends after a time to become an icon, their creators at last recognized, but largely too late to enjoy financial rewards.

Except for the rewards of having done the work for its own sake. For those who know, the joy of just doing that can be unimaginable. But all works bought for sale or for business reasons, should certainly be paid for. I used to be a member of the National Writers Union. Today, I'm a member of The Authors League. Creators deserve the market value of their product like any skilled worker. This has little to do with whether some of them achieve almost a kind of shamanistic status because of the magic sometimes associated with art, years after the work was done. Such status, coming after the fact in most cases, is a matter for historians. Shakespeare was a journeyman playwright . Writing brought him a living and presumably much more than can be estimated monetarily, such as the joys of inspiration and the magical energy to express his great gifts.

Those who follow popular patterns as in genre writing, or comics or films, are rewarded by the market because they are creating properties, saleable commodities. It seems to be an accepted fact that Shakespeare never got rich. We know Blake didn't. And Mozart ended up in a pauper's grave. So really, I think that your ideas about creators being rewarded are not altogether the point.. Let's say rather that the workman is worthy of his hire. And today while some so-called creators are fabulously rewarded along with those sometimes criminal athletes you speak of, and shoe manufacturers and publicity-personalities (sometimes called celebrities) -- the real creators can sometimes be severely crippled by being monetarily coerced to conform to market standards.

In some instances, I accepted such monetary coercion. I needed the money. But money enabled me to support my major writings which have been difficult to sell. My agent recently received comments from the chief editor at HarperCollins admitting that one of my books was extremely good. important, intelligent, well-written--blah-blah. . . So much so, this candid editor added, that he was concerned about presenting it to his editorial committee, since he didn't think he could persuade them that there would be a mass market for it. So, in effect, it wasn't a viable property, he was saying. And, he added: Schwartz should try one of the quality literary presses.

Well, in the end, I did. And that's how An Unlikely Prophet got published. Of course, it got some fine reviews, but small literary presses don't have the distribution power of the big publishers. So sales haven't exactly touched the sky.

I've another novel, recently mentioned here, a much bigger one both in scope and size. It's so far been "admired" by the big publishers, but again-- to date-- fear of falling short in the mass market is still operating. Would I change it? Not for all the mass markets in the world. There are some things one does for their own sake. This is one of them. Although my agent still thinks, with a little time, he'll get one of the majors to do it. We'll see.

In the meantime, I'll pass on to you some comments made by Professor Morris R. Cohen in one of his philosophy classes I attended in the late 1930s. Cohen knew Einstein and visited him frequently. He told the story of Einstein meeting with a certain well known investment banker.

"And how much money do they pay you?" the banker asked Einstein. "$15,000 a year, " was the reply. The banker expressed his outrage. "For a man like you--such a pittance-- while I get ten times that amount?"

Einstein smiled, clasped his hands and said: "Well--maybe so-- but look at the kind of work you have to do."

To Einstein, who was doing work he loved, it appeared that the banker was being paid for his suffering.

Let's recall Van Gogh. We all know what a difficult time he had surviving just to do his work, and how his brother Theo had to support him. Years after his death, they turned his work into property! The work brought millions. But not to Van Gogh.

I'd like here to recall another struggling artist whom I once knew well. His name was Jackson Pollock. And this I know for certain because I discussed it with him and his equally talented wife, Lee Krasner, many times. I know that Jackson ultimately commoditized his work so that at a certain point while it brought him celebrity (most of the money actually remained in the hands of his sponsor, Peggy Guggenheim), it stopped his work from developing. It became a trick--more coup d'oeil than serious art-- and it probably also killed him.

There's no moral to this story. Just a point of view. My response to your question about creators, credits and recognition. There are important kinds of recognition that never get discussed. They are one of the secrets of the soul.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 01/17/2000 | 01/24/2000 | 01/31/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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