The Other Columbus: Protect what you create before it’s too late
The work you create can help project your values long after you are gone
I used to be unclear about what I wanted to happen to my work when I died.
As a young writer enamored with the rantings and writings of Harlan Ellison, I thought it would be cool to proclaim that whatever papers and false starts I had should be burned upon my demise. Not that anybody was looking for my work back then. I was still a number of years from publishing a book with an ISBN code or a clue, so the stacks of dot-matrix printed screenplays and short stories didn’t have any discernible value. I’m not convinced they do now, but I’ve seen my way clear of erasing such juvenalia, if for no other reason than to serve as a lesson in growth.
Watching the recently released Netflix documentary “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed” — a film that recounts the life and career of artist Bob Ross, and the machinations behind the industry that has become synonymous with his name — I almost broke my neck shaking my head. Ross was worth $15 million by the time he died of lymphoma at age 52. Upon his death in 1995, a legal battle ensued that, well, not wanting to spoil it all for you, I’ll just say there’s a reason why you can’t just go see one of Ross’ hundreds of original paintings in a gallery, let alone buy one. It was a mess.
Ross’ situation is different from some of the horror stories we’ve heard about famous people who’ve passed away without clear instructions regarding the stewardship of their work. Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin all famously left their fortunes, catalogues and likenesses to the whims of the state, and the battles over who gets to direct their legacies have been epic. Ross’ situation is different in that he was clear in his intentions, but his endgame didn’t play out legally.
Legacy is something I spend a lot of time talking about, mostly because of the work I do with artists, but also because so many of my idols have notoriously bad estates. Ross has become another log on my fire of cautionary tales. I don’t hit artists over the head about estate planning. For most artists, their work will never be more valuable than it is while they’re alive and able to sell it for themselves. Most artists don’t become famous, so most art has no more value than what can be bartered for while they’re here to do the dirty work of commerce.
Legacy isn’t the chief concern of most artists, to their detriment. I try to get artists thinking about what will happen to their work when they’re gone, not because it will garner so much more money, but because their art will largely be all that’s left to embody whatever ideas, values and experiences they may have had in life. Sure, a robust Facebook history might accomplish the same thing, but do you really want to leave the business of your legacy in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk?
Whatever value your work may have in this life or the next, it is paramount that you spend a little time deciding what should happen to it, including who gets to execute those plans on your behalf.
What you create is not just entertainment; it is also a manifestation of your time, as well as a snapshot of the world in which you spent that time. Such context can illuminate not just a gallery, but a worldview, and, perhaps, a life. I don’t know that future generations will get the full measure of Ross’ worldview by buying a paint set with his face emblazoned on the tubes. I imagine he would want people to improve their lives through painting, much like Prince wanted people to build a better world, or Aretha wanted people to appreciate world class musicianship. When you boil down an artist’s work and life to their baseline elements, you can see how your work isn’t so different. And such missions are worth preserving.
If you create something — anything — take some time to think about what such work might do in your stead, as the avatar for your values. Then consider who you trust to carry that work, not simply to the bank, but into a world that sorely needs such values. Put it down. Make it plain. Don’t let anyone convince you that it needs to be complex. Protect your work, yes, but also preserve what your work is capable of changing when you are not here to explain or protect it.