As Donald Sassoon reminds us in his magisterial The Culture of the Europeans, in the short term the market decides the popularity and importance of an artist.
But in the long term, the market doesn’t decide. There are countless artists now forgotten who were socially feted, richly rewarded and immensely popular in their own time. For instance, who now remembers the famous Victorian photographer Valentine Blanchard? Or the gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe? Or the opera composer/conductor Giacomo Meyerbeer, in his day more famous and far wealthier than Beethoven?
This point is worth remembering in debates about the long-term value of particular works in “the canon.” In the future, our successors may continue to watch and revere the films of Steven Spielberg. Or they may not.
We can get a glimpse of the fate of a wealthy, famous and increasingly forgotten artist in a recent London Review of Books article by Michael Hofman about the German poet Stefan Zweig:
It’s not easy to think of a writer so poorly thought of by his maybe peers, and it can’t all be attributed to envy or resentment of his great inherited wealth, easy success, unproblematic seductions and vast readership.
The rest of the article is a stinging attack on a once-famous writer who died more than 60 years ago … which only goes to show that wealth, fame and literary success will gain you enemies as well as fans. An interesting, if florid read.