Fame? Rewards? No, Thanks.

Most of us are fascinated by people who are mysterious and even eccentric.  This is especially true of creative artists.  For over a hundred years, the American public has been intrigued by the poet Emily Dickinson, who wrote hundreds of poems, most of which were unpublished during her lifetime.

Emily Dickinson portrait, restored.   From http://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson

Emily Dickinson portrait, restored. From http://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson

We are fascinated for another reason.  I suspect it’s because we all believe in the principle: hard work + dedication = reward.  Most of us expect some kind of compensation for our hard work and sacrifice.  A better job, time off, a raise, or the recognition of our coworkers, friends, and family.   Some of us need rewards on a regular basis.  (Like me.)  These small indulgences might be a piece of chocolate.  (My first choice.)  A frothy cappuccino.  (My second choice.) A juicy hamburger.  A massage. Or, time for yourself.

So, we assume that everyone, including creative artists, seeks public recognition, fame, and fortune as rewards for hard work.  Even though we might acknowledge the burden of fame, which includes the loss of privacy, most of us still see it as desirable or a necessary evil.   So, we think it’s strange to choose anonymity and work without recognition.

I recently discovered two reclusive creative artists in Chicago, whose stunning creative work came to light after their deaths.  Needless to say, I am intrigued by them.

Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for several wealthy Chicago families who had no idea of the treasure hidden in the monumental pile of boxes that filled her attic room.

Vivian Meijer, Self Portrait.

Vivian Maier, Self Portrait. Copyright 2014.  From the Maloof Collection.  http://www.vivianmaier.com/

Her lifework was unearthed only after her death in 2009 by the Chicago historian, John Maloof, who bid on an unclaimed lot being auctioned at a local warehouse.  When he opened the box, he discovered thousands of photographs and undeveloped rolls of film, a collection of hats, and diaries.  Through his efforts, Maier’s scenes of Chicago street life have been widely publicized and exhibited all over the world.  Her street photography is masterful and powerful.  I was fortunate to see her first American exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011 and I have been captivated by her work ever since.  To read more about Vivian Maier and her work, click here.

Portrait, Vivian Maier

Portrait, Vivian Maier.  Copyright 2014. From the Maloof Collection.  http://www.vivianmaier.com

Portrait by Vivian Maier

Portrait by Vivian Maier.  Copyright 2014. From the Maloof Collection.  http://www.vivianmaier.com

I also recommend this fascinating film by John Maloof about the mysterious artist and her work.

The second artist is Henry Darger, whose work was discovered by his landlords right before his death in 1973.  When Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner unlocked Darger’s tiny studio apartment, they found a massive 15,000 page manuscript, hundreds of illustrations and scrapbooks.

Henry Darger's room, from the permanent collection, The Intuit Gallery

Henry Darger’s room, from the permanent collection, The Intuit Gallery

The reclusive Darger, who was their tenant for 43 years, worked as a janitor for most of his adult life and collected trash on the street, so it was a complete surprise that he was also an artist.  Through the efforts of Darger’s landlords, his work has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.

Henry Darger

Henry Darger’s illustration from The Story of Vivian Girls

Darger’s magnum opus consumed his life. It was a massive 15,145-page, single-spaced manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, illustrated with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings.  To create the figures in his drawings, Darger copied or traced cartoons and illustrations, collected over his lifetime in massive used telephone books.  To read more about Darger and his work, click here.

A victim of abuse in his childhood and institutionalized in an asylum after his father’s death, Darger championed children’s rights in his creative work.  He was the subject of Jessica Yu’s documentary “The Realms of the Unreal” released in 2004.

Perhaps in time we’ll discover that these artists sought recognition and never attained it.  Or, perhaps they understood that the creative process is its own reward:

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure,the process is its own reward.–Amelia Earhart

Without a doubt Amelia Earhart’s view is the minority opinion, but I respect it and understand the truth in it.  What do you think?   Could you work without recognition or rewards?  If you need rewards, what are they?

This post was inspired by this week’s photo challenge: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/reward/

35 replies »

  1. Fascinating post, Patti. Amazing to think of the hidden talents that may be all around us, quietly just doing what they do. Thanks for sharing.


    • Hi Jenny. Thanks so much! They are fascinating, aren’t they? They are both called “eccentric”–which says something about how we view people who keep their art private! I appreciate the re-tweet too.–Patti

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, totally fascinating, as people and artists. You are quite right about the culture attitudes betrayed by the use of words like ‘eccentric’. Language is so telling at times. You are welcome for the RT!


  2. Am happy to take the creative journey without recognition: the journey itself is the reward. But pure work? No. For that I must be paid. 😄


    • Hi beeblu! Yes, I make a distinction too between “pure work” and creative work. I have to be paid for “pure work” too! You have made an important distinction! Thanks!–Patti


  3. Thank you for posting this. I like stumbling into the lives of other people in stories like these. It is a bit like when I lived in Chicago, I never knew what I might find when I turned a new corner.


  4. Great post. I have yet to see the movie about Vivian Maier, but must do so. It would be interesting to learn if these two ever sought recognition, or opted to just do their creative work for pure pleasure.


  5. Hi Patti. Today only I was reading about Emily Dickinson and realized that many people receive recognition of their work when they are no longer alive.
    Thanks for sharing these fascinating stories.


  6. Patti, this is so poignant, and thanks for the video of Henry Darger. This is definitely food for thought, as so many creative endeavors are done precisely to get some sort of compensation or recognition. It’s amazing to know that people like these existed, and they were literally alone until the end, because for them it was the only way they could accomplish it.


    • I think it is, this is why I meant to add a little more to my comment yesterday. In the days of Dickinson, Darger, and Maier, (just to name a few), there was absolutely no awareness of mental illness. One does not have to be a family member to help people who isolate themselves, and it is OUR responsibility that many of these people get the help they need. Just like Vivian Maier said in the documentary “the poor cannot afford to get sick”. If people would have been more educated about mental conditions conditions, such as Aspergers and Schizoid personalities, and many, many other mental conditions, these people perhaps would have had access to more services and even government money. Now that a lot more is known about these mental conditions, it is OUR responsibility to make sure these people get a diagnosis. Not so much to put the “label” on them, but to have access to benefits they deserve, and medications to make their life easier. It is definitely a responsibility I think we have to assume now.


      • Absolutely, Maria. There are definitely some cases where people do need help. Like you, I feel it is our responsibility to make sure they get the help they need. In our society, our conception of what is “normal” is also flawed because our definition needs to encompass a wider range of behavior. I think of the high school kids who are ostracized for being “weird” when in fact, they may be highly creative individuals.


  7. I would be very happy to learn and practice any creative process without recognition because the reward is in the process of creating from within.


  8. What an interesting post, Patti.
    Coincidently I have recently seen another post about Vivian Maier’s exposition in Berlin.
    I do like the quote of Amelia Earhart. Is that how most human beings feel? I am sure. Is it how they act? I doubt. Someone always gets on the way of human actions awakening feelings of jealousy, lack of recognition or gratitude, etc. and with that, equally awakening the need for reward. It is the comparison with others that triggers the evaluation of fair value.

    Professionally, I see nothing wrong with expecting rewards and recognition. It comes in the form of fair payment, fair treatment and even praise. I don’t mind that at all.
    Fame is a different animal, which works like the sugar in a chocolate bar.
    If you eat the pure chocolate you enjoy it already, but if you add sugar to it, you want to eat more, and more, and crave for more. Thats where absolute ambition, and absolute power meet to create monsters who will do absolutely anything to not lose power.

    I tend to agree with the joke that most artists need to die to be recognized. Sadly.

    I come from the professional business world, and can affirm that recognition and reward is not always a measure of competence, talent or merit. And one may die without ever being famous, let alone recognized.

    Thanks for this post.


  9. Hi Lucile. You raise some great questions about professional vs. creative rewards. Sadly, I think you’re right–that in the business world reward is meted out sometimes fairly, sometimes not. And I know first hand what it’s like to work for a “monster” who craves power. Ugh. So sad and so maddening at the same time. It’s also so true what you wrote: “It is the comparison with others that triggers the evaluation of fair value.” That is the crux of the problem. If we could be happy with finding inner satisfaction and not external validation, then we’d be a lot better off and a lot happier. Thanks so much for your thoughts!


  10. Argh…trying to drop a line…your animated butterfly photo thing is messing with the server…

    Anyway…heard of the photographer but not the illuminator. Thanks for bringing him to … I give up. Butterfly has frozen the screen 3 or 4 times now. Maybe later. 🙂 I’m sure it’s my server.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fascinating post – I think I saw a documentary on that photographer. I am also intrigued by the creative process. I am not comfortable with the general consensus that artistry & anguish like creativity & suffering go hand-in-hand. Here is a link to mine, I was inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert when I wrote this http://bit.ly/1JHI01P

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Madeline. Thanks so much! I’ll check out your link as well. Yes, I’m reluctant to equate artistry and anguish. I think hard work is involved most of all, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anguish too! Thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

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