Last year the world community of fine art dealers was scandalized by the discovery of a major abstract expressionist painter, ranking with de Kooning and Rothko, who had been working for forty years in total obscurity. By "total obscurity" I mean that Harold Shapinsky had from time to time tried to get gallery owners and museum curators to look at his work; after repeated [quoteright]rebuffs, he had given up and retreated to a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, where he painted on paper because he was too poor to afford canvas. Last May, on his sixtieth birthday, Shapinsky finally achieved his first public show anywhere. All of his paintings sold easily, at around $20,000 apiece.
The story of how Harold Shapinsky finally came to the attention of the commercial art dealers — an intricate series of inspirations and coincidences worthy of O. Henry — is told by Lawrence Weschler in The New Yorker for December 16, 1985. It is too detailed to recount here. But one persistent motif stands out. It is the massive reluc- tance of the art professionals to take the time just to glance at a few slides of his work (much less examine the work itself), followed by their frantic excitement after they had been somehow induced to look.
The stone wall against which Shapinsky butted his head, until he finally gave up, was not a lack of appreciation of his work. Every knowledgeable dealer who finally saw it liked it. His stone wall was more structural; it was everyone's refusal to merely consider his work on its merits. I call this the "automatic rejection slip."
For eleven years an unknown writer named Toole sent a book manuscript to virtually every American publisher, with no results. In despair, he killed himself. His mother then took up the quest, finally talking a university press into bringing it out. In 1980 the book, A Confederacy of Dunces, won the Pulitzer Prize. Once the automatic rejection slip had been overcome, it became eligible for serious evaluation.
To verify this phenomenon, a freelance writer named Chuck Ross laboriously typed into manuscript Jerzy Kosinski's Steps, a novel that had won the National Book Award. He changed its title and authorship and sent it to fourteen publishers and thirteen literary agents. The manuscript was curtly rejected by all, including its original publisher.
Chester Carlson offered his xerography patents to seven large firms, including Kodak and IBM, before Haloid corporation picked them up. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Proust had to self-publish Swann's Way... and so on. The list of works by unknown creators that have become great successes after being automatically rejected is a long one.
Of course the Automatic Rejectors offer explanations on their side. Proust's writing, for example, is undoubtedly wordy. Andre Gide, who evaluated Swann for the Nouvelle Revue Française later explained somewhat lamely that he thought Proust was a "social butterfly" and had only glanced at his manuscript. The companies that rejected xerography knew nothing of the potential market for copiers. And we all know that Van Gogh was ahead of his time. But such rationalizations won't wash in the cases of Shapinsky the painter, or Toole the novelist, or Kosinsky's manuscript. Their creations, once given respectability, were hailed by essentially the same crowd that had automatically rejected them earlier.
What happens here? While in theory every creative work should have absolute value, inhering in it even when it is found "washed up on the beach," in fact this is not so. Connoisseurs speak of "provenance" and "historical patina," meaning those factors of authorship or circumstances that add to its value. Strip them away, and many works become no longer recognizable. A dealer who handles only works of familiar provenance will find it natural to reject them out of hand.
Thus the folklore of the "over-the-transom" manuscript, the starving artist's painting, the crackpot invention. We don't want to know them because we never knew their parents.
After the success of Proust's work, Gide wrote a public apology for ignoring it. One wonders how much remorse was experienced by the Kodak executives that rejected xerography or the New York gallery owners that missed their chance to handle Shapinsky. Was it sufficient to convince them to spend a few more minutes with the next unknown who demands their time? Probably not. They can argue that cases of that sort come along only once or twice in a lifetime. But that leaves an important question open: do they come along infrequently because unknowns do not do good work, or is it rather that a large proportion of good work by unknowns becomes permanently buried by the automatic rejection slip? All the works I have cited survived it; how many did not? This is a question worth thinking about.
We are all Automatic Rejectors at least once in a while. When was the last time you passed up a movie because it didn't feature a big-name star? Or turned off the classical music station when they announced a work by a composer you never heard of? Guilty, Your Honor.
The fact is that there is a lot of junk produced by knowns, as well as by unknowns. Take book publishing, for instance. At best, a good provenance does not guarantee quality; it only makes it more likely. Sydney Smith was perhaps optimistic when he said that everyone has at least one book in him. But if only a fraction of those books saw the light of day, what riches might appear! In this decade, however, the chances for them grow slimmer every year. The institutionalization of publishing as a branch of the entertainment industry has closed off many of the traditional opportunities for unknown writers. Automatic rejection is the order of the day.
By the way, as an editor I am sometimes subject to the temptation to hand out automatic rejection slips. But for me this temptation is easy to resist. Most submissions to THE ECPHORIZER come from unknowns — in fact, we encourage such contributions. So I read everything and try to judge it on its merits. If the day ever comes that our typical author comes from the Times best-seller list, then maybe I too will start sending out automatic rejection slips to the ones I don't recognize. Let's hope that's never.
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