What If You’re Always an ‘Unknown’?

Acclaimed photographer Vivian Maier, novelist Franz Kafka, and painter Vincent Van Gogh were all virtually unknown during their lives. All are today acknowledged as masters. To me, this shifts the debate about building the artist’s “platform” to an entirely different level.

Photographer Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier worked for four decades as a nanny in Chicago. She carried a twin-lens Rolleiflex everywhere and shot what we now describe with initial capitals as “Street Photography.” Her photography was first discovered in boxes bought at auction. The name “Vivian Maier” remained an enigma until after her death, when researcher John Maloof found the name in an obituary during a Google search.

vivian-Meyer-Jeffrey Goldstein collection

This endlessly receding self-portrait of Vivian Maier and her Rolleiflex is from the collection of Jeffrey Goldstein.

An Oscar-nominated documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, tells the story of how her work was uncovered, then recognized as the work of one of the 20th century’s great photographers. In the film, critics tsk about her lack of fame during her lifetime. Neighbors note that her eccentricity devolved into paranoia, hoarding, and homelessness in her final years.

Novelist Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924. He was only 40 years old. He had trained as a lawyer and spent much of his career in the insurance business. A few pieces he wrote were published during his life — including the novella we know in English as Metamorphosis — but were not popular. Most of his known writing was composed as hundreds of letters to friends and family.


Franz Kafka, 1906

The dying Kafka consigned his unpublished manuscripts to a friend with orders that they be destroyed. His friend, and a lover who also retained many volumes of his writing, ignored his directions. We gained a writer considered among the 20th century’s greatest.

Painter Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was not just the distraught and self-endangering artist of legend: he was — in the eyes of his own time — a consistent failure. He failed twice in the attempt to woo and win a wife. He failed as a bookstore clerk, as an art salesman, and as a minister. He turned to painting and failed to earn a living. Even with his art dealer brother backing him, his work would not move. He sold only one painting in his lifetime. He died before the age of 40 of a gunshot wound, self-inflicted “for the good of all.”


Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Since his death, his “Starry Night” has become the most reproduced painting in Western art history.

van gogh starry night mini skirsToday, we so love van Gogh that one of his paintings — “Starry Night”, painted while he was in a psychiatric hospital — is the most reproduced work in all of Western art. You can obtain it as a coffee mug, a laptop skin, wall displays of all sizes … even, appallingly, as a girl’s miniskirt.

Who Lives (Well) on a Platform?

None of these three artists had what we now call “a platform” in their lifetimes. Kafka had relatives he helped support as an insurance bureaucrat. Van Gogh had a brother who gave him money for food, art supplies, and cigarettes. Maier moved from household to household as a nanny, helping to build stability in family systems even though her own life was not traditionally well-established.

The idea that people with important ideas live on platforms is an old one. It goes back at least to the Stylite monks, who lived in isolation on platforms atop tall pillars, starting in the 5th century.

V0017502 Saint Simeon Stylites the elder.

Simeon Stylites the Elder frees a man from a demon (left) in this icon owned by the Wellcome Library, London. When he died in the 5th century, he had lived 37 years on a platform near what is now Aleppo, Syria.

Orthodox Christian humor aside, we do tend to elevate — physically as well as economically — certain people for their ideas and art. My own career as a writer probably took its hardest hit during one of my earliest professional assignments. I was asked to interview a number of local authors to determine their take on a New York times study about how improbable it is for even authors with a published book to make a living by writing.

Most of the interviewees readily concurred. They taught English or helped run a camp or did almost anything to support their writing habits. One, Robert B. Parker, was en route to becoming a consistently published crime novelist after teaching English at a local university. And one, whose name I have chosen to forget and whose work I never chose to read, scornfully told me that anyone who did not make their living as a writer “was not a writer.”

I disagreed at the time. I still disagree. So did my editor at The Boston Phoenix. She headlined my article: “The Myth of the Starving Writer: It’s True.”

Writers write because we have no other choice. Whether we make a living by our art is a matter of timing and other people’s judgments. Would Van Gogh have enjoyed popularity had he been born 100 years later? Or would the web-amplified voices of 21st-century critics have driven him to suicide sooner? We can never know. All we can do is what we must do. What we understand that God is directing us to do. We do what we do knowing that whether or not we are “known” by the community that elevates some who create, we are known by the One who created all things.

Blessings on all who persevere in doing what we must.

The greatest difference between an acknowledged artist and an unknown artist is their income. (Carlene Hill Byron)

About Carlene Hill Byron

The former editor of New England Church Life and The New England Christian, Carlene Hill Byron is enjoying being home in Maine after 20 years in North Carolina. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Find her at christianpurposeblog.wordpress.com, churchandmentalillness.wordpress.com and on Facebook at MyHouseHasHistory.
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