Lasting Worth

It’s often been said that no artist can be truly and accurately judged in his or her own lifetime… and I think that there’s a great deal of truth in that,

Neither Shakespeare nor Mozart were considered the leaders in their fields at the times of their deaths, as I’ve noted before.  And of the two Cassatts of the nineteenth century, the “colossus” was considered to be Alexander, the president of the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad, while his sister Mary was an artistic dabbler.  Today, only economic historians know about Alexander, while almost every art student knows about Mary Cassatt, the American impressionist.  Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime;  today his works are worth millions.  Almost no one knew anything about the poet Emily Dickinson in her lifetime.  Her works are quoted everywhere, and many of her poems have been set to music.

The same lack of “present-day” appreciation exists outside the area of artistic endeavor as well. For example, perhaps the only town in Japan to face the worst of the recent tsunami and survive was the fishing town of Fudai, thanks to the dogged persistence of Kotaku Wamura, a ten term former mayor who survived the devastating 1933 tsunami as a youth and who spent almost thirty years lobbying and finally getting built a more than fifty foot high seawall and an equally high and massive set of floodgates.  His insistence on building such tall structures was regarded as an expensive folly when they were completed in the late 1970s, but Fudai survived with all buildings intact, if some ended a little damp, at a time when virtually every other town and city in the path of the tsunami was reduced to rubble.  Wamura endured scorn and ridicule for his projects and died before he could see how they saved his beloved home town and its people.

As in so many instances, the man was not fully appreciated until long after his death, and in his lifetime, his floodgates were doubtless decried as not “cost-effective” – or whatever the equivalent Japanese economic jargon might be.  The projects cost an equivalent of $30 million in 2011 dollars, and they saved more than 3,000 lives and all the buildings in the town.  U.S. economists reckon that, in safety and environmental terms, it’s not cost-effective to implement measures that exceed from $250,000 to $1,000,000 per life saved. Even at the lower end of that scale, Wamura’s seawall and floodgates “saved” $700 million in life-costs, not to mention the rebuilding costs.

So… why is it that we so often praise those whose works and deeds do not endure and ignore those whose deeds and works have a lasting impact?

5 thoughts on “Lasting Worth”

  1. Sam says:

    “So… why is it that we so often praise those whose works and deeds do no endure and ignore those whose deeds and works have a lasting impact?”

    Isn’t this question somewhat of a false syllogism along the lines below?

    1. All cats have four legs
    2. My dog has four legs
    3. Therefore, my dog is a cat.

    The question suggests that more praise is given to the ephemeral than to the lasting. Which may be true up to a point. What may also be true is that ephemeral works throughout history vastly outnumber lasting ones and that far more ephemeral works are ignored than are lasting works.

    Also I wonder about lasting impact. Shakespeare is remembered today but will he be remembered a thousand years from now? A million? A few hundred years isn’t that much in the scheme of things. Nor even a few thousand. Time will erode the significance of anyone’s contribution eventually.

  2. Richard Hamilton says:

    “many of her poems have been set to music”

    “Any Emily Dickinson poem can be sung to the tune of the Yellow Rose of Texas.” – Dodger (Babylon 5)

    But to the point – why should one expect that the fullness of a person’s works be recognized or appreciated until they’re dead and buried for at least a generation? A book isn’t done until the cover is on, and usually isn’t understood on first reading.

  3. Nate says:

    The interesting thing about Shakespeare is that he had no ideas or intention of creating a body of work that would last longer than him. He only ever published a handful of plays. If it wasn’t for the efforts of two of the actors in his company, John Heminges and Henry Condell, the first folio would never have existed and Shakespeare would only be a footnote in theatre history textbooks.

    Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes are the most famous Greek playwrights, but really the only reason that they are more famous than all the others is that we have extant plays written by them.

    Mastery of the craft is a necessity and so is a certain touch of genius, but one of the most painful recognitions that I have made over the years is that even with both, you still need luck to make it big.

  4. christoph says:

    I think in many cases, it’s the same expression of truth we appreciate in retrospect that inhibits the appreciation of contemporaries.

  5. Janus Daniels says:

    Thank you for mentioning Kotaku Wamura, a whistleblower who made himself a builder as well. Worse than what you’ve written, many people make essential contributions, and never receive any recognition at all. Perhaps the Internet has room for memorials to people who we need to remember.

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