Real thing: Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist, a play about a woman who discovers a potential Pollock
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Mark Lawson: how “keepers of the flame” protect an artist’s legacy

From Larkin’s diaries being burnt to the refusal to acknowledge forgotten Jackson Pollocks, literary and art executors run a tight ship.

The traffic of theatrical hits between Britain and the US is sometimes blocked by failures of cultural translation but an American import that opened earlier this month should have an easy appeal to UK viewers of Antiques Roadshow. Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs dramatises the case of Teri Horton, a former truck driver who bought for $5 in a Californian thrift store a splattered canvas, which a neighbour later attributed to a modern master. Sanitised for cinema frontages, Horton’s reply – “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?” – became the title of a 2006 documentary.

The Californian ex-trucker never got the moment of apotheosis for which Fiona Bruce’s Sunday-evening audience tunes in. Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, declared her possible Pollock “dead on arrival”, even though a forensic expert found what he believed to be Jack the Dripper’s fingerprints on the back of the painting.

In Bakersfield Mist, Horton and Hoving become abstracted portraits – a sensible precaution in times when lives, like works of art, can be copyrighted by their owners – in the form of Maude Gutman (Kathleen Turner), a retiree living on a Californian trailer park, and Lionel Percy (Ian McDiarmid), a Manhattan curator who has been sent on the Pollock estate’s private jet to validate or trash her find.

In the London premiere, Turner has an easier role than McDiarmid because, as on those TV junk shows, we instinctively want Maude’s picture to be worth the $50-100m that provenance would confer on it. While the audience is left to decide whether the picture is a Pollock or not, most may see Percy as the baddie: a ruthless defender of the Pollock market. The estates of major creative figures are generally cast as the enemy of artists’ fans or academic evaluators, becoming caught up in a sort of custody battle over the work and/or life.

One such recent row involved Jonathan Bate, who was initially granted but then refused access to the private papers of Ted Hughes for a planned book about the poet. Bate has suggested that Carol Hughes, the poet’s widow, broke their deal because she feared he might expose private “secrets” but the solicitor for the Hughes estate responded that Bate had strayed from the literary-critical work he had pitched towards a more conventional biography of a kind that Hughes had instructed his heirs to prevent.

The coincidence of Bakersfield Mist and the Bate-Hughes spat focuses attention on the role of cultural gatekeepers. Their major obligation is control of supply and copyrights, although this function differs intriguingly between visual art and literature.

Painters’ estates generally resist new discoveries – apart from the Horton canvas, there is a dispute over 24 other possible Pollocks – while literary executors tend to extend the shelf: vastly more Philip Larkin poems, for example, have been published since he died than when he was alive. Cynics might see in these opposite attitudes a financial motivation: scarcity makes pictures more valuable, while writers earn more money from big backlists.

But executors, like those of Ted Hughes, sometimes stop books coming out because of the other burden on descendants: control of reputation and perception. Ian Hamilton’s book Keepers of the Flame (1992) fascinatingly traced the way in which literary fame has been shaped by protective followers: from the son of John Donne to the poets Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwaite, who serve Larkin.

Hamilton showed how literary posterity was helped, across 350 years, by the strengthening and lengthening of literary copyrights but hindered by the rise, after Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians in 1918, of scandalous and revisionist biographies. The response of authors and their families was to be wary of authorising books about them – Hughes followed T S Eliot in warning off biographers – and to destroy stuff that might help trouble-trufflers. Larkin ordered that his private diaries be burned and Sylvia Plath’s last journal before her suicide was destroyed by Hughes, in his role as her executor (a word to which some writers on Plath have given a different stress).

Running under most legacy controversies is the always problematic question of what a dead person might have wanted. Plath’s final diary would have been a godsend for scholars but would she have wished her children to read it? Why didn’t Larkin have his unpublished poems ignited with the other stuff, rather than trusting to the judgement of his estate? And might not the ghost of Jackson Pollock cackle at the thought of one of his pictures being first sold as scrap and then offered for $50m?

Ian Hamilton’s conclusion was: “No one should burn anything.” I would add that it might be sensible to have more than one flame-keeper. John Updike, for example, appointed his four children and his second wife and as Adam Begley’s excellent biography of the novelist acknowledges the co-operation of the kids but not the widow, it seems there may have been a difference of opinion. But, by spreading the power, Updike ensured that an exemplary writing life was followed by an exemplary “writer’s life”.

“Bakersfield Mist” is at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2, until 30 August

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt