Why buy the cow?

I like Kurt Vonnegut’s work a lot.

I’m not unique in this regard, of course. Vonnegut, with his darkly humorous satire is arguably one of the most important and well-read contemporary American writers.

Still, as I was seeking out tattoo ideas to mark the occasion of turning 40, having a second child, and surviving a couple years of what now seems an infinite pandemic, I returned to the work of one of my favourite authors and had “So it goes,” a quote from his seminal 1969 anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, inscribed on my forearm.

I am, again, not unique in this regard. Turns out this is kind of a popular tattoo.

So it goes.

The same year, knowing of my fondness for Vonnegut, my younger brother Tim sent me a first edition copy of Vonnegut’s 1982 book Deadeye Dick from Regina where he lives with his partner Marika and a couple dogs. Deadeye Dick was actually the first Vonnegut book I ever read and then I worked backward to consume essentially all his works.

Having never seen the first edition of this book, I didn’t realize that the dust jacket for it features a fantastic image of Vonnegut stretched out on his couch, glasses off, newspaper on the ground beside him, his dog on his lap, napping.

This picture, I realized, would be an amazing addition to my office. I am now essentially 100% remote and recently converted a guest bedroom in our home into my office. The space features a couch where, from time to time, I sneak 20 minutes of shut eye between meetings. Vonnegut, snoozing with his dog on his couch, would look perfect hanging above my own napping space.

I told my brother, who shares my affinity for Vonnegut and who once worked in a busy copy shop in Montreal, about the cool image inside the book he bought me. When I told him I’d love to hang it, he suggested I might simply go to a local Kinkos, have the image copied and enlarged, and frame it. It was the kind of thing he’d helped dozens of people do to create artworks for their own spaces.

I had some qualms.

I fairly recently opened up a debate about a similar project and the results were polarizing. I had found a piece of art I really liked, but it was by an artist who routinely sells her work for tens of thousands of dollars. Given that I’m not Diddy, this is a little out of my price range for something that would hang in my office — a space that literally only I see in real life. Maybe, I thought, I might attempt a crude copy of the work myself, using a canvas and looking at and copying the original. Obviously it wouldn’t be as good, but it would be a fraction of the cost, and I’m always up for a project.

When I told my wife my plan, she frowned. “Don’t you always say people should get paid for their work?” Which is true, but I hadn’t actually considered what I was proposing in the same ballpark. I was not, I posited, co-opting someone’s artwork, asking for written work in exchange for “exposure” or, to use a reference relevant to this blog’s usual content, asking for free beer for an event and framing it as marketing. I was suggesting I crudely replicate a piece of art; almost in tribute. I wasn’t seeking to gain financially. I wouldn’t be showcasing the work. This didn’t seem any different to me than playing someone else’s song on the guitar. My wife disagreed.

And so, as I tend to do, I took the conversation to social media to poll people. I was fairly shocked at the intensity with which people weighed in to say that what I was doing was basically stealing. A handful essentially said go for it, but resoundingly, the general consensus was “not cool, dude.” (Though one friend confessed that he routinely sends images of art he likes to China, where an entire industry — and city! — has evolved creating low-cost fakes. I have since found a fascinating podcast on the subject, here.)

For me, it raised a curious question about where one might draw the line. It’s true that I firmly believe artists, writers, creators –really any one — should be payed for their work, and I think they ought to command a fair price; which I define as “whatever people are willing to pay”). But does that then mean enjoyment of these works become limited to those who can afford it? What if there are no authorized prints available? Can I create my own? Do I have to have an asterisk on it?

And so, freshly stinging from being rebuked on Instagram about my proposed counterfeit efforts, I sought out the photographer who had snapped the image of Kurt Vonnegut and discovered that it was taken by Jill Krementz.

Krementz was a photographer for for the New York Herald-Tribune. Her work has been featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and she later specialized in photographing writers. She captured over 800 authors starting in the 1970s, essentially making her the most prolific photographic profiler of authors in America.

She was also, it turns out, married to Kurt Vonnegut from 1979 until his death in 2007. She snapped the napping couch picture of her husband and their dog, Pumpkin, in 1982.

She’s also very much alive. And so I made an effort to find her and succeeded in connecting with her first on facebook, and then via email. I confessed my adoration of her late husband’s work and let her know of my plans to hang the image and my desire to find her in an effort to pay artists what they are worth.

Ms. Krementz enthusiastically let me know that I could, of course, have a vintage 8 x 10 print, signed and dated for the nominal fee of be $3000, plus shipping.

This isn’t exactly in my home office décor budget, but, because she is arguably the most famous photographer of authors, offering to sell me an image she took of her late husband, arguably one of the most famous American authors of all time, this is probably a pretty fair price and certainly one she can and should seek out for her work.

I have no qualms with Jill Krementz asking for $3000 for the very cool print and I am glad I reached out to her to ask the price. I can also say I’ve had the experience of corresponding with a famous photographer — and the widow of one of my favourite authors no less.

And I’ve still got a blank wall above the couch in my office.

So it goes.

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