Pinned to Jack Kerouac’s wall to inspire his writing: “Art is the highest task and the proper metaphysical activity of this life.”
In 2001 Indianapolis Colt’s owner Jim Irsay purchased the bible of the beat generation, a 120 foot scroll copy of Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript of On the Road. It is currently on display here in San Francisco in our main Public Library.
On the Road is perhaps the most inspirational of all beat literature — it is a classic stream of consciousness, mostly autobiographical tale from seminal beat writer Jack Kerouac. The book is rumored to have been written in a Benzedrine and caffeine induced three week frenzy and, as the physical manuscript supports, was written on a single page from a giant roll of paper. And what better place now to show the manuscript than San Francisco, a city that was central to the entire beat movement.
Although Jack was a great writer, he was also a talented visual artist. According to the book Departed Angels, which presents his paintings and drawings, Kerouac on a number of occasions told friends he would have been a painter if he had not been a writer. “His enthusiasm for art was omnivorous, he drew, he painted, he designed covers for his books, and as he sketched with words, so he sketched with images: organized and deliberate but spontaneous.
So the irony of Jack’s great life as an artist, both as a visual artist and a writer, is that with his great manuscript now on display at the San Francisco *PUBLIC* library you cannot as a photographer and artist take photos of it. I went by the library yesterday excited to view this great manuscript by a hero of mine and excited about using my EF100 macro lens to document this great work and give it my own artistic interpretation, only to be told by the security guard at the library that I was not allowed to photograph the manuscript.
The current owner of the manuscript Jim Irsay, when he purchased the manuscript initially, said that he did not want the scroll locked away as it had been for many years previous. He said that it “belonged to the people.” And yet ironically enough a manuscript in a *public* library that belongs to the public cannot be photographed by his edict. This runs contrary to what Jack would have been about as an artist, runs contrary to the idea of a public library being a place where the public can explore and create art and is disappointing.
When the manuscript was initially put up for sale by Christie’s back in 2001 an article on the scroll of Jack Kerouac by James Eimont cited Christie’s similar objections to the scroll being photographed then citing “copyright issues” and “flash damage.” “One of the gentlemen working at Christie’s was very kind in answering some of my questions. “No, you can’t take a picture of the scroll (copyrights and they don’t want the camera flash to wear out the ink on the paper).”
These types of objections are red herrings. It would be easy enough for the library to prohibit flash photography, while allowing non flash photography. Further, given the size of the document, it would be nearly impossible to photograph the entire thing. At best snippets could be shot with macro lens which might provide a minor passage (something perfectly acceptable to do under copyright law as a quote). A photograph of the entire document would not be legible.
It is a shame that after making my trek to the library I was unable to use my macro lens and shoot this great document. There is so much artistic value to examining close up how the work was created — the pencil edits, the stream of consciousness typing, the age of the important work.
I would have hoped that in a desire to truly return this great document to the “public” that Irsay would not have placed this irrational prohibition on this document. While it is possible for people to come see the scroll when it is on display in major cities to be viewed, there are many people who live in places who will never be able to see the scroll. Letting those people in through the lens of a camera and the eye of an artist would have been ok by Jack and would be something enriching for all people for who Mr. Irsay claims the document now belongs.
I did express my disappointment in the message book that accompanies this great work and hope that Mr. Irsay might reconsider and allow artists to document this great work using non flash photography in the future.