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Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

In Praise of Anonymity

Michelangelo's early works, like those of most artists of his time, went unsigned. No one installed little plaques by the niches they occupied in churches or palaces to identify the sculptor, though people who knew art knew his. It wasn't until he heard someone attribute the Roman Pietà to a rival that he entered St. Peter's in the dead of night and chiseled his name on the stone at the Virgin's feet to claim the credit due.

Intellectual property law has come a long way since then, and we threaten students with explusion and worse for failure to attribute authorship properly. Every year major research universities spend a portion of their budgets settling disputes about stolen credit for ideas, inventions, or discoveries to which a price tag has been attached. Now and then the Arts and Leisure section of a major newspaper reveals another artistic "hoax" or a case of misattributed authorship. The race to identify the structure of DNA and the much bitterer race to claim credit for discovery of the AIDS virus are now famous in the besmirched annals of scientific history.

But the most prolific presence in the history of human endeavor, the one who still gets the prize for the most varied and surprising range of creativity, is old "Anonymous." "Anon," we call him or her affectionately in bibliographies. Anon has produced some of the loveliest moments in the history of the arts: sonnets and statues, illuminated parchments and luminous chants. One of Giotto's nameless apprentices painted a little fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua that exudes a sweetness and truth equal to any of the grander pieces surrounding it: a figure of charity, one hand extended upward, and other downward, where her gaze falls kindly on a kneeling supplicant at her feet. She gave what she received, and was able to do the one because she could do the other. In St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, an almost comic Virgin Mary, carved by some artisan who went home to several children and a potato ...

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