Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity

In the room of a poet in disgrace. 36"×24".
Oil on canvas February 2013
Back in February, I started writing about the life of an artist and its relationship to Art itself. I want to return to that conversation today, with Rainer Maria Rilke's take on this question. I wrote about his "Letters to a Young Poet" a couple of weeks ago, focusing mainly on his advice about how to decide whether you are an artist: namely, to ask yourself whether you absolutely must do this (write, or paint, or whatever it is that you want to do). But he continues: 

"And if the answer should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple "I must", then build your life according to this necessity; your life must, right to its most unimportant and insignificant hour, become a token and a witness of this impulse." (Rainer Maria Rilke. "Letters to a Young Poet", Letter I).

At first glance, this seems to be in direct, glaring contradiction with Alexander Pushkin's view I pulled into the conversation back in February

As long as Apollo does not call the poet for holy sacrifice, he is cowardly immersed in vain worries of this world. His sacred lyre is silent, his soul cold and asleep; and he might be the very least amongst the miserable children of this world. 
And yet, the more I think about it, the more I suspect that the contradiction is superficial, and has to do, first and foremost, with the context and the intended addressee of these texts: one, a private advice to a young man who might turn out to be a poet, the other, a public appeal to the society, to its rich, powerful, and popular; an appeal, to put it plainly, to leave the poet alone with their gossip, their stupid conventions, their shallow judgements. 

"I don't care about your opinions", -- says Pushkin, -- "Apollo is the only one I answer to". And that is is exactly the advice Rilke gives to his young correspondent:

"A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other. [...] Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take your fate upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking for that reward which might come from without." (Rainer Maria Rilke. "Letters to a Young Poet", Letter I).

Because what Pushkin refers to as "Apollo's call" and what Rilke refers to as "necessity" are obviously one and the same thing.  
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