What Makes an Artist: Robert Walser’s Poetic Portrait of the Creative Spirit
“No one who strives to bring new life to something significant should be too quick to abandon the hope that he will succeed…”
By Maria Popova
“Only an artist can tell … what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it,” James Baldwin wrote in his timelessly rewarding essay on how the artist’s struggle illuminates the universal human experience. “Making art is extremely difficult, requiring tremendous courage, enormous sacrifice, great risk,” artist Carrie Mae Weems asserted half a century later in her electrifying SVA commencement address. The poet Mark Strand saw the artist as one tasked with helping the rest of us bear witness to the universe. But what makes one an artist, anyway, and is there some sort of spiritual likeness between artists, the invisible thread of some common psychological archetype binding them together into a cabal of kinship?
That’s what the great Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser (April 15, 1878–December 25, 1956), whom Susan Sontag called “a Paul Klee in prose” and “a good-humored, sweet Beckett,” explores in a magnificent piece titled “The Artist” — a lyrical portrait of and epitaph for the creative spirit, included in the beautiful curated, beautifully translated, beautifully designed Walser anthology Looking at Pictures (public library).
Walser, translated here by Susan Bernofsky, sketches the artistic soul:
He* feels it, that’s all, and that’s how he finds it. He instantly separates the things of the highest importance from the unimportant ones, leaving everything extraneous or illusory to be what it will. He can gather his thoughts in a flash, his mind lucid, his consciousness alert. He is swift to discern what is not a matter of indifference, and for this reason always has both the inclination and cause to be of good cheer. His optimism waxes along with his predisposition to dispense with worry. When others ask: “What now?” and do not know the way forward, he has already found his own. He doesn’t see his path clearly, but also doesn’t consider this absolutely necessary; he strikes out in some direction or other, and one thing leads to the next. All paths lead to lives of some sort, and that’s all he requires, for every life promises a great deal and is replete with possibilities enchantingly fulfilled.
A century after Emerson insisted that the willingness to trust oneself is a centerpiece of genius, Walser depicts the artist as one whose ear is supremely tuned to the inner voice of intuition:
What is fitting is to trust in ourselves and the world. Who feels this better than the artist? When he was poor, he believed more than ever in his abilities; when he began to grow weary, he was urged on more powerfully still by the image and idea that it is beautiful to pull oneself together. No one understands devotion to life, nor exhaustion, better than he, nor that Nature has willed it so, and that true industry and the heartfelt wish to produce work have their source in seasons of inertia.
The artist, most of all, is a creature animated by a peculiar narcissistic vulnerability:
Does anyone know more vividly than he what it means to be utterly satisfied with oneself while at the same time being filled with numerous dissatisfactions? Both feelings lead him ever further on his path… He was always cautious when it came to believing or not believing in his journey, and this preserved him from both hubris and capitulation.
In a bold and necessary counterpoint to the tortured genius myth of creativity and a testament to the central role of failure in art, Walser paints the artist as a mirthful lover and liver of life, undeterred by disappointment:
Always he found talent to be intimately linked to joie de vivre, ability to gaiety, and craftsmanship to human flourishing, and he proceeded accordingly, with sometimes greater, sometimes lesser success and skill. If he failed at something, he did not cast it aside, but instead let it sit for a day, then examined it again, and since he returned to it, deeming it worthy of renewed attention, it proved to be serviceable. Over time, he learned to be patient and gentle, both in life and in his workshop. He owed his happiest hours to this circumstance.
Walser ends on a note that calls to mind Leonard Cohen’s abiding wisdom on knowing when and whether to give up on creative work, and writes:
No one who strives to bring new life to something significant should be too quick to abandon the hope that he will succeed in this endeavor, for that would be a shame…
Complement the thoroughly terrific Looking at Pictures with Walser’s poetic ode to walking, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe on what it means to be an artist, e.e. cummings on the agony of the artist, and some of today’s most celebrated artists on creativity, courage, and how we measure success.
* See Ursula K. Le Guin’s timelessly brilliant commentary on yesteryear’s gendered language
Published July 6, 2016