The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A): E.E. Cummings on What It Really Means to Be an Artist and His Little-Known Line Drawings
“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.”
By Maria Popova
“You’re an artist when you say you are,” Amanda Palmer offered in her emboldening reflection on the creative life. “And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.” Nearly a century earlier, Sherwood Anderson advised his aspiring-artist son: “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.” But one of the greatest meditations on what art is and isn’t, on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, comes from E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962), whose lesser-known prose enchants very differently and yet by the same mechanism that his celebrated poetry does — by inviting the reader to “pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.”
A concentrated burst of such delight and recognition is delivered in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — a most unusual and satisfying compendium Cummings himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays.” Many of the pieces had been previously published under clever pseudonyms (for instance, “An Ex-Millionaire’s Rules for Success in Life” by a C.E. Niltse, “Success Editor” at Vanity Fair), and a few had appeared anonymously in various magazines. It was originally published as a limited edition in 1958, when Cummings was sixty-four, and reissued three years after his death to include a number of the author’s previously unseen line drawings — a fine addition to the canon of great authors with lesser-known talents in other fields, including Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly studies, J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age etchings, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors.
With his usual mischievous charisma and elegant acrobatics oscillating between wit and wisdom, Cummings writes in the preface to the original edition:
Taken ensemble, the forty-nine astonish and cheer and enlighten their progenitor. He’s astonished that, as nearly as anyone can make out, I wrote them. He’s cheered because, while re-reading them, I’ve encountered a great deal of liveliness and nothing dead. Last but not least; he’s enlightened via the realization that, whereas times can merely change, an individual may grow.
One of the finest pieces in the collection — an exquisite wellspring of such lively growth — is a satirical yet remarkably profound essay titled “The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A),” originally published in Vanity Fair in 1927 under Cummings’s own name. (A name the capitalization of which has itself been the subject of much misunderstanding.)
Cummings begins by a humorous taxonomy of the three types of artists:
First we have the ultrasuccessful artist, comprising two equally insincere groups: “commercial artists,” who concoct almost priceless pictures for advertising purposes, and “fashionable portrait painters,” who receive incredible sums for making unbeautifully rich women look richly beautiful. Very few people, of course, can attain the heights of commercial and fashionable art. Next we have the thousands upon thousands of “academicians” — patient, plodding, platitudinous persons, whose loftiest aim is to do something which “looks just like” something else and who are quite content so long as this undangerous privilege is vouchsafed them. Finally there exists a species, properly designated as the Artist (with capital A) which differs radically from the ultrasuccessful type and the academic type. On the one hand, your Artist has nothing to do with success, his ultimate function being neither to perpetuate the jeweled neck of Mrs. O. Howe Thingumbob nor yet to assassinate dandruff. On the other hand he bears no likeness to the tranquil academician — for your Artist is not tranquil; he is in agony.
Cummings considers the source of the Artist’s disquiet:
Most people merely accept this agony of the Artist, as they accept evolution. The rest move their minds to the extent of supposing that anybody with Art school training, plus “temperament” — or a flair for agony — may become an Artist. In other words, the Artist is thought to be an unsublimated academician; a noncommercial, anti-fashionable painter who, instead of taking things easily, suffers from a tendency to set the world on fire and an extreme sensibility to injustice. Can this be true? If not, what makes an Artist and in what does an Artist’s agony consist?
The agony, Cummings argues, has to do with the path one takes to becoming a capital-A Artist. Half a century before Teresita Fernandez’s spectacular commencement address on what it really means to be an artist, Cummings jeers at the misleading cultural narratives about that path:
You may have always secretly admired poor Uncle Henry who, after suddenly threatening to become an Artist with a capital A, inadvertently drank himself to death with a small d instead… Or both you and I may have previously decided to become everything except Artists, without actually having become anything whatever. Briefly, a person may decide to become an Artist for innumerable reasons of great psychological importance; but what interests us is the consequences, not the causes, of our decisions to become Artists.
The obvious decision for those who decide to become Artists, Cummings notes as he sets up his wry critique of standard education, is to go to Art school:
Must not people learn Art, just as people learn electricity or plumbing or anything else, for that matter? Of course, Art is different from electricity and plumbing, in that anybody can become an electrician or a plumber, whereas only people with temperament may become Artists. Nevertheless, there are some things which even people with temperament must know before they become Artists and these are the secrets which are revealed at Art school (how to paint a landscape correctly, how to make a face look like someone, what colors to mix with other colors, which way to sharpen pencils, etc.). Only when a person with temperament has thoroughly mastered all this invaluable information can he begin to create his own hook. If you and I didn’t absorb these fundamentals, reader, we could never become Artists, no matter how temperamental we were.
But the travesty of the system, Cummings points out, is that at Art school the future capital-A artist ends up at the mercy of the “academician” who learned from the “fashionable portrait painter.” The future Artist is being taught technique by “the renowned Mr. Z, who was formerly a pupil of the great Y,” who in turn “studied at various times under X, W and V and only came into the full possession of his own great powers shortly before his untimely death.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Pete Seeger’s assertion that all artists are “links in a chain,” Cummings concludes:
We are not really studying with Mr. Z at all. We are really studying through Mr. Z.
He then turns to the prevalent notion, perhaps best captured by Anaïs Nin and tightly woven into the mythology of genius, that temperamental excess is essential for creativity:
If you and I didn’t have temperament, we should now become ordinary humdrum academicians. But, being temperamental, we scorn all forms of academic guidance and throw ourselves on the world, eager to suffer — eager to become, through agony, Artists with capital A.
He considers the particular problem of the American artist:
Our next problem is to find the necessary agony. Where is it, gentle reader?
Your answer: the agony lies in the fact that we stand no chance of being appreciated… Not only is there a complete absence of taste anent the domestic product, but once an Artist is found guilty of being a native of the richest country on earth he must choose between spiritual prostitution and physical starvation. What monstrous injustice!
Let me show you a painting which cost the purchaser a mere trifle and which is the work (or better, play) of some illiterate peasant who never dreamed of value and perspective. How would you category this bit of anonymity? Is it beautiful? You do not hesitate: yes. Is it Art? You reply: it is primitive, instinctive, or uncivilized Art. Being “uncivilized,” the Art of this nameless painter is immeasurably inferior to the civilized Art of painters like ourselves, is it not? You object: primitive Art cannot be judged by the same standards as civilized Art. But tell me, how can you, having graduated from an Art school, feel anything but scorn for such a childish daub? Once more you object: this primitive design has an intrinsic rhythm, a life of its own, it is therefore Art.
And therein lies Cummings’s most serious — solemn, even — point: That what we learn about art through formulaic instruction takes us further away from what Jeanette Winterson aptly termed “the paradox of active surrender” which art asks of us in order to work us over with its transformative power. In a passage that could well be the Modernist’s manifesto, Cummings considers what ordains that hypothetical peasant’s painting capital-A Art:
It is Art because it is alive. It proves that, if you and I are to create at all, we must create with today and let all the Art schools and Medicis in the universe go hang themselves with yesterday’s rope. It teaches us that we have made a profound error in trying to learn Art, since whatever Art stands for is whatever cannot be learned. Indeed, the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself; and the agony of the Artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover and appreciate him, arises from his own personal struggle to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself.
This condition — which the wise and wonderful Ann Truitt would come to capture perfectly two decades later in considering the difference being doing art and being an artist, asserting that “artists have no choice but to express their lives” — is the sole requirement of being a capital-A Artist. With an eye toward a far more luminous and liberating definition of success, Cummings urges:
Look into yourself, reader, for you must find Art there, if at all… Art is not something which may or may not be acquired, it is something which you are not or which you are. If a thorough search of yourself fails to reveal the presence of this something, you may be perfectly sure that no amount of striving, academic or otherwise, can bring it into your life. But if you are this something — then, gentle reader, no amount of discrimination and misapprehension can possibly prevent you from becoming an Artist. To be sure, you will not encounter “success,” but you will experience what is a thousand times sweeter than “success.” You will know that when all’s said and done (and the very biggest Butter Baron has bought the very last and least Velasquez) “to become an Artist” means nothing: whereas to become alive, or one’s self, means everything.
Or, as Sherwood Anderson wrote three decades earlier his magnificent letter of life-advice to his son, “The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you may live.”
E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised is, sadly, out of print — but it’s well worth the hunt. Complement it with Susan Cheever’s spectacular biography of Cummings and the unusual story of the fairy tales he wrote for his only daughter, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe’s exquisite letter on success and what it means to be an artist and some of today’s most prominent artists contemplating this slippery subject.