Artists, critics, scholars, and those who conduct the business of art are often criticized themselves for using an overly difficult vocabulary when describing works of art. Flip through any contemporary arts magazine or look for ambitious artist's statements when you visit gallery exhibitions and you'll get a full dose of the jargon that has come to be known derisively as artspeak.
Sometimes though, words and ideas do converge to bring clarity about an artist's intent and the creative process. In the case of the social-realist artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), when he came across the following words written by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the meaningful verses stayed with him and inspired his own output during his lifetime.
"For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men, and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents whom one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and did not grasp it (it was joy for someone else); to childhood illnesses that so strangely began with such a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars - and it is not yet enough if one may think of all this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance, and gesture, nameless, and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them." - from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
Ben Shahn on Rilke, art, and creativity:
Alone, now in my thinking, I began to believe that art did, after all, have a mission - certainly not the Beaux-Arts kind of mission, but another one. Its mission was to tell what I felt, to say what I thought, to be my own declaration. I could not accept the current ones; they expressed some other fellow's beliefs and intentions, not mine. Pictures would be my manifesto.
Rilke wrote: "I am learning to see; yes, I am beginning to see." How wonderful! No one could take that away from him. That is the great experience of life. No one would take it away from me either. It is tempting to be part of the avant-garde, it is so exciting to be part of a movement, daring and yet secure. But it is an illusion and it creates within the painter a complacent sense of having done things which in truth he has not done.
The way to painting is a lonely road, a one-man path. It holds no security; it is not cozy. Every moment of painting is a moment of doubting. The only criterion is the criterion of self, of what one wants, what one thinks he believes, his own shaky philosophy. There are no guideposts, no maps, no geography to tell him that he is on the right path. No friend, however sympathetic he may be, can predict the quality or the validity of the image that the painter hopes to bring forth. The only vindication of his course of action is a realized image, a work of art.
I read and was so lured by the manifestos. I avoided them but still with a great nostalgia to participate in the socializing and the ferment that were part of them - of what today would be called "the scene." But I knew they were foreign to me and that in truth there was for me no choice.
I had now long ago found in Rilke the passage that came to mean so much to me. Here was a writer about the processes of art who was not telling me what to do, what to think, how to paint. No; he was too engrossed in his own discoveries. He was sharing with me the doubts and the hesitations of art, the probings, the slow emergence of forms. His every line of writing was art, and yet such art was inseparable from its life content. No manifesto could ever tell me more clearly than this one paragraph of Rilke's that art is an emanation from a person; that it is shaped and formed out of the shape and form of that person. In being so acutely personal to him it achieves also a rare universality. Rilke is speaking (is he not?) to the innermost recesses of the consciousness, an area in which we spend so much of our time and expend so much of our feeling, and yet an area that is so remote from communication with our fellow-beings, an area that is, unhappily, increasingly remote from the reaches of art.