The Artist as Worker

Rilke would never have understood the current desire to merge commerce and creativity.

Neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying.
—T.S. Eliot

In his remarkable book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton writes, “In a meritocratic world in which well-paid jobs [can] be secured only through native intelligence and ability, money [begins] to look like a sound signifier of character. The rich are not only wealthier, it seem[s]; they might actually be plain better.” Characteristically canny and concise, Botton articulates a dilemma at the heart of any life dedicated to inspiration over income, creativity over commerce. In my life, that dedication is art—namely, literature—or more namely, fiction writing. The economic hazards of art-making cannot be overestimated, and since fiction writing, next to poetry, is the least lucrative of the arts (in my past three years of sustained work I've earned virtually nothing), the writer or aspiring writer is peculiarly charged to accept, and over time even affirm, a condition of impecuniousness. Wildly lucky name-grade novelists notwithstanding, most writers—even those with one or more novels to their credit—must labor, often for years, sans payment. In our increasingly doctrinaire publishing climate, even the finest among us labor without any guarantee of eventual publication or income. The greater number of literature's real practitioners (those who have not let cynicism or status anxiety eat away their gifts) work under such conditions. To paraphrase Emerson on the subject of his ideal American scholar, these artists ply the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. But being cashless and devoid of cachet, they are, according to the meritocracy, inferior to those who earn their keep. Lesser intelligences—or weaker wills—they appear to be (we might as well say it) apostate Americans. Can what they do be classed, by any stretch of the imagination, as work?

“One has to be poor unto the tenth generation,” said the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “One has to be able at every moment to place one's hand on the earth like the first human being.” Writing these words in 1907, Rilke had already created some of the world's most beautiful poems, and yet he was unknown and would remain impoverished. Why ever would a writer work for years on end at something unlikely to lead to success? A natural question, considering our current zeitgeist, in which art is increasingly classified as a career. Witness the “professionalization” of literature through this country's numerous creative writing degree programs (822 of them, by Louis Menand's reckoning in the New Yorker last year), through high-profile book tours, astronomical author advances, chic Upper East Side publication-day soirees, and rampant self-promotion. Given this obsession with social ambition and the acquisition of institutionally ratified “skill,” even in the literary arts, the young working novelist who fails to prove upwardly mobile begins to look socially suspect and perhaps delusional—not only to the culture at large, but within the literary “industry” itself.

We've come a long cultural distance from Rilke, for whom economic betterment and art were never a unitary whole—and were never expected to be. To him, adept in displacement and deprivation, art meant always beginning anew. Art was loneliness, day labor, obedience, patience. Art was, as the poet's alter ego Malte Laurids Brigge puts it, “making use of the fact that no one knows you.” Rilke had come of age in fin-de-siècle Europe and was one of the last to embody the role of full-time artist as known in Europe's patronage system for centuries. Although he forever lacked secure financial footing, he had—more significantly—the ears, empathy, and encouragement of a few generous aficionados.

In our very different era, it's no surprise that Rilke-bashing has become an irresistible sport among the literati. Commentators swarm to accuse the poet of posing in order to curry favor with the cultured rich of his day or to dodge his domestic responsibilities. Surely no one could be that “poetic,” that irrationally sensitive, that desperate for solitude and indifferent to advancement. Raking Rilke's personal life for damage done to others, these decriers pronounce him: “Toxic company” (Clive James); “Selfish, snobbish, and decidedly unsympathetic” (Sven Birkerts); “A cold and calculating egotist, covering his selfishness with the royal robes of art” (William Gass); “A coward, a psychic vampire, a crybaby ... and a virtual parody of the soulful artiste” (Michael Dirda, the Washington Post); Rilke, we are told, “lived a life full of evasions and betrayals ... [and] was not a strong soul” (Brian Phillips, the New Republic).

But just take a turn through Rilke's letters, where his agonizing confessional manner is everywhere apparent, and the idea of some seductive Rilkean villainy becomes roundly absurd. All his life, Rilke affirmed—openly—to all who knew him that his aloofness, solitude, and absent interest in career allowed him to create his best poetic works, several of which we now celebrate as being among the greatest in the world. From earliest youth his “pose” never faltered, in which case we cannot call it a pose. As for Rilke's friends and loved ones, whether by natural sympathy or by dint of his painfully honest testimonials in his letters and books, they did not resent him his predilections. And they weren't simply dupes. They understood him.

More than specious moral revulsion, the contempt heaped upon Rilke today reveals that a wholehearted betrothal to one's non-remunerative and non-popularizing art as work is becoming, in a sense both personal and sociological, purely anachronistic (not to mention the patronage of such work). It appears we're at risk, artist and non-artist alike, of conclusively forgetting a civilizational truth postulated nicely by art historian Kenneth Clark: “It is sometimes through the willful, superfluous actions of individuals that societies discover their powers.” In America it has always been the spiritual task of the artist to defend his art to a private self who wished it to be more notable or remunerative; today's task increasingly means defending one's art to a culture that expects it to be those things and more.

Whether you come to the desk as a writer in secondhand clothes or a CEO in clover, your prescribed oracle is now the same: the dollar. You have before you, like everybody else, the great playing field of the competitive marketplace. You must put your shoulder to the fray and reap a respectable yearly income—or, failing that, at least amass conspicuous honors, appointments, grants, awards—else admit that what you do is not really work. A hobby, maybe, this words-on-paper business. A spinsterish diversion that is quaint and slightly embarrassing in its Victorian echoes. Not work. Artists of late, enthusiastically subscribing to the “career track,” offer collusion with and reinforcement of the new pragmatism. As Eric Larsen notes in his fulminating treatise A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit, “Inner and outer, public and private, artwork and ad, conscience and collaboration” have never been so interchangeable. What is your mission statement? What are your credentials? Art-making, we're all led to understand, is not a way of life, a calling, a sacrificial act—we've grown up since the age of Rilke's Europe, of mollycoddling “the imagination”; we've learned self-respect. Red-eyed, brain-sore, hunchbacked novelist, ask thy bank account whether you're wasting your time; ask thy “reputation;” heed their replies. Doth they whisper: “Earn thy MFA!” “Get thee a teaching job!” “Network more!” Then jump to it or jump ship.

Says critic Lee Siegel in his book Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, “The general anxiety now is that if you don't have a gallery, a movie about to be released, or a six-figure advance for a book soon after college, you have bungled opportunities previously unknown to humankind.... Instead of the artist patiently surrendering his ego to the work, he uses his ego to rapidly direct the work ... toward the success that seems to be diffused all around him like sunshine.” Siegel's bright-eyed hankerer, to continue an admittedly hyperbolic tone, is a capitalist stand-in for the spirited artist of old—a kind of new literary forty-niner, brain ablaze with Fifth Avenue rumors of the latest Big Deal, the who's who of agents, bestseller lists and film options, eager to demonstrate the skills of self-promotion, of being interesting—or even better, incendiary—in interviews. I find it hard to imagine the injunction of John Keats, one of literary history's great unprivileged, having any relevance in such a racket: “The genius of Poetry [read: art] must work out its own salvation in a man; it cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself—that which is creative must create itself.”

No doubt our forty-niner meets with Keats in literature class, yet how remote in their comparatively simple epochs the great dead ones can seem, how altitudinously ensconced, their fame assured to attentive posterity. Keats went to the grave a definitive pauper, convinced of his life's failure. But anthologized beside Byron and Shelley, the Keatsian life-work loses, in some alarming way, this frame of chronic indigence, anonymity, and day-to-day anxiety. Once you're dealing with canonized art, as John Dewey cautions in Art As Experience, it tends to become all but divorced from the often-fretful “human conditions under which it was brought into being.” We tend to forget that Ezra Pound earned less than two dollars a year in royalties. And if it's true that the generations have pasted onto these bygone lives an assurance of literary immortality that in their own perplexed time the likes of Keats and Pound never came near to feeling, then the latter-day student is apt to adopt some confused presumptions about the nature of art and artistic success. Once stripped of their poverty, obscurity, and the painful solitude that gave rise to their works, our long-dead artists can no longer whisper—in their true, often tormented voices—to the artists yet to come.

Deaf to the counsel of these artistic forebears, career-hungry, and crisply certified in the skill set of a genre, the literary forty-niner cooperates unwittingly in the cultural degradation of his own art. Or in the perpetuation of ideas that, by parsing artists into “The Successful” and “The Obscure,” rouse disaffection at the family table. Once—never mind the artist's career prospects—art was work, pure and simple. The artists at least believed so. Now your primary ticket to the status and dignity of worker is, it would appear, a CV replete with workshops attended, notable mentors consulted, fellowships held, and, when it comes to publishing a book, salability demonstrated and choice blurbs at the ready, or what's known in the lingo as a “platform.” What was it Whitman scribbled in his notebook while warming up to the first lines of Leaves of Grass? “Do not descend among professors and capitalists.” Quaint. He was hardly a “success” though.

Our ruling cultural values may induce humiliation in anyone who would (Emerson again) “in silence, in severe abstraction ... hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach, and bide his own time,—happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.” But here is the bald, eternal truth about the work of the art-maker: it is work of unknowingness. Rarely streamlined, rarely efficient, necessarily isolating, and always painful, it is work accomplished most often despite the artist's life circumstances, and in the absence of the pragmatism, the knowing and surety, which normalcy insists must frame our days.

After most of a lifetime spent scraping by, secure retirement prospects are unlikely to await the artist. Meanwhile, there's the substantial psychological risk of being pegged as an oddball in backyard barbecue discussions pertaining to career leverage or new pieds-à-terre in vacation markets (I once passed a pained dinner hour among other writers whose conversation actually revolved around the latter). For shucking it all and doing your own thing you might earn only fickle praise and more constant scorn. Maybe you'll get good at your thing and appear regularly in print or public exhibitions—still, it's unlikely to become a sustainable livelihood. In short, you are unlikely to become what's commonly called a “success.”

So why write novels or poetry? Why value the written arts? Why dignify even unpaid creativity as work? When I was in twelfth grade, I was blessed by a brilliant English teacher who enlivened literature as I and my classmates had never guessed was possible. One memorable day, while effusing about Wordsworth, Mr. Hagar paused to pose the questions above. The more eager among us flailed for a right-sounding answer: “Because poetry makes you a better person!” “Because reading helps you think critically!” “Because being literate gives you political power!” Such answers had grains of truth to them. Mr. Hagar listened and smiled bemusedly. Then, in his impassioned style, he lifted a finger and proclaimed, “Because literature and art are wonderfully impractical!”

Our employment is often a pragmatic necessity. We work in order to live. But much of what we live for is essentially impractical: child-rearing, travel, fine cuisine, good music, immersion in nature, the reading of scripture. Life's greatest joys often provide little or no material advantage but nurture and enlarge the human spirit. These we might call “The Wonderful Impractical.” Literature is one of these joys. What's more, if “aesthetics is the mother of ethics,” as poet and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky argued, then good literature may even help to create a more moral world.

They're out there. Day and night, in any given locale, they're hard at it. Our novelists and poets, who hunch to work in shabby rooms, reverse the formula daily: they live in order to work. But their work helps us to live. They win no honors and receive no grants. They hobnob with no famous elders. Yet they comprise, in their dedication and lack of “prospects,” a new Cult of Carts like that which raised the cathedrals at Chartres, Amiens, Reims—a force of pure, unpaid human creativity in service to something larger and more lasting than themselves. Their incentive? Destiny. Their inspiration when faced with privation and self-doubt? Bygone literary gods who struggled much the same. Their rewards: How to name them? But they more than mitigate the annoyances of thin wallets, scant praise, nonexistent reputations. Quietly, faithfully, these writers' late-paid, ill-paid, or altogether unpaid works go into the world untrumpeted, unreviewed, and largely unbought, to lay bare the fallacy denounced by Annie Dillard a quarter century ago: “that the novelists of whom we have heard are the novelists we have.”

To our finest struggling, unheard-of novelists, I would never suggest that hunger and want are your duty, that to be a good artist you must remain a pariah. May you never don the hairshirt the marketplace decrees: the belief that whatever cannot be profitably commoditized deserves to be ignored, unhelped; that the worthy ones never require assistance; that what will rise will rise of its own power.

Still, a Rilkean life, vouchsafed by its contemporaries, is not presently possible; those cultural values vanished with Hapsburg Europe. And today, the work of novel and story requires what art has always required of its practitioners. Can you accept, asks the work, all absence of reward? Can you answer to calling over career? Can you value and protect the fruitful pains of solitude—in Susan Sontag's words, “the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties” (of, one wishes to add, endless connectivity, success formulas, and seven-figure book deals)? Can you avow that it's possible to be glad no one knows you?

Rilke was right. The work asks. Will you answer well?


Art and Music, Culture, Values, Literature


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Sundays, Too

Second Opinions

Blank Slate

Continual Watching

The Working Class

The Artist as Worker

Public Servant