Saturday, May 1, 2010

on the solitude of artists

Commenting the other day on my translation of a Rilke poem (my post exposed on the cliffs of my art with Rilke here), Regina raised the very interesting issue of artists’ solitude, of community of artists, and what Rilke had to say about it. In reply, I don’t wish to be seen as simply romanticising or mystifying writers, composers or visual artists. Most are not social misfits nor are they starving in garrets. Nor do all experience the solitude of which Rilke writes. But many do and it is such an important solitude that I wished to reflect on it for a little and so wrote this post.

There are a number of solitudes that come to mind. The first is social solitude – loneliness – the hidden and unacknowledged disease endemic in our suburbs and urban high-rises. Christmas for many is the loneliest time of the year - the widowed, the elderly whose kids are engrossed in their own lives, the crowded household where inhabitants are emotionally absent, the dispossessed, the homeless, the unloved, all those who only have the tele for human company or who wander aimless in town just to be among humans beings. (I am personally most fortunate in never having had to endure this kind of social isolation). However, it is not really this kind of solitude that Rilke or we are speaking of here.

The second sort of solitude that comes to mind is the existential anxiety that comes from one’s awareness of mortality and one’s own singleness of journey through this finite life. This is the Angst of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. This kind of solitude occurs because each individual is their own locus of consciousness. One can share ideas, but one can’t share actual consciousness. Because we each have separate brains and nervous systems we can’t co-experience sensations and we can’t recall each other’s memories. Yes, we can each taste some sugar at the same time, but how can we ever know if we each experienced the identical sensation of sweetness?

So, each a universe unto themselves, we die alone and a whole universe dies with us, even if others crowd round the bed. We are even born alone despite all the physical intimacy involved in the event. The trauma of birth separation simply serves to underscore that essential aloneness. As the old gospel song has it, “you gotta walk that lonesome valley, you gotta walk it by yourself ... ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you, you gotta walk it by yourself”. This solitude touches on our artistic concerns.

But there is a third kind of solitude, I think the one we are most concerned with here. The isolation of imagination. To have colour reception in a world where most only seem to tune in on black & white sets. Does this kind of solitude breed depression, or is a melancholic disposition needed in order to be aware of it? (Rilke battled depression, especially after WW1). This solitude of imagination particularly occurs when the above existential solitude is consciously observed and acutely felt.

Also, in large part, it is a solitude that comes from being in the small upper percentiles of the population in regard to giftedness. It may be very high intelligence, or exceptional aesthetic awareness, or highly attuned emotional and social intelligences, or creative imagination, or facility with language or music. Inevitably there are limited numbers of persons in a population who are capable understanding the mental and creative output of such individuals. And so they seek out compatriots that are similarly gifted. For example, Rilke joined the Worpswede Group, the German proto-expressionist colony of the late 19th century (could his verse be regarded as a kind of lyrical expressionism?).

Everyone knows the solitude of an unshared interest or hobby. It is the reason why people join book clubs, fly-fishing clubs, and orchid societies. Fortunately there are plenty of people about who like to read or go fishing or grow flowers. But what if one has a heightened facility for imaginative engagement and lucid understanding of what one reads, or is so obsessed with trout he will sleep in the snow just to caste a line at dawn. Already the club becomes less attractive.

Collaborative art making is in vogue at the moment, made possible because installations have become ubiquitous and they lend themselves to committee work. Situational comedy and Hollywood script writing certainly illustrate that highly skilled writing can be done, even must be done in large ‘industry’ projects, collaboratively. Seventeenth century paintings were frequently studio productions where the master would paint in the face, the fabric specialist was called in for the costumes and then apprentices filled in the background. Drama too was workshopped and not simply scripted. Nevertheless, nearly all our serious great works that deal with the human condition have been written, painted or composed by individuals. The reason for this goes directly back to the existential and imaginative solitudes already described. The great works, not of science and engineering, but of the arts, are the voices of gifted individuals rising to cry out ‘how it is’.

Which puts me in mind of the opening lines of the Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me from amongst the orders of angels?”.

 Rilke’s cry is not heard by the angels, could not even be heard by the immortals, but is heard by those fellow mortals who are themselves familiar with his human condition. This was not only an evocative statement of solitude, but required solitude to write. Writing and painting need ‘space’. Furthermore, there is a ‘cone of silence’ that descends during the writing or the painting process when one gets ‘in the zone’. This is the solitude of rapt attention, absorbed focus, singularity of purpose, distraction from daily routine, absorption in ideas, preoccupation with complex activity.

The creative process has a meditative or hypnotic quality about it at times. And it is during those times that the content of the unconscious is able to well up and spill into the work. In his first letter,  Letters to a Young Poet , Rilke writes of the “descent into yourself and into your solitude “. He explains, “Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. ... I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.” Collaborative projects are the very antithesis of this. They have the greatest difficulty in accessing the unconscious in any compelling way.

But art practice in solitude is bitter-sweet. Art is a communication. The poet writes, the painter paints, in the hope that others might read or see – and understand. But the law of percentiles means that few will. If the art is too solipsistic and esoteric then maybe none will.

But skylarks must sing whether we are below to hear or not. Alpine plants will bloom in the most inhospitable of places while the herd tramples past.

What other choice is there? ... Not to bloom at all? ... For skylarks to fall silent?


  1. Oh Harry,I wish you to be around here where I live (in solitude),now and often enough to talk about this kind of things,this post is so heartfelt,warm,FINALLY someone Im getting to know is going to talk about this subject on this way what takes a certain amount of sensitivity and personal experience,not only knowledge,I really love your way of writing. Pardon my English,will you,im still not recovered yet I got even more troubles,existential stuff! Holland is changing but not for better,Im afraid!
    Harry,I had one small question for you,if it is not too much to ask of you to do something about colours of the fonts here on your blog,the contrast is so hard Im having great problem reading.I do have spectacles and that does not help! I will come later to discover more! (O;
    Bye,bye Aleksandra

  2. Thank you Aleks for your heartfelt response. I try to write of things that matter in the best way I can. Your English is very good. I'm sorry I can't speak Dutch, much as I would like to.

    I have changed the font to a darker tone (the problem is that Blogger every now and then changes my font back into glaring white for some reason). Let me know if that helps. However, I can't make it too dark or else those in bright rooms with a lot of light on their screens can't read either. Happy reading.

  3. very good work on the top , by the way .
    solitude is , as i see and experience , personal nature of the individuo .
    isn't right to say the he/she bourned this way or even that life turned then this way very early because of experiences in childhood .
    but there are people that can't avoid to be alone 100% of the time , with or without companion by the side .
    breeders in general are this kind of people .
    is a necessity to have your brain vibrating in a diferent frequence of the others for be able to see it all and express yourself .
    what comes first ? i mean , is the artist a loliner because he needs this to work , or does he work with creativity as a result of loliness ?
    i believe every person is an isolated case .
    i prefer to do not think about the others . i know my case . and it doesn't help me at all .
    by the way ... i am the classic starving lonly one .
    see you Harry !!

  4. Thank you very much for the font,it is much,much better!Yes I know of blogger changing templates fonts even rearranging look of the posts or photos,I have had lots of work on my blogs to keep everything right.Good night,I must go now to rest and try to sleep a little,bye bye!

  5. thanks Caio ... coming from you, that means a lot ... i'm excited to see you are now on p://

    with regard to the topic, yes, every individual has a unique circumstance in their life but if we simply left it at that then all discussion of human behaviour would have to cease ... it is because we also have a lot in common with others that we are able to talk of experiences we share to understand them better - like Rilke did with a young poet about solitude and creativity ... but no, an artist need not think about these things - he or she just needs to paint!

    sounds like you need bloggers to send you some food parcels!

  6. Henry,

    A very nice post to read first thing this a.m.

    Isolation does not always equate to lonliness. I don't consider myself depressed - as I get older, I have been able to put things into perspective and learn to appreciate my existance more and more.
    Sure, I require a different type of energy than most - quiet and stillness, but that's how I achieve my clarity.
    After saying all of that, it's funny how we all find comfort in this blogospere. I guess this has taken place of the art colonies and letter writing of the past?

    It's a grand mystery, and with each year, the pieces fall into place.

    Well done, Henry! Enjoy your weekend!

  7. Thanks for comments, Inkpunk. All valid points. I think what you say about the blogsphere is particularly interesting. Yes, i'm beginning to see it's a virtual art colony. And i must say i enjoy seeing the living work of others in real time as it emerges, and look forward to comments others leave here. Though the styles may vary considerably, we all share the common wrestle with a blank canvas or piece of paper, and can recognise the skill, dedication and courage it takes in others. Like i can in you. Thanks for dropping by,IP.