An Excerpt From Rilke’s “Rodin”


As an artist who is passionate about nature and the human form, I put a lot of effort into capturing realism with drama, capturing light and shadow, and really thinking about the composition and how to keep the viewer engaged within the painting. It is frustrating to watch an artist rise to fame for works created by mere chance, like a can of red paint that accidentally falls from a ladder onto a white canvas dropcloth below, without any plan, preconceived notion, or craftsmanship. And then this blob of paint is reviewed in magazines as “we haven’t seen such genius as this since the works of Rothko”. Please don’t get me wrong, I love all types of art; but, there is nothing genius about a blob of paint that is spilled onto a canvas. Jackson Pollock’s dribblings of paint actually had purpose, and were executed with thought and balance, so I have a tremendous respect for his work.

One of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke (author of “Letters To A Young Poet”) once wrote a piece called “Auguste Rodin” (after his very good friend and scupltor) where he explains how the success as an artist is not necessarily based on his/her merit and craftsmanship. This excerpt actually explains to me how an artist can splash a can of red paint across a large white canvas in a random design controlled by mere chance and have their works sell for millions. Surely they must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Rilke writes:

‘ The condition of the arts at the present day is such that an artist’s success, or notoriety, is achieved not necessarily by the outstanding quality of his rendering of an e’tat d’ame common to all men, and expressed within a scale of values generally accepted, but rather by the size and influence of the group he can, by his manner, gather about him and, above all, behind him. It is this group, all conscious to a positive reaction to his work which, if large and powerful enough, secures him fame. By being thus atomized and disunited in respect of prevailing values, our society inevitably leads to the formation of coteries and cliques, who come together adventitiously, merely as a result of being “tuned-in”, as it were, to the same “wave-length”. Nothing more authoritative or regular governs their convergence, merely the chance similarity of subjective judgements in the presence of the same object. 

Inevitably this state of affairs affects the artist. For artists must live. And if to live means gathering as many of one’s fellows as possible behind one, all of whom will bleat one’s name in unison, it follows that the first prerequisite of fame is at least to make a noise, to attract by conspicuousness. This is the best way, and the artist who most effectively forces the note of his personality so as to exaggerate his individual manner and thereby to command and arrest attention, is he who is most likely to reach the top rung of the ladder.

Hence the constant temptation, in the art-world of the West, for the artist to be outré , if not outrageous. By this means he gathers at his heels a vociferous group with rapidity and, above all, with certainty. I believe it was Kipling who said that in any large country at least 5000 people will always be found who will believe in anything. What is true of belief is probably also true of specific aesthetic reactions. But nowadays 5000 people all bleating one’s name is a good start towards the goal. For snobbery alone soon doubles, trebles, and quadruples the number.

The danger is — and here we approach the drawback of modern atomisation —  that in these circumstances great fame is not necessarily associated with supremely artistic gifts.’                    –Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902

Funny how history repeats itself.