When contemplating a piece of work, Julia Cameron advises we’d do better to think whom is this work for? whom will it serve? rather than how will it serve me? Pondering this notion of art as service, I’m reminded of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s luminous Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of his five year correspondence with aspiring poet Franz Kappus. When a disheartened Kappus sought validation of his talent and asked Rilke to critique his work, Rilke refused, telling him, “Nobody can advise you and help you. Nobody. There is only one way—Go into yourself.” Magnanimous and heartfelt, Letters to a Young Poet is a labor of love in which Rilke generously bequeaths a lifetime of wisdom to a dispirited author. From teaching Kappus the value of solitude to elucidating the mystery of how to know you’re a writer, Rilke’s letters prove the most affecting art is composed in a spirit of service-not of ego.
To create in a spirit of ego is to be motivated by fame and prestige. When we create from ego, we have one aim: to win approval. We write a novel to top best-seller lists or secure a Man Booker; we paint to be exhibited at the MOMA. Writing or painting or sculpting is no longer about communicating something essential- it’s about impressing other people. “How are we doing?” we begin to wonder as we put pen to page or brush to easel. Will our book be an object of admiration and praise or disparagement and derision? Will the critics applaud our genius or scoff in disapproval? The enemy of creativity is a preoccupation with reception: what will they say? what will they think? Anyone who makes things knows art requires a certain freedom. The more we care about “they,” the more self-conscious and inhibited we become and the more our work suffers. After all, if we write from ego, we’re no longer mere vehicles for our work-we’re the work itself: a bad review in the New Yorker is proof we’re a talentless novelist, a tepid reception of our play is heartbreaking confirmation that our suspicions were correct- we were never meant for the stage. In other words, our art becomes so bound up in our identity that if our art fails, we fail. And how can anyone create when the pressure is so colossal?
But if we create in a spirit of service, our ego is no longer a chain shackling us to the weight of other people’s approval and we can begin, as Cameron says, to think less about ‘us’ and more about ‘it’- the work itself. Why does the wisdom of Rilke’s letters still resonate nearly a hundred years later? Not because he sought to garner impressive awards or establish a literary name, but because he wrote from a genuine desire to mentor a budding young poet who, undoubtedly like himself at one time, was struggling with self-doubt. What infuses Rilke’s words with significance is the fact that he has something to say: a vital message he hopes to impart to another human being, a cherished reader whom he wants to help. Like a charitable benefactor who aids the deprived and indigent, Rilke’s letters are a selfless act of service-not of ego.
The question “what is art?” has consumed philosophers since time immemorial. Though there are as many answers to this question as there are artists themselves, I think we’d do well to remember Tolstoy’s definition whenever we sit at our writing tables:
“Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetic physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”