Rilke and the Purpose of Art


As an artist, I am familiar with that nagging question that every artist must ask themselves- what is the purpose of my art and why do I do it? Many writers have probed this question- Tolstoy wrote a book called, What is the meaning of Art ?; Emerson dealt with it in his essay on Nature; Solzhenitsyn confronted it in his Nobel Prize essay, A World Split Apart; Dostoevsky touched upon it in his address before the Pushkin Memorial; Gaston Bachelard touches upon it when he explores the phenomenology of the imagination; and it shows up in countless other works by Baudelaire, Delacroix, Robert Creeley, Walt Whitman and Rainer Marie Rilke. It is entirely unavoidable. One is compelled to ask this question. In a sense a painter or visual artist works this out by what they choose to depict and the method used. Monet was intrigued by the momentary flashes of life that came before his eyes. He chose to paint landscapes with a broken sense of color and lack of outline to convey this feeling of transience.  Much hinges on finding the inherent meaning of one’s work and committing oneself to it- letting it become the raison d’être of one’s being.

Rainer Marie Rilke explores the purpose of poetry as well as art. I first fell in love with his writing through his biography of Augustus Rodin. It took me years to find an English translation in a used bookstore. In Rodin, who was working on the Gates of Hell at the time, he found the perfect counterpart to himself- both tireless craftsmen seeking to transform the living vitality of existence into works of art.  In Rodin, Rilke describes Rodin’s Balzac, Victor Hugo and The Burgers of Calais as work “…not to beautify or give characteristic expression, but to separate the lasting from the transitory, to sit in judgement, to be just.”  The process of transformation from the visible to its inner equivalents was the greatest thing this world had to offer (Lemont) and Rilke observed it quite clearly in the work of Rodin.

In Rilke’s, Elegies, he expresses the purpose of his work, “… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being… It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, “invisibly”, inside us.” Again he says,” … oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing.” ( Elegies) To take the visible world and allow it to dwell inside of us and then to transform that world and those things in the most intense way and re-imagine them again is the work of the artist. The image becomes the process whereby the visible world finds its equivalent within our being. In this way the transient visible world is re-imagined through the artist and becomes a transformative force. Rilke, like Emerson, expresses the transcendent nature of all things. Emerson in his essay Nature states the purpose of, “… visual art: striking the viewer so deeply, with such authority, the merely personal is obliterated. Something like an archetypal self is evoked.”

It is easy to ignore the incredible Beauty of all things. “The purpose of art is to express the good, the true and the beautiful” as Dostoevsky expressed it. But Solzhenitsyn believed that possibly only beauty will remain.  The artist’s job is to praise and declare again the inherent value of all things and to say it again with intensity.

“O tell us, Poet, what you do? – I praise.

But the dark, the deadly, the desperate ways,

How do you endure them- how bear them?-

I praise.

Padraic Colum, Rilke, 1945