Egon Schiele on What It Means to Be an Artist and Why Visionaries Always Come from the Minority
By Maria Popova
To be an artist is to have a particular orientation to the world — the interior world and the exterior world — the exact composition of which is somewhat like temperature, impossible to deconstruct into individual phenomenological components without ceasing to be itself. Perhaps this is why the question of what it means to be an artist has been the subject of myriad theories, even the most insightful of which are complementary to one another but inherently incomplete. For James Baldwin, being an artist meant serving as “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian”; for Georgia O’Keeffe, it meant “making your unknown known…and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” For Albert Camus, the artist was a person endowed with the courage to create dangerously; for E.E. Cummings, with the courage to be oneself. Virginia Woolf believed it requires a certain “shock-receiving capacity.”
Adding to the richest meditations on the inner life of artists is the visionary Austrian painter Egon Schiele (June 12, 1890–October 31, 1918) — an artist whose uncommon genius and creative courage were cut short by his untimely death at twenty-eight in the grip of the Spanish flu pandemic that had taken the life of his young pregnant wife three days before it claimed his own.
In the spring of 1912, after several exhibitions that scandalized Europe with Schiele’s electric eroticism, the twenty-one-year-old artist was arrested for indecency and imprisoned for twenty-four days while awaiting trial — a trial during which the judge demonstratively burned one of Schiele’s drawings over candle flame. The charges were eventually dropped, but in the course of his arrest, the police raided his humble studio and confiscated more than a hundred drawings they considered pornographic. That summer, Schiele, still shaken by the experience, contemplated what it means to be an artist in a world so often hostile to new ways of looking that challenge the status quo and to the seers who invite the rest of us to view that world with new eyes.
One needs to observe and experience the world with naïve, pure eyes in order to attain a great weltanschauung; — that is a living cult. — the proper tone is a book which, for some, may be nice to consult, but proves itself completely useless in the world; in other words, there are those who should live through books and those who exist through themselves; who are better? — that is clear. — Few see the sun and everyone else must read novels and novellas in order to finally realize that there is light.
Decades after Kierkegaard insisted that “truth always rests with the minority… because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion,” Schiele considers the power of the visionaries, who are always in the minority:
The “many” are those who are dependent upon each other, — the people. — The “few” are the direct leaders of the world because they introduce only that which is new and are therefore repugnant; that should be clear enough. Beyond that are the fighters — leaders… — One battles against the capital and the philistines; the large spirit wishes to see the smaller one equally large whereas the small spirit forever wishes to overshadow every small spirit around him. — That is a lack of will and whatever else… — Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world.
Complement with Rilke, writing a decade earlier, on what it means to be an artist, and Kafka, writing a decade later, on why we make art, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.
Published June 1, 2018