In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) counsels a pen pal to “have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart” and to “live in the question.” These letters were published in 1929. In 2006, American actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote a book called Letters to a Young Artist — an updated homage and remake of sorts to Rilke’s original. “You can’t teach talent. You can’t teach inspiration,” says Anna. “You can teach people critical facilities. You can give them techniques. You can teach discipline. And you can teach them about the business.”
In Letters to a Young Artist, Anna writes to a fictional young painter called BZ. “Art should take what is complex and render it simply,” she advises. “It takes a lot of skill, human understanding, stamina, courage, energy, and heart to do that.” Anna describes a desire for ‘wide-awakeness.’ “Do you want to be an artist so that the whole world will look at you, or do you want to be an artist because you would like to use your ability to attract attention, to have the world see itself through you differently?” she asks. In her version, Anna calls for action.
In response to those feeling concerned or even despairing about the risk of art becoming a popularity contest rather than a profession, Anna advises that it’s best to choose another line of work. “Your desire to communicate must be bigger than your relationship with the chaotic and unfair realities,” she says.
On the importance of artists taking control of destiny, Anna implores us to plan our lives — to be the authors. “Be more than ready. Be present in your discipline. Remember your gift. Be grateful for your gift and treat it like a gift. Cherish it, take care of it, and pass it on. Use your time to bathe yourself in that gift. Move your hand across the canvas. Go to museums. Make this into an obsession.”
PS: “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)
Esoterica: These days, Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke is a bestseller. He suffered the death of an infant sister, the divorce of his parents, and then he fell in love with a married woman. He was conscripted during the First World War and roved Europe continuously before settling in Switzerland and dying of leukemia at the age of 51. His personal and intense lyrical writings have elevated him to the status of mystic — comforting and inspiring artists worldwide. Anna Deavere Smith is artist-in-residence at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, and teaches at New York University. An inventor of new paths, Anna addresses today’s social issues in her art and shares insights with her students. “What you are will show, ultimately. Start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.”
Featured Workshop: Sharon Zeugin