WH Auden in a cutting from The Observer 11 April 1971 reflecting on the death of Igor Stravinsky, genius, talent and the nature of genuine creativity.
I must leave it to others, better professionally qualified than I, to estimate Stravinskys achievement as a composer. I can, however, I think, speak with some authority about Stravinsky as a paradigm of the creative artist, the model and the example from whom younger men, be they composers, painters, or writers, can derive council and courage in an age when the threats to their integrity seem to be greater than ever before.
Firstly let them pay attention to this conception of artistic fabrication. “I am not” he said “a mirror struck by my mental functions. My interest passes entirely to the object, the thing being made.” An artist that is to say should think of himself as a craftsman, a “maker” not as an “inspired” genius. When we call a work “inspired”, all we mean is that it is better, more beautiful, than we could possibly have hoped for. But this is a judgement for the public to make and not the artist himself (herself). True there have been artists, Hugo Wolf for example who could create only during intense periods of emotional excitement, but this is a personal accident – most such artists have probably been manic depressives. It has nothing to do with what they produced in this state.
Nearly all people in a manic phase believe that they are inspired, but very few of them produce anything of artistic value. Where art is concerned, Valery was surely right when he said “talent without genius isn’t much, but genius without talent isn’t anything at all” The difference between pure craft like carpentry and Art is that the carpenter starts work knowing exactly what the finished result will be; the artist however doesn’t know what it is that he is making until it is made. But, like the carpenter, all he can think or should consciously think about is how to make it as well as possible, so that it may become a durable object, permanently “on hand” in the world.
Stravinsky’s life as a composer is as good a demonstration as I know of the difference between a major and a minor artist. In the case of a minor poet, AE Houseman for example, if presented with two of his poems both of equal artistic merit, one cannot, on the basis of the poems themselves, say which was written first. The minor artist, once he has reached maturity and found himself ceases to have a history.
A major artist on the other hand, is always refining himself, so that the history of his works recapitulates or mirrors the history of his art. Once he has done something to his satisfaction, he forgets it and attempts to do something new which he has never done before. It is only when he is dead that we are able to see that his various creations, taken together form one consistant oeuvre. Moreover, it is only in this light of his later works that we are able to properly understand his earlier work.
Amazing piece of writing. In our current age, where the “Salon” of creativity is “Conceptualism” the art that requires only thought and no deeds, this strikes a very true and authentic note.