The Artist’s Business

Quote of the Week

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

… In conversation with my literary colleagues I always insist that it is not the artist’s business to solve problems that require a specialist’s knowledge. It is a bad thing if a writer tackles a subject he does not understand. We have specialists for dealing  with special questions: it is their business to judge of the commune, of the future of capitalism, of the evils of drunkenness, of boots, of the diseases of women.

An artist must only judge of what he understands, his field is just as limited as that of any other specialist I repeat this and insist on it always. That in his sphere there are no questions, but only answers, can only be maintained by those who have never written and have had no experience of thinking in images. An artist observes, selects, guesses, combines and this in itself presupposes a problem: unless he had set himself a problem from the very first there would be nothing to conjecture and nothing to select. To put it briefly, I will end by using the language of psychiatry: if one denies that creative work involves problems and purposes, one must admit that an artist creates without premeditation or intention, in a state of aberration; therefore, if an author boasted to me of having written a novel without a preconceived design, under a sudden inspiration, I should call him mad.

You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist. In “Anna Karenin” and “Evgeny Onyegin” not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems are correctly stated in them. It is the business of the judge to put the right questions, but the answers must be given by the jury according to their own lights.

(Anton Chekhov: Letters.
To A. S. Suvorin, Moscow, October 27, 1888)

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