Identifying an Artist
The coming-of-age story holds a significant place in the literary canon. In these works, characters explore the world around them, seeking answers to questions about life and trying to find their places in society. In German, this type of story is classified as a Bildungsroman. Oxford English Living Dictionary defines this word, “A novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education” (“Bildungsroman”). A direct translation of the German word is helpful in understanding this genre. This word is a combination of the German words for “education” and “novel.” From this, it can be concluded that works in the Bildungsroman genre are novels of education. This understanding of the Bildungsroman genre is useful in recognizing how the characters in these works seek and gain education from their experiences and how they use this gained information to achieve some form of growth; further, it explains how these characters educate themselves in the ways of the world in order to form their own identities. A conventional theme of the Bildungsroman genre is self-definition. Often, these stories detail the ways in which people define themselves based on their experiences with the world around them. The characters must determine their social and moral convictions based on their evolving understandings of the society, religion, and familial relationships.
An interestingly specific subgenre of the typical coming-of-age story is the Künstlerroman. This subgenre, like the Bildungsroman, focuses on the personal growth of a character, but it specifically discusses the formation of an artist’s identity. In A Studio of One’s Own: Fictional Women Painters and the Art of Fictions, Roberta White defines the Künstlerroman: “The story of an artist’s intellectual and emotional growth; usually it describes an inward journey leading to a discovery of the artist’s vocation” (13). The word “Künstlerroman” is a combination of the German words for “artist” and “novel.” It is noteworthy that this type of coming-of-age story is given its own specific subgenre. To warrant this unique classification, the development of an artist must be significantly different from that of the average person. This poses several questions about the development of artists and why there is a need to focus on them exclusively. What makes an artist? How does an artist differ from the average citizen? What is the responsibility of an artist? By examining James Joyce’s semiautobiographical Künstlerroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, some of these questions may be answered. Based on the understanding that an artist is somehow different from a non-artist, readers may examine Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in order to better understand the position of an artist in the world. Through this examination, it becomes apparent that an artist has a unique position in society that results from his critical perception of the authoritative institutions which surround him and his ability to relay his critical perception with an audience for the betterment of humanity.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce showcases the personal growth of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, as he attempts to find his place in a world that, at times, seems confusing and frightening. Throughout the work, readers witness Dedalus’s transition from a child who identifies with children’s stories to a young artist who wants to create his own story and etch out his own place in the world. In between these two stages, Dedalus is faced with the task of determining who he wants to be and essentially where his social and moral allegiances lie. Is he to be an Irish nationalist? Does he feel a slight sense of allegiance to his country? Should he enter the priesthood? Are his religious convictions his own or someone else’s that have been forced upon him? What is the significance of art and his relationship with it? Dedalus must answer these questions for himself as he journeys through life. As with any coming-of-age story, the protagonist gains a new sense of self or demonstrates personal growth throughout the work. A Künstlerroman, however, showcases how an artist utilizes the information gained through his or her personal growth to gain a deeper understanding of the world that may be used to inspire art which teaches or shares something meaningful with the world.
The role of an artist in society is difficult to pinpoint. It is as difficult as asking what the function of art is. To answer this question, it is best to turn to artists and see how they interpret the role of art in society. In his 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley explains that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (20). He argues that poets, or artists, view the world from a critical perspective that allows them to reflect on the greater questions in life. Shelley contends that poets possess a unique ability to conceptualize the world and its intricacies in a way that can help others understand the world around them. Describing the role of poetry, Shelley writes,
It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. […] A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. (6)
It may be understood that art’s purpose is to instill some greater meaning to existence or to find meaning in the void. Through art, society may learn of the pain and joy of others, and they may find solace in another person’s imagination.
Shelley’s perception of the role of an artist is one which is shared by other writers and artists. In the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, which may be classified as a Künstlerroman based on the protagonist’s passion for writing, J. D. Salinger, in a type of metadiscourse, relays a similar message about the role of the artist and how artists serve to help the societies in which they live. Salinger writes,
You’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them–if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry. (189)
Art serves as a history lesson of sorts. It allows other people to see the universality of their experiences and questions. Art allows space for the exploration of large concepts like human behavior, morality, and spirituality. It allows space for people to explore themselves through the perspective of another person. Art allows for the objectification of life.
It is often thought that it is the responsibility of an artist to raise and answer questions about society, larger concepts of religion and politics, and human nature. An artist is thought to possess a critical eye, so the development of an artist very much relies on his or her ability to evaluate personal experiences in a meaningful way. It may be proposed that Dedalus’s identity as an artist is shaped by his critical perception of his life experiences. It is through the challenging of authority and tradition and the subsequent formation of personal moral and ethical beliefs that Dedalus positions himself as an artist. Dedalus’s attitudes toward religion, politics, and sexuality and his evolving relationships with these concepts and institutions help shed light on the formation of an artist and his or her role in a society. Carl D. Malmgren, author of the article “‘From Work to Text’: The Modernist and Postmodernist Künstlerroman,” which was published in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, notes the importance of an artist’s awareness. He singles out “awareness or consciousness as a distinguishing feature of artistic sensibility,” and he furthers this notion by stating that “the artist is always aware that something is going on. Indeed, he is also aware of his awareness; the artist is self-conscious” (8). This awareness that Malmgren describes may be witnessed in Dedalus’s character. As he grows and begins to ground his identity, readers see Dedalus finding his position on politics, questioning his religious beliefs, and exploring his sexuality. It is ultimately Dedalus’s awareness of the world around him that allows him to form his identity as an artist. There are apparently fundamental differences in the way that artists and non-artists conceptualize the world that are based on levels of consciousness or self-awareness.
Dedalus’s exploration of religion is a critical step in the development of his identity. Throughout the work, readers witness Dedalus’s faith grow and waver. He has inherited a sense of piety that has been forced upon him by familial and social norms, but he often doubts the legitimacy of his beliefs. Inarguably, religion plays an important part in how Dedalus identifies himself and the world around him. Further, his relationship with religion and his ability to critically examine that relationship illustrate his keen awareness and ultimately his position as an artist. As a young child, he does not seem to question the legitimacy of religious authority, but following an incident in which the horrors of religious institutions are revealed to him, he begins to question his faith. When he is unfairly punished by Father Dolan, Dedalus begins to realize that he should not be blindly placing his faith in an institution that is corrupt and unscrupulous. He feels as though the punishment is “unfair and cruel,” and he is shocked by the sense of betrayal that he feels when a respected authority figure abuses him in such a severe way (Joyce 2343). Describing Dedalus’s reaction to this punishment, Joyce writes,
Stephen knelt down quickly pressing his beaten hands to his sides. To think of them beaten and swollen with pain all in a moment made him feel so sorry for them as if they were not his own but someone else’s that he felt so sorry for. As he knelt, calming the last sobs in his throat and feeling the burning tingling pain pressed in to his sides, he thought of the hands which he had held out in the air with the palms up and if the firm touch of the prefect of studies when he had steadied the shaking fingers and of the beaten swollen reddened mass of palm and fingers that shook helplessly in the air. (2343)
Based on his reaction to this incident, Dedalus seems to demonstrate the beginning of the artist’s critical awareness. He is not merely focused on his shock, betrayal of trust, or pain; rather, he removes himself from the situation and looks at it objectively, as if someone else is in his place. It is through his perception of this incident that Dedalus’s questioning of religious authority stems.
As he grows, Dedalus’s faith continues to waver. Though he is from a religious family and has been taught the importance of piety, he does not demonstrate a meaningful relationship with Christ. Listening to his uncle pray, Dedalus feels a distance between himself and his faith. He feels a sense of alienation that stems from his inability to connect with his spirituality in the way that he has been taught. Joyce tells, “Stephen knelt at his side respecting, though he did not share, his piety” (2349). Dedalus is aware of how he is supposed to feel about religion; he recognizes and respects his uncle’s piety. Still, his own personal relationship with religion cannot be based on how he is supposed to feel or an inherited piety. Because he posses such a strong self-awareness, Dedalus is faced with his own interpretation of religion. He cannot take someone else’s beliefs, even if his own are full of doubt, confusion, or guilt, because that would be inauthentic. Dedalus’s need to seek his own personal spirituality demonstrates his unique position as an artist. He is not someone that can blindly accept faith. He must find purpose and understand his spirituality through his own means. It is Dedalus’s questioning of religious institutions that reveals his critical awareness of the world around him.
It is ultimately Dedalus’s guilt and fear which bring him to a temporary, though extreme, religious devotion. After having sex with prostitutes, Dedalus begins to feel the burden of his sin weighing heavy on his soul. He feels as though he has alienated himself from God and from his peers. He feels his sexuality clashing with the teachings of the church. Geert Lernout, author of Help My Unbelief: James Joyce and Religion, notes, “Joyce’s first novel seems to have a great attraction to young Catholics who struggle or have struggled with the same questions of sex and guilt that form the core of that novel” (3). Lernout continues, stating that this theme of sexuality versus religion, though apparently a common struggle for Catholics, is a universal issue as well. He writes, “For close to a century, both Joyce’s works and his person have fascinated and inspired readers of different cultures and from different backgrounds. His work is remarkably provincial and firmly rooted in the Catholic middle-class Dublin culture of the turn of the previous century, but paradoxically it appealed first and foremost to readers outside of his native city” (3). It is interesting that Dedalus’s experience is so simultaneously personal and universal. It may be argued that the universality of this theme further cements Dedalus’s position as an artist. His experience is not confined to Catholicism or his own personal experiences; rather, he takes his personal experience and explores it in a way that is relevant to people across many cultures and religions.
When Dedalus listens to a sermon by Father Arnall about the price of sin and the horrors of hell, he is terrified into a state of piety. Though Dedalus develops a strong sense of spirituality during this time and considers entering the priesthood, it is noteworthy that he only does this following two incidents which mark the loss of his innocence and his confusion about his place in the world. Describing Dedalus’s loss of innocence, Joyce writes, “His eyes were dimmed with tears and, looking humbly up to heaven, wept for the innocence he had lost” (2398). It may be concluded that Dedalus’s religious devotion was simply a result of his confused state of being. He did not know who he was or who he wanted to be, so he attempted to ground his identity in religion. It is his decision to leave the church that signifies his identity as an artist. After his doubts and his temporary faith, he is left with a deeper understanding of spirituality that allows him to remove himself from any preconceived notions of religion and reflect on his own experiences in a meaningful way. Dedalus’s spiritual journey is significant in the formation of his artistic identity as it demonstrates his critical awareness of the society around him and showcases his ability to form his own identity based on his experiences.
Like his exploration of religion, Dedalus explores his understanding of nationalism and his relationship with it. Like he questions the legitimacy of religious authority in order to find his own understanding, Dedalus generates his own understanding of nationalism and his connection with his heritage. While he listens to his family discuss politics over the dinner table, Dedalus cannot decide what his true beliefs are. Like his need to find his own understanding of religion, Dedalus must make his own evaluations of politics and nationalism. Describing Dedalus’s need to discover his own beliefs, Joyce writes,
While his mind had been pursuing its intangible phantoms and turning in irresolution from such pursuit he had heard about him the constant voices of his father and of his masters, urging him to be a gentleman above all things and urging him to be a good catholic above all things. These voices had now come to be hollow-sounding in his ears. When the gymnasium had been opened he had heard another voice urging him to be strong and manly and healthy and when the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him be true to his country and help to raise up her language and tradition. […] And it was the din of all these hollow-sounding voices that made him halt irresolutely in the pursuit of phantoms. He gave them ear only for a time but he was happy only when he was far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades. (2363-2364)
Dedalus, possessing the critical eye of an artist, cannot accept the beliefs that are being forced upon him or the legitimacy of institutions of authority. His necessity to separate himself from these beliefs and institutions is vital in his artistic identity. He is displaying a sense of critical awareness that is needed to create art.
Dedalus’s refusal to accept the world around him at face value serves as an explanation of the unique identity of an artist in society. Regarding personal development, the difference between non-artists and artists lies in their need to draw their own conclusions about the world through their experiences rather than learning from someone else. Thomas F. Halloran, author of James Joyce: Developing Irish Identity: A Study of the Development of Postcolonial Irish Identity in the Novels of James Joyce, describes the unique position that Dedalus is in because of his critical awareness:
To understand the importance of liberation from nationalism and foreign oppression it may be useful to examine how Stephen can be a metaphor for the Irish nation, specifically with regards to power structures and language. If Stephen may be accepted as a metaphor, it is then interesting to look at how he tries to shed his own past and his nation’s history to break the mold of the existing Irish consciousness and create another definition. (69)
Dedalus’s need to create a new definition, or a new understanding of life that separates itself from the perpetuated concepts of authority and normalcy, demonstrates his position as an artist. From his experiences, he is able to withdraw valuable information about inherited identity versus personal identity.
In conclusion, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man explores the position of an artist in society. Based on general understandings of what the function of art is, it is necessary for artists to possess a critical eye which may be used to explore and explain the world in a way that helps other people in some way. Dedalus’s character possesses this critical eye, and this is apparent through the ways in which he questions authority and his desires to form his own separate identity that is not influenced by outside forces. Dedalus’s exploration of religion, sexuality, inherited identity, and nationalism and his desire to form his own understanding of society demonstrate his critical eye. Not only is Dedalus aware of the world around him, but he is conscious of his awareness, which makes his position as an artist even more secure. Based on the understanding that a Künstlerroman is deserving of its own genre, it may be concluded that an artist’s critical awareness separates him from a non-artist in an important way.
“Bildungsroman, n.1.” Oxford English Living Dictionaries, https://www.lexico.com/definition/bildungsroman. Accessed 28 November 2017.
Halloran, Thomas F. James Joyce: Developing Irish Identity: A Study of the Development of Postcolonial Irish Identity in the Novels of James Joyce. ibidem-Verlag, 2009. Studies in English Literatures. EBSCOhost, dsc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=732216&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed., vol. F, W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 2311-2472.
Lernout, Geert. Help My Unbelief: James Joyce and Religion. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010.
Malmgren, Carl D. “‘From Work to Text’: The Modernist and Postmodernist Künstlerroman.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 21, no. 1, 1987, pp. 5–28. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1345988.
Salinger, J. D.. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” 2011. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf. Accessed 28 November 2017.
White, Roberta. A Studio of One’s Own: Fictional Women Painters and the Art of Fiction. Rosemount, 2005.
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