How to Cultivate the True Disposition of the Artist
Practice being an artist by being a good conversationalist
During a walk, Ludwig van Beethoven explained to Johann Goethe that the artist is a great man who deserves reverence. To illustrate his point and to Goethe’s flabbergasted astonishment, Beethoven crossed his arms and rudely walked through a group of nobility.
Beethoven’s impolite walk through the nobility mirrored his walk through life: Seeing himself as one of the greatest artists, he thought he deserved deep reverence, which made him think he stood above the conventional kindness and politeness of everyday life. It’s not surprising that he was an extremely difficult person: He tyrannized his family to the point of pushing one member to attempt suicide; many doctors refused him as a patient; he abused servants so fearsomely that few would work for him; no woman would marry him.
He led much of his life as a lonely artistic genius, a genius that has been called the first modern artist because he gave birth to the modern notion that the great artist must be irritable and self-obsessed.
In fairness to Beethoven, it must be admitted that much of his crankiness stemmed from his wretched health (colic, diarrhea, fevers, septic abscesses, and the otosclerosis that gradually took away his hearing).
But his cranky specter still hovers over modernity’s mental landscape.
Many people, especially the young, think they’re destined for some sort of greatness — in art, business, sports, politics, whatever. And, following Beethoven’s example, many of them tend to disdain the ordinary things of everyday life, thinking such things must be eccentrically scorned, as though they’re beneath their looming greatness.
Not only should a physically ill and terribly-unique genius like Beethoven be imitated only with caution, but, in such a mental climate, the “little arts” (to use the words of Richard Weaver), like conversation, hospitality, and manners, vanish. Conversation is dismissed as small talk; hospitality is dodged whenever possible. Most significantly, many artists (or those who imagine they’re artists) disdain these little arts. Socializing, for instance, is…