Künstlerroman Critical Essays

Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Künstlerroman

An artist novel detailing the artist's growth to maturity.

The künstlerroman is a type of bildungsroman—a novel where the protagonist undergoes an education—in which the writer charts the course of an artist undergoing an evolution from nascent stirrings to full artistic voice. Literally, künstlerroman translates to English as “artist” (from the German, “künstler”) and “novel” (from the French, “roman”). The künstlerroman traces its origins to the Germanic Romantic tradition of the eighteenth century, when a generation of writers began to rebel against what they believed to be the confining rationalist structures borne of the Era of Enlightenment. They were drawn to the freedom of artistic expression apparent in Romanticism and the beliefs of perhaps its biggest advocate, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe, one of the literary world's most influential thinkers, considered writing as a means to personal contemplation; a writer writes desirous to know his own internal cravings and emotions. From this process arose his Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) (1795-1796), in which the title character, disillusioned by life and love, seeks a different standard and becomes an artist and a playwright. Considered the genesis of both the künstlerroman and bildungsroman genres, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship became the prototype from which the tenets of modern künstlerromane are drawn. Goethe's Bildung philosophy was meant to establish, in the words of critic Roberta Serat, “the full development of a person's possibilities.” From that, the künstlerroman branched out to mark a specific version of this education—the passage of protagonist from shapeless child to fully-formed artist.

This period in European culture saw tremendous activity in cross-pollination of ideas and theories as writers began to cross borders with increasing frequency. The movement founded by the German Romantic masters eventually spread to the English language in the nineteenth century where it was embraced by leading novelists and poets like Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson. But the style is considered to have reached its peak with Stephen Dedalus's personal progression into writer in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), generally considered the standard-bearer of the genre in English. Since then, the künstlerroman form has become a popular method of disseminating an author's own concerns about finding themselves as both artist and human being, though many critics decry the lack of progress made by minority writers to utilize this form, as well as a dearth of critical thought about those few novels that do exist.

In many cases, if an author chooses to do a künstlerroman, it oftentimes comes early in their literary career, perhaps a result of their recent struggles to succeed as writers and the highly personal nature of the style that stems from this. Works of künstlerromane generally reflect the moral battle of writers questioning their appropriate standing as objective artist, a debate outlined by critic Maurice Beebe in his seminal work on the genre, Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts (1964). He characterized this inner turmoil as one that eventually forces its creator into one of two groups: the “Ivory Towers” and the “Sacred Founts,” terms regularly used in the criticism of künstlerromane. For those in the former category, they isolate themselves in so-called self-created “ivory towers,” regarding the sacrifice made to the creation of great art as worth more than a life fully lived. In direct opposite are the “Sacred Founts” who equate art with experience; personal fulfillment, and direct participation in the creation of history as the tableau from which classic literature springs. This inherent conflict is the impulse driving many künstlerroman, as the written protagonist is often a stand-in for their progenitor trying to sort out the conflicts that exist—whether as impediment or assistance—for them as artists in the real world. Their work becomes a reflection of their own travails that drove them to become the artists that exist to write the künstlerroman. This need to write and expunge is cited as both a primary cause and the source material for the books that spring forth, but also as the result of this “Divided Self.”

Characteristics of the genre follow the formation of the artist almost as much as the art they strive to create. In a standard work of the form, the protagonist begins in a state of confinement, often in childhood restricted in their horizons either by the limitations of their home life or the interference of the people around them. Through force of will they escape to another location, one far-removed from their origins and more hospitable to their dreams and desired vocation (as a künstlerroman can be about any type of artist, such as a writer, dancer, painter or blues musician), though there are still crises of confidence and struggles to succeed. Along the journey, they find education from a variety of sources, though often these teachers exist in the shape of two counteracting forces—one that nurtures the artistic career, and one that acts as an obstacle to their inevitable triumph. Ultimately, they reach a standard of success, often at a cost to their own personal well being, either morally or physically. The best of the form debate the value of that art as well as the cost that has been derived from the subsuming need to create. Quasi-biographical, many times the central plot of the story is driven by the creation of a singular work of art—much like the writer's creation of the novel itself.

More recently, a feminist critical perspective has arisen that deviates from that generalized plot line. Feminists have noted that in the male-authored künstlerroman, the lead character is often a delicate, sensitive type taking on many feminine and stereotypically artistic characteristics, but when that protagonist is a woman she is defined by the world as fearless, pushy, and masculine. For the man, the sole pursuit of art is a noble goal in contrast to the woman's drive, whereby she is described as selfish, her striving for personal glory coming at a cost to the family that needs her. Similarly, for the man-artist, the intent is about the artistic result, the process of creation. But just as much, the female künstlerroman attempts to chart the woman's freedom from traditional roles, ironically putting her in opposition to the males in her life.

The künstlerroman is one of several sub-genres in the bildungsroman tradition, the others being the Entwicklungsroman and the Erziehungsroman. In the Entwicklungsroman, or novel of development, the author tries to illustrate the growth of his protagonist which, as opposed to the künstlerroman, is done without a particular goal in mind. The Erziehungsroman is a novel of instruction, the primary events occurring within the grounds of some type of educational institution. However, all three follow the bildung archetype where the primary focus is to trace the personal development of the lead character. Finally, there exists a sub-type of the künstlerroman: the artiste manqué, which charts the downfall of an artist whose talents have been sabotaged by an inherent weakness either within the artist himself, such as an addiction, or by the failings of those around him.

In essence, the künstlerroman is often a therapeutic exercise in self-exploration for a writer: Who am I, how did I come to be here, and finally, was the result worth what I've given to achieve it? Not necessarily written with the intent for concrete answers, the künstlerroman still seeks a way to find a better understanding of the value and suffering inherent in the eternal struggle to create.