What is Art? Part II of an Essay by Ivan Ilyin

Last week, I posted an excerpt from a wonderful essay by Ivan Ilyin. Although sometimes his language verges on the kind of “epicness” that people nowadays tend to laugh at, what he says is important. Even people who write primarily as a source of income are forced, sooner or later, to come to terms with their legacy, with what it means to be an artist.

He reminds us, first and foremost, that an artist is a servant, and a joyful servant at that. Though he or she must suffer through the actual creation of the work of art, there’s always joy at the other side. It’s no accident that he compares creation of art to bearing and birthing a child.

He also talks in almost religious terms about the sense of “flow” that happens during inspiration. It’s so intense, that it really does feel like something or someone takes hold of you and guides your hand. Anyway, he says it better than I can. Read Part I here.

Here’s Part II:

What is Art?

An essay by Ivan Ilyin, dedicated to Sergei Rachmaninoff.


Everything great in art is born of service. It is a free and willing bondage, for it is born of inspiration. Not from servitude or slavishly “catering to the market.” And not from any base servility before today’s bored neurotics who fill the salons, restaurants, dance clubs, and the columns of the “literati.” Not servility, but service.


A true artist cannot always create. He does not tyrannize his muse. His inspiration will invariably leave him, only to come back again. However, when he is inspired, he knows that he is in a position of a supplicant. He is called. He is one of the elect. A divine utterance has touched his keen hearing. Since he is called and summoned, he feels himself to be before a Presence. And when he stands before this Presence, he doesn’t see many different possibilities that dependent on his own arbitrary will. He sees only a single creative necessity, which he must seek and find. This seeking and finding is his service.

By creating, he sees. He sees with the eyes of the spirit that open only in inspiration. He creates from a certain inner, spiritual self-evidence. It commands him, but he has no authority over it. This is exactly why creativity is not a free act. To bring your own willfulness into the creative act—to cater to the market, to “prevailing tastes,” or to lewdness—is to preclude service, which is a kind of “creative conscience.”


Do not ask what is the Presence that the artist serves…

The great Russian poets have already answered this question, but few believed them. Everyone thought: “They’re speaking in allegories, metaphors, poetic exaggeration…” And yet they spoke plainly—Zhukovsky and Pushkin and Baratynskii and Yazykov and Tiutchev and many others. And they all said that the calling of an artist is prophecy. Not in the sense that he “foretells the future” or even “exposes the sins of people” in the Biblical sense (though perhaps he does this as well). Rather, through him, the divinely-created essence of the world and human nature itself speaks forth.

This is the presence before which the artist stands as at prayer, for it is a living mystery of God. This is what he serves, becoming its living instrument. Its breath is inspiration. The artist hears its song about itself—this is true of the musician, but also the poet, the painter, the sculptor…

The artist has a deep place in his soul where this mysterious content appears and is carried, as in a womb…

There is a world inside your soul

Of mystical, enchanted thoughts…”

This deep place is usually covered in opaque darkness, not only for others, but for the artist as well. Often, the artist himself doesn’t know or realize this. He doesn’t recognize what has come to life, what grows and develops in this creative, profound darkness. But when he speaks that which has come to fruition, then that Most Important Thing that he utters—that prophetic excerpt of cosmic meaning, for which everything creative is created—manifests itself in a secret way.


It hides behind a musical composition. It is present in the sounds; it fills them with meaning. It sighs and groans in them, inspiring their performers in a similar way to how it had originally inspired the artist-composer.

It also hides behind a poem, sparkling through it and from it. It pours itself forth in the chosen and unchangeable words of poetry, powerfully scanning the rhythm, powerfully ending the line with a rhyme.

It also hides behind a picturesque painting, behind the strokes of the brush, behind the paints, behind the imagery that it has required of the artist and chosen for him.

Ask any artist—what is this that you have created? A true artist will say, strictly and coldly, “Look!” or “Listen!” For he has created his art so that through it he will say, in it he will place, behind it he will hide, and through it he will reveal—the Most Important Thing. Did you look and did you listen to his creation? And after this, you still ask what it is? That means that the mystery of incarnation, the prophecy, did not occur.

This is either the fault of the artist, the ignorance of the listener, or both at the same time. But don’t expect the artist to explain in everyday language, using hackneyed words, that which you were not able to hear in the prophetic utterance of his work of art.

What the artist gives people is not just noise or words or pretty pictures drawn in lines and paints. If he did, there would be no point in art. Diversions, “fun,” and spectacles would be enough. Art could never have come to exist in such a world.

What an artist gives people is first and foremost a certain profound, mystical thought about the world, man, and God. About the paths of God and the fate of man and the world. The artist offers people a kind of “focused meditation,” revealed and unfolded in his melody, his sonata, his sonnet, his poem, his play, or his painting. He offers people the chance to accept his meditation, his mystical thought, to infuse it into their own spiritual treasure house and to find sustenance in it.

A true artist has suffered in spirit, then created. He suffered not only for himself and created not only for himself, but for others. For everyone. And so, he bore his creation like a babe in the womb and was illumined by it. He created. Through him the Most Important Thing spoke itself into being. And through it, he himself was healed and became wiser. He created a new kind of life. A new path to spiritual healing and spiritual wisdom.

Dostoyevsky’s notes for his novel “Demons”

And this is what he offers to all who suffer and rush about, blind in their own busyness…

An artist does not just utter prophecy. He is given the authority to imbue human souls with new creative meditations, thereby renewing them. He creates new life within them. This authority is his service and his joy.

But here is the spiritual disease of our time. People hear art with spiritually deaf ears. They look at art with spiritually blind eyes. Therefore, all they see in art is a sensual mirage. And they become accustomed to associating it with their own “fun,” their own diversion. Those who are not sick with this disease are lonely, standing in the middle of the noise of the bazaars of tastelessness.

It is still in our power to stand underneath the banner of genuine, inspired, undefeated, undying, classical, yet prophetic art. Therefore, we must stand with unshakeable certitude that all historical storms and suffering will only serve to cleanse our spiritual impurity and to clear the spiritual air. In art, as in all things, there are many wrong paths and many temptations. But there is only one true way.

Great art will always be, as it always was, service and joy.


  1. This is so refreshing after seeing so much written about or by artists who are intent upon portraying “THEIR vision” and “THEIR journey”. Thank you for bringing Ivan Ilyin to our attention.

  2. As an artist myself I can’t tell you just how wonderful reading and meditating on this is for me. Thank you so much for sharing…

  3. As the other commenters said in this section, and I said last post, THANK YOU! This puts my suffering in a whole different light.

  4. Many thanks for posting these verbal jewels emanating from the soul of Russia’s immortal Orthodox Philosopher !

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