Jean Cocteau on Art, Poetry & Creativity


This weekend, Anthology Archives’ Essential Cinema Repertory series screens, featuring works by French author, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. During Cocteau’s 50-year career, he became a leader of the avant-garde, tackling the subject of the artist’s life as a solitary existence in films like Orphée and more. Cocteau has written extensively about what it means to be a poet and creative being. We share some of his best, below.

Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.”

“The Louvre is like the morgue; one goes there to identify one’s friends.”

“A film is a petrified fountain of thought.”

“Poets don’t draw. They unravel their handwriting and then tie it up again, but differently.”

“Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”

“After the writer’s death, reading his journal is like receiving a long letter.”

“An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.”

“The poet never asks for admiration; he wants to be believed.”

“Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.”

“Art is science made clear.”

“The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood.”

“Such is the role of poetry. It unveils, in the strict sense of the word. It lays bare, under a light which shakes off torpor, the surprising things which surround us and which our senses record mechanically.”

“A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardener scent his roses.”

“Poetry, being elegance itself, cannot hope to achieve visibility. In that case, you ask me, of what use is it? Of no use. Who will see it? No one. Which does not prevent it from being an outrage to modesty, though its exhibitionism is squandered on the blind. It is enough for poetry to express a personal ethic, which can then break away in the form of a work. It insists on living its own life. It becomes the pretext for a thousand misunderstandings that go by the name of glory.”

“Poetry is a religion without hope. The poet exhausts himself in its service, knowing that, in the long run, a masterpiece is nothing but the performance of a trained dog on very shaky ground.”

“Beauty cannot be recognized with a cursory glance.”

“Art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.”

“Emotion resulting from a work of art is only of value when it is not obtained by sentimental blackmail.”

“The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication: that is why so many bad artists are unable to give it up.”

“The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.”