Friday, August 29, 2008

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, and The Importance of Accepting Reality.

I have had a rough week and produced not a stroke of artwork. I studied and did some exercises, but I had no inspiration to really create. It happens sometimes. Sorry, I have no pictures to attach, but there are plenty of words here.

"A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle" (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, Philadelphia, 1923. p.268).

A few months ago, I was contemplating the idea of creating art for art's sake, of painting what I choose to paint by the means I feel necessary to employ.

That sentence sort of sums up the problem I found I had with this. I could not put the idea into even as inadequate a set of words as those.

A friend, mentor, and teacher had suggested I consider pursuing fine art. I had to admit that I did not understand what a fine artist does. I was trained, as a commercial artist, from the point of view that art is an occupation for making a living, like any trade. Someone has a visual problem to solve, and you solve it visually, for money. (Unfortunately I did not get trained beyond the basics of this problem solving, however I was given a strong grounding in those basics. That's really not the point here, though it does contribute to understanding my lack of understanding.) I could not say, with any confidence, that I understood how one goes about producing a work of art without someone asking for something specific, or what the real purpose of that work might be. At one point in my college education, I was even encouraged to look down on fine art students as hacks with no real training in drawing or painting, encouraged to "express themselves," and set loose on the world to produce whatever crap they could muster. (I have since learned the false-hood of this idea, but it was quite effectively, if very informally, taught by some of my favorite instructors.)

My friend tried to explain art to me in a couple of hours. Having some knowledge of how I think, he came at it from both a conceptual basis, as well as some esoteric discussion of the technical challenges of composition. He used some wonderful metaphors and whetted my appetite to "get it." However time was short, and my prejudices and ignorance were strong. He encouraged me to read Robert Henri's The Art Spirit. I did not know who this author was, nor did I realize just what sort of a book he had written.

Upon receiving my copy, I dove in with great enthusiasm, devouring as much as I could, as quickly as I could. It was fascinating! I felt like my mind was being opened up to a world of art I never understood and never bothered to investigate. I think I may actually have over-done it at first, as I had to slow down and digest what I had taken in. A few months later, I am now at the end of this book and I feel I must spread the word. I recommend this book unequivocally to anyone with the least interest in understanding art, though most especially to everyone with the will to create.

There is a great deal of information about Robert Henri available on the internet. I won't dig too deeply into biography, nor will I explain all the ideas put forth in this wonderful book. I would like to touch on a few ideas that have helped set me on my current path, and made me feel like I may be capable of paintings worthy of the effort required to produce them.

Robert Henri (pronounced "hen rye") would, in my opinion, be best described as an American Modernist painter, as well as a great teacher and leader in American art. He trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; the Académie Julian, in Paris; and the École des Beaux Arts, as well. He taught in Philadelphia, and later New York City.

While teaching in Philadelphia, he became an influence for a group of four newspaper illustrators, the "Philadelphia Four": John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn, each of whom would later follow him to New York.

In 1908, Henri organized a show entitled "The Eight" in New York that featured his own work, that of the "Philadelphia Four", as well as Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast. This is the group that would later be known as the Ashcan School, though the term was originally meant as derogatory.

(Here is a page full of articles about these artists.)

A former pupil of Henri's, Margery Ryerson, collected many of his writings and letters, along with notes taken from his lectures, and published a volume called The Art Spirit.

"All art that is worthwhile is a record of intense life, and each individual artist's work is a record of his special effort, search and findings, in language especially chosen by himself and devised best to express him" (p.215).

(Writing about this book almost assures long quotes. I will try to keep it under control.)

I want to mention a few ideas that I picked up from The Art Spirit. Henri covers a vast range of ideas, from deep thoughts about art theory to specific discussions of technique. Right away, a few concepts became priceless to my place in the journey and my needs as a student.

Art is not the exclusive property of painters, poets, sculptors, dancers or any practitioners of the "accepted" forms of art. Anyone who creates from a place of honesty, without pretense or contrivances is an artist. The carpenter, the knitter, the bricklayer, all are artists when their purpose is true.

"Art when really understood is the province of every human being" (p.11).

"Those who have lived and grown at least to some degree in the spirit of freedom are our creative artists. They have a wonderful time. They keep the world going" (p175).

"Genius is not a possession of the limited few, but exists in some degree in everyone" (p.218).

"To be an artist is to construct, and to whatever degree one shows the genius for construction in work of any sort, he is that much an artist"(p.219).

An artist is not a collector of techniques, not mastered by technique, but rather, through mastery of himself and his materials, an artist invents the technique demanded by the motive to express the beauty he sees.

"To study technique means to make it, to invent it. To take raw material each time anew and twist it into shape. It must be made to serve a specific purpose" (p.87).

"Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed... ...It is a great thing when one has a fair measure of seeing. Then to invent the means of expressing it, To be a master of technique rather than to be the owner of a lot of it. Those who simply collect technique have at best only a secondhand lot" (p.87).

"The man who is forever acquiring technique with the idea that sometime he may have something to express, will never have the technique of the thing he wishes to express" (p.121).

"The technique learned without a purpose is a formula which when used, knocks the life out of any ideas to which it is applied" (p.121).

"I do not want to see how skillful you are--I am not interested in your skill. What did you get out of nature? Why do you paint this subject? What is life to you? What reasons and principles have you found? What are your deductions? What projections have you made? What excitement, what pleasure do you get out of it? Your skill is the thing of least interest to me" (p.125).

It is important to note that Henri does not eschew technical ability and diligent practice. He is telling the reader that pretty tricks of the paintbrush, and academic modeling of surfaces as-seen leads to lifeless, uninteresting art. The spectator must be able to see your interest in the subject and feel your struggle, or he will walk away from your work having gained nothing, except maybe boredom and confusion.

Making art is about making choices. In the act of creation, the artist has control over what is emphasized and what is left out. Slavishly copying all the details as you see them says nothing about what drew you to your motive to begin with. The observer gains nothing more than he would get if he encountered the same scene in nature. Why bother to create art that says nothing? The most valuable thing an artist has to add is in his choices when constructing his work. (Some of that may be a quote, but it came out of my head, either from memory or interpretation.)

"A good picture is a well-built structure. There is material in the model before you for all kinds of structures. All these structures will be like the model, but beyond likeness there will be a manifestation of something more real, more related to all things, and more unique in itself. Infinite simplicity. A direct purpose and most exacting choice of the terms of expression" (pp.47-48).

"Because the medium we use is very limited, we must exercise a great economy in its use" (p.202).

"One of the curses of art is 'Art.' This filling up of things with 'decoration,' with by-play, to make them 'beautiful'" (p.203).

"When art has attained its place, surfaces will be infinitely less broken. There will then be millions less of things, less words, less gesture, less of everything. But each word and each gesture and everything will count in a fuller value" (p.203).

"Every touch you put down is part of a construction. All that is not related to the basic idea is destructive to the canvas... ...A good composition is thus an expression of will" (pp.264-265).

While on the subject of choice and discretion, I need to talk about something very important. I was catching up, today, on some of the blogs I subscribe to, and I read a wonderful post on titled, "What’s Wrong With the World? Not a Damn Thing" Please read the post there. What follows is my take and my condensation of the ideas presented.

Many of us have ideals that we try to hold the world to. We imagine we know what is wrong with the world, or a situation, or another person, and we decide that if that thing (or those things) would just change to be the way we see it, everything would be so much better.

This way of going through life holding the imperfect world up to a set of personal ideals is folly. The person doing this will only be disappointed--possibly even stressed out.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having a set of ideals. They make a great target for a person to aim and work toward--understanding, of course, that we will probably never actually meet those ideals, and forgiving--Nay! loving--ourselves for being human. But to hold anything or anyone else up to these ideals, especially in the case of another person who has their own set of ideals, will only lead to frustration and disappointment. We can judge our own actions and attitudes according to our personal ideals, but it is unfair and self-hampering to expect the outside world to conform.

Until we learn to accept the world and life for what it is and learn to love things and people just as they are, we will carry around this weight of desired change and possibly even neglect to live according to our own values in the process. Acceptance of life's imperfections is one of the greatest stress reducers available to us.

How much of a waste of time is it to be so concerned with how the world is different from how we think it should be?

This is not to say that we should not have goals. This is not to say that we should not work toward noble ends. This is not to say that we should not have standards or exercise discretion in our lives. This is, however, to say that we should let go of the unhappiness of dissatisfaction and accept things for how they are. We can work toward positive change, without dwelling on how we think everything or everyone is wrong.

If we don't like how something works, a positive attitude about doing what is in our power to make a change is healthy. A negative attitude about how bad the thing is and how everyone should be upset because it doesn't work the way you think it should is unhealthy and adds baggage upon baggage to our already busy, heavy, and stressful lives.

If we don't like how someone is, accepting them for how they are and deciding what role we will allow that person to have in our life is healthy practice. However, being angry or otherwise upset with how the person is or expecting them to change to meet our ideals is bound to frustrate and add to our own suffering.

It is my firm belief that we are, each of us, responsible for our own happiness in life. We have complete control over how we feel about the world, what sort of thoughts we have about it, and how we express these things. I think it is in everyone's best interest to let go of the negative thoughts and feelings about life, forgive--with real forgiveness--where necessary, and love the life we have. If we then feel it is necessary to work for change, it will be more effective work for having gotten rid of the negative baggage. If we focus on the negatives in life, we will miss the wonderful gift we have of being able to take part in this most miraculous universe. We will also miss opportunities for true expression. For how can we express our ideas about what we love, if we spend our time focused on what we dislike?