Monday, February 06, 2006

When Can We Call Ourselves Artists?

My teenage daughter Rebecca, an aspiring artist, found a book in the shelves on a recent Barnes & Noble excursion called The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. Henri was apparently a famous painter and painting instructor, and the book is a collection of his comments collected from his lectures and letters, published back in 1923. I looked through the book and found a number of thought-provoking observations. Here's how the book opens up:
Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.

When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.

The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others. He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in any medium. He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.

Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums. Better still, there will be the happiness that is in the making. Art tends towards balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living -- very good things for anyone to be interested in.
Here's another passage that leaped out at me:
There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual -- become clairvoyant. We reach then into reality. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.

It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it.

At such times there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold, material intellect. It is aristocratic and will not associate itself with the commonplace -- and we fall back and become our ordinary selves. Yet we live in the memory of these songs which in moments of intellectual inadvertence have been possible to us. They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art.
I felt a pang of knowing guilt reading this one:
The habit of digression -- lack of continued interest -- want of fixed purpose, is an almost general failing. It is too easy to drift and the habit of letting oneself drift begets drifting. The power of concentration is rare and must be sought and cultivated, and prolonged work on one subject must not be mistaken for concentration. Prolonged work on one subject may be simply prolonged digression, which is a useless effort, as it is to no end.
And here's one final thought from Robert Henri:
The true artist regards his work as a means of talking with men, of saying his say to himself and to others. It is not a question of pay. It is not a question of willing acceptance on the part of the public. If he is welcomed and paid it is very good, but whether or no he must say his say.

5 comments:

Jeff H said...

"When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature."

So, all those years I spent screaming at the idiots I saw on TV news shows--i.e., "self-expressing"--I was actually being an artist? Who knew?

Muley said...

Is that you, Jeff? I didn't recognize the new photo. You look...younger. And...dare I say...more resolute.

Jeff H said...

Well, I guess since I don't do "New Year's Resolutions", I save it up for...my looks?

Laura said...

Hmm, so under Henri's definitions, blogging is an art form. Of sorts. As long as it doesn't digress. Wait: most blogs are digressive by nature; guess they aren't art after all.

I think that's a very romanticized view--not that I don't enjoy it or find it inspiring, but I think a lot of being an artist is less about listening to one's inner song and more about commitment and humble dedication to very hard work. Or maybe that's the same thing.

Muley said...

I agree that being an artist (or a writer or poet) takes much more hard work and stick-to-itness than it does inspiration. Anyone who's written professionally knows that if you sit around waiting for "inspiration" to hit that you'll never meet a deadline.

I guess what drew me to these quotes was the idea that the successful artist, I think, is more attuned to seeking out those moments of inspiration when they do come. They are able to take the raw material of inspiration and mold that into something beautiful (and tangible). Most of us can see one of God's especially beautiful sunsets and think "Wow, that's pretty!" But only a few of us follow that up by pulling out a canvas or a pen and paper and capturing our thoughts and feelings for posterity.

Why? Like Henri says somewhere, we many times only think that's an appropriate reaction if the quality of what we'd create is good enough to get us either recognition or money or both. I think we (and I include myself here) too often think, "Well, no one else will ever read this or see it, and it won't be something I can support myself doing, so I'll just not do it."

Speaking of following a creative muse, here's a thought I just had. Let's invent definitions for the nonsense words that show up in the word verifications on these blogs. Here's mine: "Wdyuqp": Instant message abbreviation for "Would you quip?", literary punk street slang for "Can we talk?"