“Subjectivity and Robert Henri” by Matthew Ballou


All quotes by Robert Henri and found in The Art Spirit.

“The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state.”

Robert Henri’s seminal text, The Art Spirit, is a book with which most 2D artists become familiarized if they spend much time engaged with art making. I find that now, after a few years of full time teaching, Henri’s words resonate even more with me. I return to the book again and again, grazing through it or lending it out to eager students. At moments of reflection I am always amazed at how much of what I have been declaring in my classes is often a nearly verbatim expression of Henri’s solid, axiomatic, quotable dialogue. I suppose I should not be surprised, though, given the fact that The Art Spirit has been lodged in my consciousness for so many years.

Yet there is always something new to see.

Most recently I have returned to Henri armed with a new appreciation for the subjectivity artists necessarily carry with them. I was raised with the notion that the subjective – as opposed to the objective – is an inferior, inherently false position. As I have moved through the major theory of the last one hundred years, met people from all over the world, made bodies of work, taught tentative students to tap their innate abilities, read widely outside of art, and – most importantly – actually lived life with an awareness of my living it, I found that it is the subjectivity of individuals that is certain, not their grasp of an objective, baseline reality.

Of course, that is the difference: the objective is meant to imply some outside, universalized, and dominating conception, an irreducible foundation upon which all things rest, while the subjective relates to what we individually, specifically experience of being. The subjective participates in a continuum of dawning objective horizons but is always related to the individual, to the contingencies of conceit, limitation, and capacity that frame existence.

Reality looks very different to a man than it does to a goldfish. Why? After all, they live in the same universe. The difference is that their multivalent, trans-contextual matrices of sensation, knowledge, and instinct dominate them, so much so that the subjective experiences of each trump any objective grasp either might have. One might even suggest that the very attempt to lock down a clear view of objective reality is, in its very motivation and conceptual action, inherently subjective, too. All knowledge is subjective, in a sense, and all knowing is the result of a state of interaction between the complex intersubjectivities of billions of people both currently alive and long since dead. Participating in that web of subjectivity helps us come to a realization of an underlying matrix: a vast array of being within which our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives play out.

None of the above short explication of subjectivity makes truth any less a part of our lives or eliminates some reasonable certainty from our experiences. It does, however, shift the focus from the stolid notion that human beings exist in a fundamentally graspable and entirely knowable reality to one in which an infinite arena of physical and metaphysical potentiality interfaces with our own accumulated sensation, thought, and expectation to elicit an experience of being in our consciousness. The first is a binary world of black and white. The second is a shifting, multifaceted latticework of grays where strands of context unite and cluster together in trends and interference patterns. The first is a simple view of the world, one that makes existence easily and clearly – but only rudimentarily – understood. It is a view of the world that makes it easy for its adherents to moralize their preferences; we know where that overreaction leads. The second is a view of complexity and relationship, one which may be seen as a declaration of the absence of transcendent truth and grounding. Often its proponents claim a chaotic, cacophonous view of the world in which nothing can be known and no truth claimed at all; this, too, is an overreaction.

Questions arise from this tension. Don’t most religions assert contact with an objective, absolute truth that mandates their moral (social, political, etc) attitudes? What about the supernatural or spirituality in general? What about the ultimate ontological Object, God? Some might question how a Christian such as myself could claim this kind of position, one that, in a way, seeks to displace objectivity. Don’t Christians profess some binary, black and white, fundamentalist worldview? The answer is simple: God Himself, as I understand Him, conceals and a reveals. He works via proxies. Thus the mystery of the unfolding universe is, to me, a dramatic validation of the primacy of subjective experience. We simply do not have direct access to the objective bedrock of reality. Yet I do posit that God has revealed this deep reality through poetic yet diluted pictures, the cloudy murk of disinterested history, the diversions of surrogate agents, the discursive brilliance of natural law, the awe-inspiring sweeps of cosmic time, and specific, strategic interventions of love, meaning, and value. All of this manifests – literally incarnates – in the subjectivity of real people who live and move and have their being in a world they both inherit and create.

Therefore subjectivity is the first order context of our finite existence, not a substrate of it. Subjectivity is the realm of humankind, not a stepchild to true reality. Some people – particularly artists and poets and thinkers – recognize this, which is why they do not have to resort to crutches of pseudo-objectivity in order to feel stable in the world; they know we are not stable. We are contingent, finite, frail. We exist as a vapor in a cycle far beyond ourselves, and it is through our subjective sensations of our own time and experience that we touch on that universal state of all human consciousness. Thinkers like Henri stimulate us to consider these things; they charge our innate creativity and will to engage with a vital excitement: what we do and how we do it matter.

“There is no art without contemplation.”

The Art Spirit certainly presents the aforementioned view regarding what artists do and how they do it. It is a perspective that embraces the subjectivity of individuals while exhorting them to take on the responsibility to be meaning-makers, foundation-builders, culture-formers, being-translators. Henri knew that subjectivity does not automatically equate with randomness, illogic, crudity, thoughtlessness, or ambiguity – much the contrary. His is a way toward responsiveness, flexibility, and nuance apart from resorting to inanity or insanity. Henri’s writing advocates a historically-conscious, community-induced, individually-pursued experience of awareness in the world. He pushes us to dive into that array of grays and ride the threads of context in a voyage of surprise.

“The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself…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 better understanding.”

While Henri’s words help us to recognize that everything is possible, they also show us that this does not mean everything is equally valid, interesting, or worthy. He provides us with a subjective context for grasping this truth, a context that requires real thoughtful reflection. Henri makes statements that must not be read as dogmatic principles but rather as strategies for practice. If taken too lightly or left unapplied, the very same words could lead people down a path to vapidity. It is their cross-contextual implementation that brings the facets of their truths to bear.

Texts such as The Art Spirit (as well as others like Hawthorne on Painting or Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space) should never be used to disqualify other working methods or conceptual approaches. Neither should they be used to pigeonhole one’s own work or orientation. They are ciphers by which we can contact what we really hope to do. They are modes of access – methodologies of understanding – whereby we can gain entry to the deep avenues of knowing and being that others have discovered in the past. As we travel these various paths, we gain insight into ourselves, insight into the spirit that fires a life in art. This articulation is a good thing, something generous and open, never defensive, never grasping. Good thinking – such as Robert Henri’s – is like the sun: powerful, self-evidently necessary, undeniable, yet available to all and vast in scope and potential.

“You will never draw the sense of a thing unless you are feeling it at the time you work.”

Consider that statement: it is a treatise on subjectivity and engagement. To feel the thing, to be involved with it as personally and as relationally as you are with your own sight and taste and hearing, is to claim one’s own presence in the world and translate that through an intuitive use of skills to draw out relational realities for others to palpate. This is not merely appealing to a limited objectivity, not merely mechanical duplication or doltish execution; this is the expansive subjectivity of humans in the midst of being. This truth is what informs Henri when he proclaims, “I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living… What we need is more sense of the wonder of life and less of the business of making a picture.”

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”

Henri’s truisms aim artists away from limited objectivity and a product orientation in their work, freeing them to pursue a resonant subjectivity that both validates and challenges their experiences. In calling us to seek out history and context, Henri challenges us. In proving the value of our personal artistic action and aesthetic frame of reference, he validates our subjectivities. His work and words are a tremendous gift, because they show artists how to be nuanced, ambiguous, and expansive without becoming negligent, inconsequential, or indeterminately vague. It is as he says:

“The man who has honesty, integrity, the love of inquiry, the desire to see beyond, is ready to appreciate good art.”

Let us all be so ready.

Buy Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit here:

Preview and read extensive excerpts of the text here: