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Beloved Painter and Philosopher Robert Henri on How Art Binds Us Together

“Through art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men.”

American realist painter and educator Robert Henri (June 24, 1865–July 12, 1929) is best-remembered for his philosophical reflections on the nature and purpose of art, collected by his former pupil Margery Ryerson in the 1923 volume The Art Spirit (public library), which went on to inspire and influence creators for generations to come. (Including David Lynch, who cites it as a major influence in the introduction to his treatise on meditation and creativity.)

One of the central premises in the book is the recognition that all creativity builds on what came before and that art is woven of circles of influence which, like life itself, require a delicate osmosis of giving and receiving. Henri writes:

Every student should put down in some form or other his findings. All any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole. No man can be final, but he can record his progress, and whatever he records is so much done in the thrashing out of the whole thing. What he leaves is so much for others to use as stones for step on or stones to avoid.

The student is not an isolated force. He belongs to a great brotherhood, bears great kinship to his kind. He takes and he gives. He benefits by taking and he benefits by giving.

This “brotherhood” (let’s not fault Henri for being a product of his time — remember this was written half a century before the age of gender-neutral language), he argues, is as applicable to the realm of learning as it is to that of art, for, as we know, connections are the key to creativity.

Through art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them.

The Brotherhood is powerful. It has many members. They are of all places and of all times. The members do not die. One is member to the degree that he can be member, no more, no less. And that part of him that is of the Brotherhood does not die.

The work of the Brotherhood does not deal with surface events. Institutions on the world surface can rise and become powerful and they can destroy each other. Statesmen can put patch upon patch to make things continue to stand still. No matter what may happen on the surface the Brotherhood goes steadily on. It is the evolution of man. Let the surface destroy itself, the Brotherhood will start it again. For in all cases, no matter how strong the surface institutions become, no matter what laws may be laid down, what patches may be made, all change that is real is due to the Brotherhood.

Henri reminds us that we often let these surface storms — of institutions, of public opinion, of the ephemera that surround the essence of the art spirit — cloud the fundamentals of the creative life, but because art is but an imitation of the forces of nature, it endures even in the face of these superficial surges:

In these times there is a powerful demarcation between the surface and the deep currents of human development. Events and upheavals, which seem more profound than they really are, are happening on the surface. But there is another and deeper change in progress. It is of long, steady persistent growth, very little affected and not at all disturbed by surface conditions. The artist of today should be alive to this deeper evolution on which all growth depends, has depended and will depend. On the surface there is the battle of institutions, the illustration of events, the strife between peoples. On the surface there is propaganda and there is the effort to force opinions. The deeper current carries no propaganda. The shock of the surface upheaval does not deflect it from its course. It is in search of fundamental principle; that basic principle of all, which in degree as it is apprehended points the way to beauty and order, and to the law of nature.

And, indeed, the members of the Brotherhood do not die. Henri’s The Art Spirit lives on as a timeless and necessary read, brimming with insightful additions to history’s finest definitions of art and complementing these essential reads on fear and the creative process.

Published July 12, 2013




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