Robert Henri


In my early 20's, I read ferociously and strategically.  I was fortunate enough to have access to a university library, a museum library, and a public library and I had two rules:  I could only walk out with as many books that would fit in the bag I brought and I had to read all the books by the time the books were due, and I rarely renewed what I loaned.  Pretty simple.  I'd stack these books on my desk at home and kept a few in my backpack, reading all of them all at the same time, yet intermittently so I could synthesize and contextualize the knowledge faster.

While reading so many books about art and design, I learned of a book titled "The Art Spirit" by Robert Henri, which reportedly served as a book that helped many artists and designers understand who we are in terms of history and culture.  I stumbled across it in the stacks from Indiana University's library... it was bright blue with a white, sans-serif, condensed typeface high on its spine.  I slid it from the shelf, opened the cover, and leafed to the first page:

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.

The work of the art student is no light matter.  Few have the courage and stamina to see it through.  You have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways.  We like sympathy and we like to be in company.  It is easier than going it alone.  But alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. It costs to do this.  If you succeed somewhat you may have to pay for it as well as enjoy it all your life.  Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them. We are not here to do what has already been done.  I have little interest in teaching you what I know.  I wish to stimulate you to tell me what you know. In my office toward you I am simply trying to improve my own environment. Know what the old masters did.  Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established.  These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful.  They made their language.  You make yours.  They can help you.  All the past can help you.

Robert Henri, "The Art Spirit", 1923. pg. 1