Artists are understood to practice subjectivity almost as a professional trait. Their vision, their vocabulary, their language are frequent terms used to warn onlookers that what they are coming to see consists of having to practice a sort of translation into the state of mind of the artist. The artist, for his part, has been trying to enter the state of mind of say “nature,” or spiritual truth, or the sublime, or the truth of gesture and action painting.
For the Impressionists, the subjective newness of their art consisted of looking seriously at the modern world as a subject. Their charm was their sense of celebration, via the effects of light on dappled lawns or the dance of light on water, or the very dance of the artist’s brush on canvas. Forms of mental distress were viable means of altering the image, as Van Gogh did, or exile, as Gauguin did, or an evolving abstraction, as Matisse did. The loner could express in a pre-cubist mosaic of colors, as Cezanne did, and the list goes on.
Were these things done before? Certainly Goya took other than what we would call the official line on war in his time, and El Greco found a manner of painting that exaggerated the form for spiritual reasons. Mannerism itself was an altered state of reality, and recognized as such.
It is the moment when a subjective state seems to be the most real take on things that it takes off in popularity. That may not coincide with the date of the innovation, and so the (clearly subjective) history of art that I propose includes a concept of the oh-so-much-more-real. Comparing an Inness to an Albert Pinkham Ryder one has to admit the more real emotional state of delirium on Ryder’s part, and the more real state of rapture on Inness’s part. It is in these ways that we value them most, not in the factuality or primitivism of their means. And it is because we can be objective about the subjective that we understand the equal merits of great artists. Artists are not all doing the same work, although they work in much the same faith to arrive at their different realities of emphasis.
Another way we show we appreciate a great range of subjective states is by the popularity of museums, and the adventure of seeing new art by contemporary artists. Even if befuddled or outraged, the engagement and curiosity of the viewer is a singular force driving the growth of art.
Can art run out of subjective states? My experience as a teacher of art suggests no. I practice a rather Hippocratic method of teaching, in which I work with the tendency of a student and try to help realize in technical matters what the prototype of the artist in the student’s work is showing. I have never seen two people in the same subjective state, although I meet with many in the same literal or objective state. It is the habit of students to attempt an escape from the subjective through an appeal to the literal. If only they could get that right, they tell me, it would really look like the model. If only, if only, and yet, the thing they often see as misshapen is really a form of exaggeration, or a nuance of adjustment that announces very clearly what they are trying to say.
A long struggle ensues during which I try to save the artist while educating the critic in the artist to know what he may treat as correctable error and what he should respect as a subjective truth. It has been a marvel to me that this art instinct resides in almost all people who come to me. It resembles the inner working of life itself, in the way a particular form of life will weave itself from an inner knowledge of its own design, never getting the chance to see itself in the mirror to make adjustments, as it were. The inward way is already well prepared in both the artist and viewer. For whatever reasons of living and experience, for whatever friction between hope and dismay, for whatever ideal the cynic suffers for, or sad reality the dreamer mourns, a person will take up a cause in art as in life and make a semblance of the things that rouse or delight him for their correspondence with his inner truth. That truth, shared by us in our own workings of life and loss, are recognized as the appropriate matter of art. We see in the subjective truth of art that truth we ourselves harbor in tandem with the artist. We say with this that a larger reality tinges all real things with a certain mood, or energy, or tone of color. And it is about that larger reality we all share and all co-create that we are concerned with in the study and making of art. It is for this reason that the literal fails the test of art, though not that of craft. And it is because we recognize that craft is an attempt to remove the subjective that we relegate it to a second place. Craft alone is not beauty, although laudable in its means. The place it takes, although it fought against it, is the industrial prototype. The more perfectly it is made, the more desirable it becomes as an anonymous matter, a fact worthy of reproduction if one could come by the factory to do it. And it is because the great craft object remains aloof from industry that it threatens the mass produced by its uniqueness, and by the eros it creates in the machinery of reproduction to exploit the design so proffered and denied a license to.
It might be thought that design itself is the subjective, and that art and craft are really one, along with the other matters the Bau Haus attempted to unify. This is not so, because design only covers the matters of form as apparent to the eye. The subjective reality of a Ryder, or an Inness, precedes and supercedes design. It works not on the matters of denotation, but through the effects of connotation. If anything, the great paintings denote less by design. Part of their design is in their unfinished state, the unfinished state that emphasizes one dovetail of nature over the others. Were one to look at a wonderful craft piece – say a silver piece by Paul Revere – and a painted version by an artist of that same craft object, one would see the added appeal the painted image has, because of how it imitates, recreates, in fact, the experience of that silver piece, and what it means to the artist. Without the felt addendum of an artist, the craft piece is always complete in itself, available for analysis, appreciation, but exquisitely objective.
However, craft pieces are sometimes also considered an art of subjective means. Furniture’s animistic past, silver’s mutability of luster, the quilts of Gees Bend, have language and secrets that fulfill the subjective requirement of art. Should we go back to an earlier definition of art, we would find many activities of people fit under the rubric of art, art as a special knowledge, art as a subjectively discovered means of truth. In its totalities, summed together, these make up a time. If one examines one’s times by a study of contemporary arts, and finds them wanting, one is obligated to set off on the journey of one’s life, to set the objective things right by the subjective truth at one’s disposal. It cannot be that one will be entirely wrong, though he may be considered wrong-headed, literally heading in the wrong direction. But the wrong direction has been proven out before as a right direction, or at least a viable one.
An art creates us, so also we create an art.