The Art Spirit by Robert Henri
I know that we've discussed this topic plenty of times here, but I like the way Henri expresses it:
When a student comes before his model his first question should be: "What is my highest pleasure in this?" and then, "Why?" All the greatest masters have asked these questions - not literally - not consciously, perhaps. And with them this highest pleasure has grown until with their great imaginations, they have come to something like a just appreciation of the most important element of their subject, having eliminated its lesser qualities. With their prejudice for its greater meaning, their eyes take note only of the lines and forms which seem to be the manifestation of that greater meaning.
This is selection. And the result is extract.
The great artist has not reproduced nature, but has expressed by his extract the most choice sensation it has made upon him.
An artist who does not use his imagination is a mechanic. (p. 82-83)
We've had many discussions in the past about how to define fine art. In a way, Henri has done so here. The artist, unlike the mechanic or craftsman, utilizes imagination to select the elements that express his/her pleasure in order to produce something that is an extract of reality. Reality is transformed through the psychological filters in the artist's mind.
The degree of transformation influences the quality of the art, in my opinion. I'm a little turned-off by literal interpretations, where the artist feels the need to replicate exactly what is seen. (I say that having been guilty of it in the past). For me, the greater the transformation, the more my interest is piqued. I like to figure out what the artist is getting at and to find layers of meaning. I like to think about why the artist focused on something in particular while neglecting all the rest. What does this say about the artist and how he/she perceives the world? How does it relate to me?
Sometimes it's easier to relate to the extract than to the entire vat of ingredients.