Hamilton Easter Field, in his 1913 book The Technique of Oil Painting made the case for another conception of the creative enterprise. He identified greatness in art, music and literature not with personal expression, but with impersonality:
“Impersonality is in no way the antithesis of personality, but its fulfillment. As a great man gets bigger and broader he drops a lot of his prejudices and meannesses, and his heart, like that of St. Francis, goes out in sympathy to all manner of men, to the birds of the air, and even to inanimate nature, until he gets to feel in harmony with the universe. Gradually he has passed beyond the personal into the impersonal. Whatever the hand of such a man finds to do will bear the stamp of his breadth of vision. It will remain personal because it will be true to his inmost self. It will, however, also be impersonal, because the man has so broadened in character that in his work he no longer expresses the emotions of one man, but those of mankind."
Is this just a rhetorical flourish or a genuinely fresh way for artists to think of their work? Is impersonality desirable, or even possible in our age of navel-gazing and psychoanalysis? Haven’t all the great works of art history, from Rembrandt’s self portraits to Beethoven’s symphonies been founded on a deep level of introspection and inner discovery?
What Field seems to be advocating is a way seeing beyond the limits of the self into the collective experience. Many of the greatest works of art have come from enigmatic individuals like Shakespeare, Vermeer, and Homer, about whom we know very little. And perhaps it doesn’t matter. The miracle of their work is that the range of their emotional expression seems to extend beyond the scope of a single person’s life. Each of these creators looked into themselves, but in so doing, they saw beyond themselves.
You can read Hamilton Field’s entire book online (it’s short, at 84 pages) Link
I found another expression of this idea in a letter from Australian painter Charles Conder to his good friend Tom Roberts, after a couple of blissful summers they spent painting together in Heidelberg, 1888-1890: "I feel more than sorry that these days are over, because nothing can exceed the pleasures of that last summer, when I fancy all of us lost the ego somewhat of our natures, in looking at what was Nature's best art and ideality."
--from Australian Impressionism by Terrence Lane.