Agnes Martin, On Inspiration

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Agnes Martin

On Inspiration

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(Text copied from pages of Agnes Martin’s notebook reproduced in Arne Glimcher’s book Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances  published by Phaidon)

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I want to talk to you about the work art work. I will speak of inspiration, the studio, friends of art and the artistic temperament but I would like you to know that I am speaking all the time about the work.

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Art work is very important in  the way that I will try to show when speaking of inspiration it is much more important than we are.

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I have sometimes, in my mind put myself ahead of my work and have suffered in consequence. I thought me me and I  suffered and the work suffered and for that I suffered more. I thought I was important. I was taught to think that. I looked very big and the work small. But now I see it quite differently. To think I am big and the work big, the position of pride is not possible and to think I am small and the work small, the position of modesty is not possible. I will go on to speak of inspiration and perhaps you will see the only position that is possible.

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As I describe inspiration I do not want you to think I am speaking of religion. An inspiration is a happy moment that takes us by surprise. Many people are so startled by an inspiration or a condition of inspiration, which is so different from daily care, that they think that they are unique in having had it.

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Nothing could be further from the truth. Inspiration is there all the time for anyone whose mind is not covered over with thoughts, and concerns, and used by everyone whether they realize it or not. It is pervasive but not a power — a peaceful and consoling thing even to animals and plants. Do not think it is unique. If it were unique no one would be able to respond to your work. Do not think it is reserved for a few or anything like that.

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It is an untroubled state of mind. Of course we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last so we say that inspiration comes and goes but it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again. We can therefore say that it is pervasive.

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Young children have more time in which they are untroubled than adults. They have therefore more inspiration than adults. The moments of inspiration added together make what we refer to as sensibility defined in the dictionary as “response to higher feelings.” The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike but is much more possible for children.

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Some parents put the development of social mores ahead of aesthetic development. Small children are taken to the park, sent to nursery school and head start — but the little child sitting by himself in the dirt and forgotten is the one open to inspiration and the development of sensibility.

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Inspiration is absolutely elusive in this way that it cannot be taught or managed at all. It  cannot be managed or controlled. It is an independent thing. When children say “what should I play” you should say I do not know or care what you play, making them independent.

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What is the experience of the small child in the dirt. He suddenly feels happy rolls in the dirt probably, feels free, laughs and runs and falls. His face is shining. You have see it I am sure.

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The light was extraordinary, the feeling extraordinary is the way in which many adults describe moments of inspiration. Although they have had them all their lives they never really recall them and are always taken by surprise. Adults are very busy, taught to run all the time. You can not run and be very aware of your inspirations.

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This little boy could have another inspiration that seems to be different but is really the same. One day perhaps he is vicious and mean and insufferable so is sent to his room. There he hates everyone thoroughly: wishes he could kill everyone in the world, decides to kill himself since he cannot and thinks everyone will be sorry. Think his parents do not deserve him, that they probably stole him somewhere etc. After many fantasies he becomes exhausted. Then his mind is suddenly cleared he is happy, transformed. The whole storm and all of the evidence is forgotten. He comes out so shining and swell that his parents hardly recognize him.

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This happens to adults time and again but they take almost no notice and certainly do not call it inspiration or have any realization of the cause.

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There is so much said and thought about relationships, that is why I thought I had better come and say a little about inspiration which has nothing to do with relationships or thinking. When relationships are exhausted and thinking is exhausted, then is the time for inspiration.

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Now the exhausted family goes on a picnic perhaps to the ocean. What a wonderful inspiration for everyone, even at Coney Island where you can’t sit down. Just the thought of the ocean is an inspiration. That is inspiration recalled I wish I could discuss that.

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This family at the beach have temporarily turned away from all of their troubles. This time of inspiration they will all remember. It is so simple.

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But let us turn to inspirations about something. Again you will see that it is dependent upon a clear mind. All of the knowledge and evidence of experience is in abeyance. Suddenly lifes path is fitted to the ends of our feet. We realize that we are going to do some certain thing.

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Some people have this inspiration very early and some not at all. If you have not had this inspiration is simply means that it has not registered with you. It is there all the time but out minds are so full! It doesn’t matter whether you have had the inspiration or not. If you are supposed to be an artist you will certainly be one, whether you know it or not. And if you are supposed to be something else you will be something else. I do not want to convert anyone to artistic pursuits, that would be futile. I am describing inspiration as a natural thing so that it will be recognized and used by artists because it is the beginning and end of all art work. I am saying wake up to your inspirations and nothing at all about what you should do in this life — nothing about morals or values or actions.

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Your path is at your feet whether you realize it or not. That is the most important thing that I will say but I will not enlarge upon it.

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If you go the way of inspiration and all artists do go that way, you will have to give up decision. Art work is not an intellectual process I  am sure you have heard that said before. Not being intellectual and giving up the intellect are understood to be very different when in reality they are they same. We can hardly imagine giving up the intellect. To be an intelligent person has been the thing from the beginning. But the intellectual way and the inspired way are two different ways. If you are an artist the intellectual way has to be given up.

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If someone says this work is brilliantly conceived that is not a compliment. Or if they say it is talented or has force it is not a compliment. But if they say it is inspired that is a compliment. Some people say — “farout” or “out of this world” or “fantastic”.

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A really inspired work is not like us.

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I want to emphasize this point. An inspired work of art is not like the artist. If inspiration is only possible when we are no functioning — and it is — then it really is like a gift and not out of our experience, best of all it is not like us.

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Almost everyone believes that art is from the experience of the artist meaning the intellectually grasped experience. They believe that it is affected by where you live and what you do. But ones “biography”, character abilities, knowledge all of that has nothing to do with art work. Inspiration is the beginning the middle and the end. Here again I must emphasize that you have had hundred of inspirations of which you are unaware because you were living the intellectual life being taught and believing wholly in evidential living.

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Dependence on the intellect is so thoroughly taught that some people think they would die if they stopped thinking. Almost everyone thinks that it would be very dangerous and some believe that civilization would dissolve. But some others depend upon inspiration even tho they consider themselves to be intellectuals. Thus when they have a decision to make they actually go to bed and sleep expecting to know what to do when they awake and abiding by it.

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That is the difference. The intellectual person decides on the evidence but the others wait for inspiration.

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And here I must mention superstition arts greatest enemy, even worse than ego. Superstition is a belief in power or powers, and that this power can be gained by you. You are then in a powerful position having been granted power.

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Some artists make the mistake of thinking that with inspiration they have been granted power to lead the world out of darkness. The Messiah Complex. He becomes a big functioning unit for good. This is entirely wrong. This is the wrong way, facing the wrong way. Try not to think me me I beg you. Believe me you will never have any power.  If other people did not bring their inspirations to bear on your work, your work would be dead and you would be nothing.

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We are not the instruments of fate or are we the pawns of fate we are the materials of fate.

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Please fight against the messiah thing. If you are a big functioning thing you cut yourself off from inspiration, which depends on non-functioning.

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I don’t say that it can be done all the time because of course we are very wild naturally and take up a lot of room in our own world but do try to recognize this temptation to great power business.

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Super sensory abilities and intuition sometimes mixed up with superstition must also be mentioned. All supersensory abilities are mental telepathy, I think you will see that if you give it a little time — a scientific fact, shared by all the animals in varying degrees and one that in most people no longer functions. Intuition on the other hand is inspiration.

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Superstition if you have it will make art work impossible for you. There have been societies many of them in which there was no art only fetishes: that is objects with power. The correct response to make to fetishes is fright not happiness or some peaceful feeling. So you can see the difference between fetishes and art work.

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How does an artist bring his inspirations to bear on his work without the use of intellect.

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I would like to use the art of architecture, in an example, the most difficult and the most responded to of all the arts.

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Any arrangement is intellectual. If you arrange the thing you like or the things you think someone else likes or needs, that is an intellectual exercise. One has been in so many buildings where the architect tried to do the right thing. It is a strain to be in these buildings. Then there are the strictly functional buildings that are so oppressive and out of date in a year. And there are buildings that are conceived as a lot more than any other building ever built that are frightening in their ugliness and so out of balance so untrue that they are frightening to be in though we don’t always notice it.

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Almost no one believes enough in the architects inspiration even the architects some of them themselves. There is so much about functions, light, heat, air that the minds of the occupants are forgotten.

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Are sensibilities stimulated that is the question. Only if the building of it was inspired that is the answer.

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If an architect is capable of a completely clear mind like Solomon, he will have a completely clear inspiration such as Solomon had for the temple so many cubits this way and that way for every room and the exact materials right down to improved surfaces etc. — the whole thing just like a dream almost in an instant. If that is not possible getting right to work on the drawing board is not the thing to do. Some clue must be recognized. The amount of inspiration determines the response.

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Our inspirations are not like Solomon’s who could say “cast your bread upon the waters” and have everyone realize that he was speaking in symbols and even grasp the meaning.

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Our inspirations are not only clouded but colored by our thoughts. Some seeming inspirations are not valid at all. So we have to make them all, either drawing or painting or models and then by further attempts at clearing our minds correct or eliminate. Our way seems almost negative compared with Solomon’s. What we are able to see is not what we want but what we do not want. Without a clear inspiration we put down the best we can and eliminate what we do not want till we come as close as we can to an inspiration of which we are sometimes not aware.

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You see the process: a statement, elimination or a new statement, to the limit of ones vision. That is all that we can do unless our inspirations are absolutely clear and immediate. An arrangement of things we like is not art work and receives no response.

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The sensibilities that we spoke of as developing in childhood, the sum total of all our moments of inspiration are brought into service. We see what is not right about the work and we eliminate or if we are musicians we hear what is wrong. And when all of it is as close to inspiration as possible it is stimulating to others to their sensibilities and they respond.

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The process of art work then is:

The original inspirations

The development of sensibility

The directed inspiration

The function of sensibilities

The finished work.

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No thought or notions or thing to be discussed or criticized. Just: if your sensibilities respond. THATS IT.

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In the field of art there is no controversy. I do not criticize journalists because they stimulate controversy that is their field. But within the art field everyone agrees. The artists all agree they do not compete they cheer each other on. The museum people dealers and collectors all agree remarkably well. Just outside the art field there is so much talk and demand for explanation that one is overwhelmed.

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I want to repeat: there are no valid thoughts about art. If your sensibilities are awake you will respond. It will be a pleasant experience recalling happy times. You must see that no talking will help and that no defence is necessary and that you must not answer your critics. But most important you must have no contact with them.

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The most important thing is to have a studio and establish and preserve its atmosphere. You must have a studio no matter what kind of artist you are. A musician who must practice in the living room is at a tremendous disadvantage. You must gather yourself together in your studio all of your sensibilities and when they are gathered you must not be disturbed.

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The murdered inspirations and loss of artwork due to interruptions and shattered studio atmosphere are unassesable.

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If you are an architect you have to have some place besides the place where the draughtsmen work, no telephone, the door locked — to be disturbed only if the house is burning.

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A studio is not a place in which to talk to friends. You will hate your friends if they destroy the atmosphere of your studio. As an artist you will have to try and live with inspiration. You are not like the little boy in the dirt free and open. The whole world which you now know intrudes. It is almost hopeless to expect clarity of mind. It is hopeless if your studio atmosphere cannot be preserved.

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An ivory tower is something that I cannot imagine but I can imagine an artist standing on the edge of town looking out while the town roared and boiled behind him and never looking around, always looking out. It simply has to be that way.

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There are some people to be allowed in to the studio however, who will not destroy the atmosphere but will bring encouragement and who are an absolute necessity in the field of art. They are not personal friends. Personal friends are a different thing entirely and should be met in cafes. They are Friends of Art.

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Friends of art are people with very highly developed sensibilities whose inspiration leads them to devote their lives to the promotion of art work and to bringing it before the public.

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If your condition is at all clear you ought to be able to recognize a friend of art when you meet him.

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These friends of art have been working a ling time and they can tell just where you are in your work by looking at you without seeing your work. When they come to see the work it is not to judge it but to enjoy it. They already know what the quality of it will be by having met you. I will explain when I speak of the artistic temperament.

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When these friends of art come to your studio they should be treated as honoured guests, otherwise you will destroy the atmosphere of your studio yourself. If you are not ready to do this be sure to wait till you are ready. The premature showing of work when you are perhaps struggling and even fighting is an unnecessary suffering. You will know when you are really ready. Don’t make any serious contacts until you have a lot of work to show.

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You must clean and arrange your studio in a way that will forward a quiet state of mind. This cautious care of atmosphere is really needed to show respect for the work. Respect for art work and everything connected with it, one’s own and that of every else must be maintained and forwarded. No disrespect carelessness or ego selfishness must be allowed to interfere if it can be prevented. Indifference and antagonism are easily detected you should take such people out immediately. Just turning the paintings to the wall is not enough. You yourself should not go to your studio in an indifferent or fighting mood.

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And now a little time to outline the artistic temperament.

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The artist is not a conventional person. (In this talk I have been speaking to you as students tho you may all be artists. It is possible to do that It is the only way) I must tell you what the conventional man is. The conventional man is a hero and conqueror in all that he does. For instance in any situation he assesses the circumstances and his own abilities and he strives to overcome all of the disadvantages in a heroic way. He also arises to all emergencies and against all hazards to aid and comfort others who need it. Animals will go even further in kindness. A horse will run till he drops and a dog will do anything for your advantage if he can understand what it is. In fact the conventional man and the natural man are the same.

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The artist of course is a natural person but it is necessary for him to stand against societies conventions and against his natural inclinations in order to do his work. He soon gets used to being looked down on as below standard conventionally but going against his own nature is a terrible blind struggle. When the talk of the struggling artist is being done it should be this struggle that is cited. The struggle against his own nature that wants to be a conquering hero. It seems as tho all the things of any worth do not apply to art work — strength, ability, knowledge, intelligence, determination, earnestness, striving, overcoming. Since it is something received all of that is unnecessary. Co-operation, kindness, loyalty, duty all must be entirely neglected for the sake of the work. No more “to the rescue” or helpfulness for anyone.

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