Lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania
My interest and yours is art work, works of art, every smallest work of art and every kind of art work. We are very interested, dedicated in fact. There is no halfway with art. We wake up thinking about it and we go to sleep thinking about it.
We go everywhere looking for it, both artists and non-artists. It is very mysterious the fast hold that it has upon us, considering how little we know about it. We do not even understand our own response to our own work.
Why do we go everywhere searching out works of art and why do we make works of art. The answer is that we are inspired to do so.
When we wake up in the morning we are inspired to do some certain thing and we do do it. The difficulty lies in the fact that it may turn out well or it may not turn out well. If it turns out well we have a tendency to think that we have successfully followed our inspiration and if it does not turn out well we have a tendency to think that we have lost our inspiration. But that is not true. There is successful work and work that fails but all of it is inspired. I will speak later about successful works of art but here I want to speak of failures. Failures that should be discarded and completely cut off.
I have come especially to talk to those among you who recognize these failures. I want particularly to talk to those who recognize all of their failures and feel inadequate and defeated, to those who feel insufficient – short of what is expected or needed. I would like somehow to explain that these feelings are the natural state of mind of the artist, that a sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work.
In order to do this I would like to consider further those moments in which we feel joy in living. To some these moments are very clear and to others of a vagueness that can only be described as below the level of consciousness. Whether conscious or unconscious they do their work and they are the incentive to life. A stockpile of these moments gives us an awareness of perfection in our minds and this awareness of perfection in our minds makes all the difference in what we do.
Moments of perfection are indescribable but a few things can be said about them. At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life ever seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties, and we think that we will never lose it again. All this and a great deal more in barely a moment, and then it is gone. But all such moments are stored in the mind. They are called sensibility or awareness of perfection in the mind.
We must surrender the idea that this perfection that we see in the mind or before our eyes is obtainable or attainable. It is really far from us. We are no more capable of having it than the infant that tries to eat it. But our happiness lies in our moments of awareness of it.
—Agnes Martin’s notes for “On the Perfection Underlying Life”
Read the full text below:Agnes Martin on the Perfection Underlying Life