December 9, 2010

The Dragon: Agnes Martin

Creative work can be satisfying, but most often it puts you in touch with the feeling of inadequacy.  In fact, most writers will tell you that they love "having written."  Afterward.  Writing usually presents the challenges of what some people have termed "monkey mind."   The mind offers up all sorts of anxieties, fears, distractions, and difficulty.  The self is one of the great obstacles in writing. 

The visual artist Agnes Martin addressed the feeling of failure in her book Writings (c2005 Hatje Cantz).  The following is from a lecture, "On the Perfection Underlying Life," delivered to art students:     

"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 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 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 other words, embrace the feeling of inadequacy, defeat and failure and do your work anyway.   
The discipline of work allows one to continue despite the feeling of failure.  She recommends the Chinese sage Chuang Tau's concept of "free and easy wandering."   No attachment.  Let yourself wander. Along with this, she recommends solitude and acknowledges that in solitude one encounters both fear and a self-destructiveness she refers to as "the Dragon."   As an artist, one must strive to become independent of judgment and familiar with the "ways of the Dragon." 

Self knowledge is valuable.  If you know how you subvert your own process or create obstacles for success, you will more likely be able to overcome the destructiveness. Agnes Martin didn't think it was possible to actually slay the Dragon.  For her, it was more a matter of working while it slept.

Talking to other artists and writers will provide encouragement and support.  Also, I learned a good maxim from a writing teacher, Carolyn Forche.  She said, "Whatever gets in the way of your work becomes your work."  In other words, if you find something interfering, then write about that.  It is perhaps one of your important subjects. 

Practice open-mindedness. Maybe you want to write about x, y or z but whenever you sit down, you start writing something else. My advice:  go with it!  Learn to honor the resistance and accept what comes.  Artists and writers often believe that we have very little choice when it comes to our material.  It is given.  Craft and skill come in during the development and final draft.   

Samuel Beckett said: "To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail... failure is his world and to shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.... "    Like Agnes Martin, Beckett urges the writer to continue on despite failure.  "Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Artistic work is difficult.  One needs to suspend judgment of the early stages of a project and manage the interruptions and distractions that arrive.  One needs to accept what is given.  One needs to develop writing into a discipline. The practice of meditation may help one develop skills to let go of the mind's chatter and be still.  Walking usually helps.  After reading Agnes Martin, I'm wondering if it might work to create a nice comfortable place for the dragon to sleep.  Sometimes it does work to write or draw the image, to make the intangible manifest.

Another teacher, Kate Green, suggested that we write about the Muse.  This was a writing assignment:  What does the Muse look like?  what does the Muse want?   Where does the Muse want you to write, what sorts of things should there be around you?  In the spirit of "free and easy wandering," you might extend this exploration and find out from the Muse what to do about your personal Dragon.

No comments:

Post a Comment