Friday, January 20, 2012

the purity of inspiration, the impurity of self as filter

Agnes Martin
 Agnes Martin, one of my long-time favorite artists, spoke about inspiration in the following way:
"The best things in life happen to you when you are alone. You know, all of the revelations. Every day for twenty years, I've been saying 'What am I going to do next?' That's how I ask for an inspiration. I don't have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for. And I don't start to paint until after I have an inspiration. And after I have it, I make up my mind that I'm not going to interfere... not have any ideas. That's really the trouble with art today. It seems to me that artists have the inspiration, but before they can get on the canvas, they've had about 50 ideas. And the inspiration disappears." (Martin, 1997)
Books can inspire... art, music, poetry. The view from a mountaintop after a long hike can be inspiring. People can inspire by their courage, their dedication, their heart, or their words of hope in the face of adversity. This is a different sort of inspiration from what Martin speaks of above. The former is an encouragement, an injection of spirit, a reason to continue to believe in others and in the promise of the world. The latter, Martin's sort, is an incitement to "do," a stimulus which produces something new. It is this sort of inspiration on which I would like to focus this entry.

I think that for a lot of people who create, the source of inspiration is hard to define. I've heard it described starting as an "internal churn" and then this restlessness builds to the point where someone must begin. And it is in beginning, that the inspiration continues to unfold. I know this is true for me. As Martin suggests, when I am writing at my best, I am merely a conduit for something else. Rather than being most full of myself and my own ideas, I am most empty... so that something else can travel through me. Now, where does this "something else" come from and what is it?

The word 'inspiration' comes from ancient Greek in which it meant more directly "breathed upon" and usually by a god. It came to mean the imitation of this blowing into or onto something and maintained its sense of motion towards even as it took on the sense of creative power with which we now associate it. Much, in fact, has to do with breath -- aspire (rough breathing), conspire (breathing together), respire (breathe again), transpire (breathe across). Breath is the most basic action of life. With his first breath, a newborn often cries -- needing to force the air out with a sort of violence... life begun with shock and force. And so, either way the word is taken, we are breathed into and we breathe out again. The inspiration is a force moving through us, but in so transformed.

Van Gogh painted five versions of his famous "Sunflowers," the most challenging perhaps being the one below with its yellow-on yellow-on yellow composition that nonetheless resonates with life.
Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Was it the same force that inspired these paintings as inspired the incident with his ear? Is the restlessness that produces true greatness something that must also be, by definition, destructive?

And why did Van Gogh envision this painting as being part of a triptych -- two sunflower paintings flanking La Berceuse (Lullaby). An old woman sits rocking a cradle (indicated by the rope she holds). In this, she presents a source of solace, though the painting itself is dark and lonely. And her gaze drifts wistfully away from the viewer and the cradle (it seems). Lost in her own thoughts, the woman appears NOT in fact the archetype of motherhood that so many posit this painting to be... unless motherhood is taken to be complicated, weighty, esoteric, and somber. And perhaps there is accuracy in that portrait -- not as the entirety of motherhood, but as one particular angle of it.

Van Gogh, La Berceuse, 1889
Van Gogh was inspired not only to paint these three paintings, but to conceive of them as being displayed together -- the sunflowers acting as candles to illuminate the darkness of La Berceuse. "I don't want to paint the walls of cathedrals, but the gazes of men," said Van Gogh. "With red and yellow I want to paint all the miseries of society." Did painting bring Van Gogh a kind of peace? With the 1889 Sunflowers painting, he was apparently very satisfied... but this was the exception. Rather, his inspiration to paint, his need to create brought him continued suffering. His restlessness increased a restlessness and perhaps his anxiety. Inspiration is not a solace. It can indeed be a heavy burden.

Van Gogh himself felt that his work put his life at risk. But the inspiration that made him see and want to express the suffering he witnessed all around him never ceased. It seems there is something in that which connects us which is part of this thing called inspiration, but in its expression it becomes its own personal truth... of which there are an infinite number. As Picasso once said, "If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvasses on the same theme." Or as some English teachers will tell you, there are only 8 basic storylines in the world... but there are millions of stories... even if we take only one of these themes. (The 8 basic plots: The Cinderella story = unrecognized virtue is finally recognized; The Achilles story = fatal flaw leads to tragedy; The Orpheus story = good fortune is removed and result is examined; The Romeo & Juliet story = all love stories; The Irrepressible Hero story = protagonist confronts obstacles and finally succeeds; The Circe story = main character becomes entangled in devious plot planned by the villain; The Tristan story = love triangle; The Faust story = pact with the devil)

And so back to Martin. For she has explained how she painted "with my back to the world." Through this separation, she found she could listen more clearly to 'inspiration.'
"I think we don't deserve any credit. I think the inspiration comes to you, tells you exactly what to do, even when you are painting, tells you every brushstroke... I do take the blame though. With no credit, you'd think there'd be no blame but... You get shaken between inspiration and the finished product and you have to take the blame for that." (Martin, 1997)
The self can become an interference, according to Martin, between inspiration and its manifestation into something which the rest of the world can consume. Whatever inspiration is -- the divine, the supernatural, the supra-conscious -- there is a need to be open and receptive in order to receive it in the first place. In my humble opinion, I don't think inspiration has anything to do with divinity. I think it has to do with our personal connection with a certain truth, and perhaps there is a spirituality in the universal beginnings of that truth. But, because I believe that all truth is relative... or because inspiration must pass through each of us in order to be re-presented to others as its own truth, I think that the purity of inspiration as a force is lost through our personal interaction with it. We present a 'truth'... but in its impurity and imperfection. For that is the best that we can do. We can feel and sense something greater, but all we do can is reveal our personal (and very small) angle of perspective upon that 'truth.' Taking Picasso's quote as a starting point, one could say that if you took every person in the world to exist, to have existed, to exist in the future, and combined all of their painted canvasses depicting one particular cypress tree at a single point in time, for example, then perhaps we could come to the 'truth' of the matter. Perhaps we could touch again the fullness and purity of inspiration, but only through this combined effort. And therein lies the impossibility of it all... of course. And inspiration remains distant and inexplicable... and all the more wondrous because of it.

You don't have to like the paintings of Agnes Martin... or Picasso... or Van Gogh. Liking is not the point in art. The point is seeing. And perhaps trying to see both the self that produced this finality, and the inspiration that incited it. Your hand would not produce a square grid in quite the same way. No one's hand would. Therein lies a certain magic.

No comments:

Post a Comment