Perception of Perfection and Process: Inspired by Agnes Martin and a Pot

Graphite on paper by way of the digital world

Still of day 352

The Creative Meanderings #8: Perception of Perfection and Process: Inspired by Agnes Martin and a Pot

“Perhaps art is a language with which people can begin to express our longing for perfection”

Often, I’ve wondered how humans have the capacity to rearrange matter into something meaningful, perhaps beautiful, and move other humans. Turning to the philosophy of aesthetics, I wondered if I could find an explanation for humans love of, and perhaps obsession with, beauty.

My search began at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s (SEP) entry on Beauty. The question whether beauty is a tangible feature or, as SEP writes, “in the eye of the beholder” launched me into a memory.

One winter, on a table, in an art studio, lined with pottery and throwing wheels, was a pot. The pot was beautiful and had not yet been fired, hardened only by air. When I held its mouth to my ear I could hear the ocean, or a thrumming kind of silence. 

After everyone commented on the pot’s beauty, our instructor handed me a rolling pin. “Break it,” he told me. In one swing the pot crumbled, falling to pieces that skittered across the floor. Many people asked why, why would he ask us to break something so beautiful, so perfect. And he went on to explain that art is about the process, not the product. He explained that when you are too focused on the outcome, you may forget what you are doing: making art is an action not a result.

From that experience, I remember distinctly that the act of destroying the pot was beautiful. In those moments, as the pot fell away from itself, I understood that what our instructor said. Perhaps he did not mean that the product did not matter, but that the product did not matter as much as the action of making art. Perhaps I was the only person in that room that felt the art in the act of breaking a pot, a pot that taught us about the beauty of being in the creative moment.

Artist Agnes Martin, in her series “With My Back to the World”, expressed beauty through feeling and feeling through fleeting shapes that seem barely of this world. Like the pot in the art class long ago, her work reminds me of how humans feel similar pulls toward beauty, no matter how different our perception may be. In Martin’s 1987 “The Skowhegan Lecture”, she spoke of beauty’s relationship with art, 

“When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is in the mind, not in the eye. In our minds, we have an awareness of perfection that leads us on. […] Beauty is very much broader than just to the eye. It is our whole, positive response to life. An artist is fortunate in that his work is the inner contemplation of beauty, of perfection in life. We cannot make anything perfectly, but with inner contemplation of perfection, we can suggest it. Although we are all different, we all respond to each other’s suggestions of perfection. And we enjoy the same response as the artist. It is the inner contemplation, the wanting to respond to life, that opens our eyes to what is already in the mind.”

If, as Martin stated, beauty is a kind of perfection, perhaps human’s need to create art is simply our desire to imperfectly capture the perfection that surrounds us. Perfection not as an ideal, but as beauty itself, as the whisper of a bird’s wings, as the simple feelings that accompany us through the day, as the unexpected moments that carry us through life.

Perhaps art is a language with which people can begin to express our longing for perfection, for beauty, perhaps art is a language with which people can translate our subjective experiences. Perhaps, one artwork, one perception at a time, we can, as Martin said, open our eyes “to what is already in the mind.”

Day 352 and Agnes Martin

Learn more about Agnes Martin in The Art Assignment’s video “Art I Can’t Show You” and in Tate’s video “Agnes Martin – ‘Beauty is in Your Mind’”.

Creative Prompt: Perception and Process

  1. Choose a feeling and reflect on that feeling until shapes like Martin’s begin to emerge.
  2. On a piece of paper, in a medium of your choosing, express the shapes simply.
  3. Destroy what you’ve just created: rip up the paper.
  4. Reflect and begin again, reflect on the process not the product.
  5. Share your process. If you share via Instagram or other social media sites use the hashtag #cogneyezant.

352 days done, 14 to go.