“Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.”
By Maria Popova
Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) — legendary abstract painter, revered minimalist, celebrated reconstructionist — would have celebrated her 101st on March 22nd. She has arguably done for modern art what John Cage has for music. In this short 1997 interview by Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama, an 85-year-old Martin shares her wisdom on art, solitude, and the secret of happiness. Highlights below.
There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want. … Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.
Art is responded to with emotion … and the best art is music — that’s the highest form of art. It’s completely abstract, and we make about eight times as much response to music than any of the other arts.
She admonishes against the egocentricity of the artist:
The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself.
‘The revolution has been favorable to science in general, particularly to that of the geography of our own country,’ wrote the Reverend Jedidiah Morse. In 1784, when Morse published his first geography textbook, he dedicated it ‘To the Young Masters and Misses Throughout the United States,’ signaling its appropriateness for females. Highly popular among boys and girls alike, Morse’s Geography Made Easy ran through numerous editions at least until 1820, when the twenty-third edition appeared. Geography was the first science to appear widely in girls’ schoolbooks after the American Revolution.
Women were expected to be knowledgeable about scientific topics as they were entrusted with the early education of future citizens — never mind they couldn’t yet vote and thus weren’t fully recognized as citizens themselves. At the same time, formal education was a rarity across genders — in 1800, the average citizen was in school for a mere four months in his or her lifetime. In the postcolonial period, geography emerged not only as an area of academic study but also as a way of instilling in pupils national pride and patriotic values, essential in the architecture of the new country. Still, the rationale for teaching girls geography remained dreadfully rooted in the era’s gender norms:
Some educational reformers argued that knowledge of the sciences rendered women more interesting conversationalists and companions for their husbands. According to the well-known female educator Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, scientific study would result ‘in enlarging [women’s] sphere of thought, rendering them more interesting companions to men of science, and better capable of instructing the young.’ In general terms, educators often stressed the value of education in assisting women to bring up their children as virtuous and intelligent citizens. … Americans promoted [geography] among girls because some contemporaries perceived women as playing a key role in developing scientific interest among children.
Jefferson believed the chief aim of a woman’s education was to train future generations to be effective citizens of the young Republic.
Once again, we see the utility of women in training and entertaining citizens, but not in being citizens. And yet, the study of geography was also promoted as a self-improvement means for women. Tolley writes:
Although some historians have emphasized the role of ‘republican motherhood’ as a rhetorical concept useful to advocates of female education, documentary sources indicate that the contemporaries just as frequently used justifications related o the self-improvement of young women. Arguments falling under the heading of ‘self-improvement’ can be categorized into three distinct groups: (1) moral improvement, comprising both general virtues and spiritual or religious growth; (2) mental improvement, constructed as the strengthening of the muscles of the mind, leading to improved intellectual prowess; and (3) psychological improvements, defined as the enhancement of personal well-being, increased fortitude, and the ability to provide oneself with intellectual resources leading to pleasure and happiness. … During the eighteenth century, Americans came to view geography as a subject particularly capable of promoting moral and religious development.
Educators also saw geography as a may to bolster the mental discipline of American schoolchildren:
As citizens of a new political experiment, there were new requirements for young Americans. Faced with the task of building a nation on democratic principles, educational leaders argued that the development of an enlightened, rational citizenry was the key to a successful republic. The task of creating an educational system and a curriculum capable of molding children into enlightened citizens became a political imperative. The ability of a particular subject to promote mental discipline, to strengthen the faculties of the mind, was of utmost importance to educators. According to its advocates, to a grater degree than any other subject in the school curriculum, geography developed the student’s reasoning ability. Drawing maps could ‘fix the wayward attention of children.’ Altering the scale in drawings would ‘exercise the power of judgment to a degree of which few studies are capable,’ and learning geographical facts could ‘exercise the memory.’
(Today, in the age of digitally rendered interactive maps and facts retrievable by Wikipedia searches rather than memory, one has to wonder how many of these alleged valuable skills are still being cultivated and celebrated.)
In addition to extolling its moral benefits, textbook-makers worked to make geography entertaining, hoping to spark a popular enthusiasm for science and frame it as not merely as useful, but also as enjoyable. Some textbook authors were particularly insistent upon engaging girls with the study of science, stressing the wider cultural benefits:
In the preface to their geography published in 1818, Vinson and Mann warned parents of the dangers of encouraging girls to decorate dolls and of allowing their boys too much time for idle play: ‘The parent, who is contented merely with emulating a son by the spinning of a top … or, a daughter by learning her to decorate a doll, to curl her hair … must not be surprised nor disappointed if he discovers no higher, no purer emotions in their bosoms, and ideas in their minds…’
The introduction of geography into postcolonial schoolrooms marked an important shift in the way Americans began to think about the education of their daughters. Through geography, science became an acceptable part of the education of American girls. As the nineteenth century progressed, textbooks devoted exclusively to such subjects as botany, astronomy, and natural philosophy appeared in higher schools and diminished in geography textbooks, where they became redundant. Although scientific content declined in later geography texts, it did not disappear from the curriculum available to females. In the decades to come, increasing numbers of girls and young women would take up the study of science in their educational institutions.
Anchoring the biographical anecdotes are Miller’s many meditations on writing, creativity, and the meaning of life. Among the most poignant is this hand-written “memo to self,” dated 9/17/1918, in which Miller adds to other famous wisdom on the meaning of life:
What are we here for if not to enjoy life eternal, solve what problems we can, give light, peace and joy to our fellow-man, and leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.
The book ends with Miller’s grandest reflection on the eternal mystery of the universe, something great minds from Galileo to Montaigne to Neil deGrasse Tyson have pondered. He observes:
No matter what you touch and you wish to know about, you end up in a sea of mystery. You see there’s no beginning or end, you can go back as far as you want, forward as far as you want, but you never got to it, it’s like the essence, it’s that right, it remains. This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it. And it’s meant to be that way, do y’know. And there’s where our reverence should come in. Before everything, the littlest thing as well as the greatest. The tiniest, the horseshit, as well as the angels, do y’know what I mean. It’s all mystery. All impenetrable, as it were, right?
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