Ask any artist about “emptiness” and they’ll tell you about the constant recurring nightmarish emptiness they must face down almost every day as a part of their vocation: the blank space that they must fill. Whether he’s a painter facing a blank canvas or she’s a poet facing a blank computer screen, the blank space awaiting transformation at the hand of the artist can be the loneliest and cruelest place on earth.
So where does inspiration come from?How does the artist spark it afire?
In the time of the Greeks there were the nine Muses, each a goddess presiding over a specific art or science like comedy, astronomy, dance, love poetry, etc. When an artist felt “blocked,” he or she would call upon the goddess reigning over his or her art form to provide the inspirational spark of guidance. As most things in life were then assumed to be controlled by the whims of gods and goddesses, it made sense that the artist simply pray to the appropriate deity to be granted an artistic brainstorm. The Muses were particularly noteworthy in their contributions to world literature, with great authors through the centuries invoking their aid in the early stanzas of their great works.
O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!
O memory that engraved the things I saw,
Here shall your worth be manifest to all!
— Dante Alighieri, in Canto II of The Inferno
By the Twentieth Century, the idea of “goddess muses” had mostly gone away, but artists still found themselves often in need of a touch or a word or a vision of inspiration to kick-start their artistic drives into productive action. In our modern times these “muses” have often been mere mortal women – but they have doubtless been “goddesses” to their celebrants, the artists inspired by them to produce their most “divinely-touched” work. These modern muses have sometimes proved themselves almost as troublesome to their artist-admirers as they are beneficial. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, inspired his greatest writing – but also collaborated in his early death due to excessive partying. Yoko Ono lifted John Lennon from pop music superstardom to a higher level of artistry where he could write “Imagine,” but Beatles fans will forever curse her for taking him there. Some muses have been artists themselves, as in the case of painter Georgia O’Keefe inspiring photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Poet Robert Graves wrote eloquently about artists being inspired by special women in their lives to whom they attach goddess-like “muse” status, always looking to them (“musing” about them) when in need of inspiration:
“A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse... But the real, perpetually obsessed Muse-poet distinguishes between the Goddess as manifest in the supreme power, glory, wisdom, and love of woman, and the individual woman whom the Goddess may make her instrument... The Goddess abides; and perhaps he will again have knowledge of her through his experience of another woman...”
— Robert Graves
Celestial goddess Muses and bewitching mortal beauties may be the classic conduits of artistic inspiration, but of course there are countless others, especially since mortal artists managed to escape from beneath the hovering shadows of the gods and breathe more freely in the sunlit landscapes of the Enlightenment. Nature itself has become all the Muse many artists need to recharge their aesthetic batteries, the natural cathedral providing a grander inspiration than any manmade monuments could ever be capable of inducing. Some artists cite music as their constant daily muse. And some artists simply lose themselves in the art of the artists they most admire. Even a special locale, a city or patch of hidden countryside, whether an actual occasional destination or just a place held sacred in memory, can serve as one’s muse to float one’s drifting consciousness upon...
Be she goddess or mortal wondrous woman, be it nature, music, divine art itself or private memories, the artist will forever seek his or her special muse – a forever springing fount of inspiration to quash the tyranny of the deadly blank spaces.