Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Is Inspiration Unexploitable? Open Thread

So in Britian's Guardian newspaper,* I came across the sort of half-thought-out exploration of artmaking we've come to expect from our contemporary MSM (was anyone else really, really embarrassed for the state of journalism today when comparing it with the sheer intelligence of the Edward R. Murrow monologues re-created for "Good Night and Good Luck"?). The article focuses on what it termed the "vital ingredient of creativity"---inspiration--- and goes on to quote a host of artists' thoughts on the phenomenon, but (as usual) something in the general text distracted my ADHD-riddled mind and wouldn't let go:

[I]nspiration ... is the kind of magic that people like to believe in, perhaps especially now, in a culture where money can buy virtually everything else of value, and science and technology can create or invent the things we most need. Inspiration, in other words, is a kind of God-term; it refers to something we think of as essential but that we can't, or may not want to, understand.....

Whatever it is that feeds us our best lines - the gods or God, the unconscious or the genes, the class war - it is something we depend upon but cannot command. Like God's grace, inspiration doesn't respond to our need or our greed for it. It is not a resource we can exploit; and it doesn't look as if, at least as yet, science or technology can help us get more of it. It isn't exactly measureable. And it may be this, perhaps more than anything else, that makes inspiration so difficult to describe in its workings, and so enraging in its elusiveness. [emphasis mine]
OK, so that's the conventional wisdom about inspiration, but is it accurate? Is inspiration a resource we cannot exploit? I'm not so sure.

I've been mulling this over for a few days, and what I've concluded is that inspiration may be part divine intervention, but it comes via other means(controllable means) as well. For instance, being in the right frame of mind is often critical to being inspired, which is why artists take great pains to create an environment in their studio in which they can clear their thoughts and hopefully forget their worries. It's often why artists sometimes experiment with (live off?) mind-altering substances as well. Being inspired is often contingent on being open to it, and so doing what it takes to be in a receptive frame of mind is something one can do to encourage inspiration. Also controllable is the decision to visit or call on one's muse. If some person or thing sparks one's imagination, then seeking that person/thing out is a means of encouraging inspiration. Finally, there's nothing like the pressure of a deadline to stir up one's creative juices. By waiting until the last minute, or simply setting deadlines for oneself, creative types can often jump start the process (perhaps this is similar to just being in the right frame of mind, but...) through panic.

Now, of course, it can be argued that none of the above ensures inspiration will come. But take them out of the effort and inspiration becomes much less likely, no? So, isn't it, in that way, somewhat exploitable?

Curious about your thoughts.

*Which I once heard described by a London comic as the only daily paper with two crossword puzzles: cryptic and f*cking cryptic.


Blogger Tim said...

Request for clarification:

By 'inspiration' do you mean the steam in the engine or the bug up the butt?

3/15/2006 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Morse said...

I agree with the concept of the deadline, not so much for inspiration, but for motivating one to actually clarify an idea and realize the means to complete it.

Inspiration may be one aspect of the creative process, but incubation is where the art begins to emerge.

3/15/2006 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

inspiration vs. incubation...nice distinction, Morse.

Tim, I guess I don't know for sure...but the "bug up the butt" ---eloquently put, btw ;-)---seems somewhat more obsessive than an epiphany, so I'd say neither...more the light bulb over the head, I think.

3/15/2006 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Morse said...


Thank you.

I think a lot of what's exhibited these days is a throwback of the old stereotype of the "artistic genius" who has the "lightning to the head moment", but really needs more time to sit with the work, as well as a healthy dose of editing in the aftermath. I read this as being related to the influence of the fashion industry, which is offsetting a lot of what was interesting in contemporary art, and replacing it with banality and short attention spans.

I like your blog very much, by the way.

3/15/2006 11:09:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Ed, I heard a radio interview awhile back with your (possibly impersonated) recent commentator Chuck Close, who said, "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just get to work."

Now I find that inspiring.

3/15/2006 11:16:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm glad you brought that up, David. I tend to agree with Chuck. Again, going back to the artist with a deadline...if you're waiting around for inspiration to show you what to make, your exhibition is likely to come and go without your work in it. Of course, that's coming from a dealer, but even when I'm not wearing my dealer hat (and, perhaps, donning my writer's cap), I think inspiration is overrated. As Tom Clancy once put it (in the bluntest of terms, as is his forte): "writing = ass in chair." The same is true for any creative endeavor, I believe. Inspiration is great when it comes along, if it comes along, but you're more likely to make the most of it if you're already up to your eyeballs in work.

3/15/2006 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edna said...

I tend to disagree with Chuck as a rule. I mean, it's fine for him to say that he just "gets to work" because that's the kind of work he makes - executions of ideas. Sure, there's process involved, but it's a means to an end in my opinion. I mean, how inspired do you have to be to keep making the same thing for 40 years? Sorry. Separate issue.

For many others, the process must be inspired in order for the results to have meaning and show progression. I mean, you can flick the switch all you want, but if the bulb's burned out you're kind of screwed, right?

3/15/2006 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger Morse said...

Exactly, Ed. I often find that whatever it is that resembles the definition of inspiration, comes along well after I'm lost within a thicket of projects. I prefer to think of it as problem solving.

3/15/2006 11:40:00 AM  
Anonymous w.w. said...

maybe i'm unrealistic, but for me inspiration is totally different from problem solving. we're not talking action/reaction, are we? isn't inspiration more about the impetus for ideas, rather than the physical or mental steps taken to realize them?

3/15/2006 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Morse said...

I do think that "inspiration" and problem solving are related. I just choose not to think of them in a hierarchical manner.

3/15/2006 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

well, I'll take this opportunity to ask something I've wondered for a while. Is inspiration more important to artists whose work is abstract in nature than those whose work is represenational?

3/15/2006 11:57:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I mean, how inspired do you have to be to keep making the same thing for 40 years?

I don't know, Edna, I look at his work over the last forty years, and it seems that there have been some huge, and very inspired, leaps. Do you really think the work he's doing now is the same as what he was doing forty years ago? It sure looks different to me.

3/15/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

When I was twenty or so I had this very nebulous thought, that the basic problem of art can be broken down to 'what are you going to do with this rectangle of space that will hold my attention' and the secret would be finding a way to do it that is as close to automatic as possible. I had come to this conclusion looking at work and thinking about how the good stuff was accomplished. I did not have such a firm or clear idea at the time but that has been my guiding principal ever since.

I went through about twelve years of academic training which really left very little dent in this, because the so called dialogue had little to do with my algorithm, the curiosity about which drove me to continue. Fortunately, I took a drawing class with Lee Mullican who taught me that my curiosity had a history and techniques associated with it.

That is my inspiration, it has become very specific over the years in different ways. Each new discovery produces a flood of work. Contemplating new variations lulls me to sleep every night. I can respond to a situation by applying very concrete ideas gleaned from my research. New materials become opportunities to adapt old algorithms, to make specific instantiations of broad ideas.

Curiously, the original idea stems from
a youthful lack of confidence. It is an adaptation to a powerful anxiety.

So, to your question can we exploit inspiration? what else is it there for? It is the thing that keeps me from totally surrendering to depression. What I have found is that if I don't take advantage of my inspiration it abandons me and it will take time to recover when I return to it.

Sometimes I wish my inspiration was more content oriented, less 'inside' but it just is what it is. My mind naturally analyzes things in a certain way, divide and recombine, rotate, multiply. This, oddly is where my 'strength' is, so I go with it. The 'edit' menu in photoshop was made for me.

I have finally realized that allowing others to exploit my inspiration is part of the secret of making a living from it, that works, too.

Being an artist is, exactly, learning to exploit your inspiration. But part of that is allowing it to dominate you, to take over your life.

I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to transfer it to someone else, if that is what we are talking about. I have been driven by strange things for my entire life, curious. That is at the root of it. That is the part that can't be purchased.

3/15/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous w.w. said...


3/15/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

what in particular provoked the argh?, w.w.? I mean, no one loves a good "argh" more than I do, but there are too many interceding comments for me to be sure...

3/15/2006 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

As someone who (at best) breaks even on material costs, I'm pretty sure that I'm not exploting my inspiration--I being exploited by it! ;-)

3/15/2006 12:11:00 PM  
Anonymous w.w. said...

the abstract vs. representational question. it's a legitimate question, but arghhhh... total buzzkill. specificity gives me heart palpitations. then a resounding, all-in-caps ARGHH for the exploiting inspiration comment from tim.

3/15/2006 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anna L. Conti said...

"Being an artist is, exactly, learning to exploit your inspiration. But part of that is allowing it to dominate you, to take over your life. "

Good sum-up, Tim.

And Edward, in answer to your question about the value of inspiration to representational painters, I will say that for me it's essential. If there's no inspiration (for instance, in the case of a commssion) it's just a dreadful slog to the end.

The steps to exploiting inspiration:
1. Be open to it (receptive.)
2. Be ready to pursue it the minute it arrives (have a flexible scheule.)
3. Have the skills to execute it (keep working on your chops.)
4. This is a feed-back loop - when you are in stage 3, you can be open to more inspiration, for fine-tuning the project.

3/15/2006 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Is inspiration more important to artists whose work is abstract in nature than those whose work is representational?

In my experience it is exactly the same. I worked representationally for years, and my current work would probably be considered abstract. The imagery has changed, but the process hasn't, really.

I've been keeping journals/sketchbooks for years, and pretty much always have one with me. They end up being everything from diaries and scrapbooks to repositories for ideas (for paintings, songs and who-knows-what). Most of what goes into these is pretty useless, but out of this process come seed ideas that can lead to years of work. If I rely on inspiration at all (And I tend to mistrust this overused word), it would have to be the flow of ideas that are mined in this process. And for me the role of inspiration has been identical for both abstract and representational work.

3/15/2006 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

"then a resounding, all-in-caps ARGHH for the exploiting inspiration comment from tim."

can you be more specific?

3/15/2006 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Morse said...

Regarding the question of whether inspiration is more important for abstraction, as opposed to representational work, I don't think there is any difference. Whatever language one chooses to work with, the results are still formulated through a hybrid of perception, experience, and process. And you can certainly find examples of artists whose work encompasses both worlds, such as Gerhard Richter or James Welling.

3/15/2006 12:52:00 PM  
Anonymous w.w. said...

see my comment above re: specificity. sorry, tim, i shouldn't have weighed in here. i'm an inspiration purist, and having just read the steps to exploiting it, i need to go breathe into a paper bag.

p.s. i am dramatic

3/15/2006 12:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

inspiration as transcending the self?

a flow state?

3/15/2006 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

inspiration as transcending the self?

This thread should have had a definition, shouldn't it?

I do think of "inspiration" as transcending the self, yes, but that competes with my idea of the entire universe being contained within (or wholly connected to) every part of it, so....

hmmm. when in doubt consult the dictionary:

in·spi·ra·tion (nsp-rshn) n.


a. Stimulation of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or activity.
b. The condition of being so stimulated.

2. An agency, such as a person or work of art, that moves the intellect or emotions or prompts action or invention.

3. Something, such as a sudden creative act or idea, that is inspired.

4. The quality of inspiring or exalting: a painting full of inspiration.

5. Divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the mind and soul of humankind.

I see it as a mix of #2, #3 and #5, I think.

3/15/2006 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Ed, good that you left off #1. Anyone can get that at Starbucks :)

3/15/2006 01:32:00 PM  
Anonymous paul said...

I get inspiration all the time. The hard part is figuring out which inspired ideas are BS and which ones are good. It sometimes takes a couple of years for me to sort it out.

One artist (who's doing pretty well) told me he never writes down his ideas. His theory is that he'll remember the ones worth doing. I can't ever remember anything, so I don't use that system.

And I didn't RTFA, but I think "exploited" in that article's context means a negative, greedy exploitation. Just making a living off your work is not necessarily this kind of exploitation. But the Basquiat shoe is another story...

3/15/2006 01:33:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

WW says;
"i'm an inspiration purist, and having just read the steps to exploiting it, i need to go breathe into a paper bag. "

I tend to be a very atomistic thinker, like I said. from-the-ground-up formalist

for example, the idea of 'inspiration purist' escapes me. where is the handle, what end do I push against the work? It goes back to the original anxiety, so maybe it has to do with different initial conditions for you and me. what demons are you faced with before getting to work.

3/15/2006 01:35:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

#s 2 and 3 are tautological in this case, that is, it is what we are talking about. #5 is vague to the point of frustration, a black box that begs the question.

#2 could be modified to to work for me and better fits your lightbulb analogy

#~2 an idea which provokes action or invention.

3/15/2006 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger carla said...

The exploits you mention are prep work. They set the stage for something to happen, or not. The panic of a deadline, while great for getting the butt where it needs to be, can easily corrupt your work. An artist can exploit themself via habit-manipulation, but can only wait and watch for inspired moments. When you get too dictatorial in your use of these tidbits from the gods, and excited by how great they will make your next's may still have some evidence of your original inspiration, but it's been bastardized by your greedy little art mitts...

ww- I just may be a purist on this too.

3/15/2006 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Very interesting discussion.

First, just to weigh in on the particulars of inspiration v. work. (or I would prefer to say inspiration within work)

I am more of a Chuck Close (if that is his real name) kind of person myself. This may be a function of the kind of work I do so I am not totally disagreeing with Edna, but I think artists do get regularly steamrolled by their own stinkin' thinkin' about Inspiration and their personal momentary lack of it. The only way out of the inertia of being uninspired for me is to pay an awful lot of attention to the task at hand and nothing else. I can haul my butt to the studio every day because I know there's some specific task to do.

Fantastic side effect: those tasks become incredibly meaningful. I can be open to those tasks (become inspired by them) because I left the big picture at home.

I will say that for me personally the single biggest inspiration killer is Big Lofty Thoughts About What It All Means.

3/15/2006 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I also wanted to comment on Edward's original distinction--inspiration from without v. inspiration from within.

The article is silly because not only do we exploit inspiration as a resource all the time, but it is vital that we (humans at large) do so. There are big problems out there that need some solving. Making inspiration a "God-term" is a way of making creative thought someone else's problem. I don't buy it.

All that does is create a false dichotomy. Most people trod the earth being rational and putting one foot in front of the other, and a few artsy types are directly in contact with some muse on another planet. Never the twain shall meet.

The actual picture is so much more useful. Artists are the hardest working people I know, and take fewer shortcuts--they really do put one foot in front of the other and *that* is the inspiration. And "ordinary people" are inspired to do beautiful things every day. They plant community gardens, help kids, make the front of their house into a Titanic memorial...

Why not harness *that*?

3/15/2006 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Up there ed said...I see it as a mix of #2, #3 and #5, I think.

What I meant by "inspiration as transcending the self" is that the result is not caused by just the direct action of a conscious design but also by an additional insight external to the conscious self. Not a result arrived at by solely the application of logic.

3/15/2006 02:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Sorry for coming late and not reading the Grauniad article. I often draw little tidbit pieces in oilstick, a physically satisfying medium. It often takes me 2, 3, 5, 10 "practice runs" before I "hit the three-pointer," as it were. Sometimes I stand there in amazement at that tenth work, wondering if I'll ever be able to do it again.

I agree that writing = ass in chair. You keep plugging away until you hit it. I understand Chris Ofili draws a watercolor portrait every single day. Tuymans is very famously supposed to paint a little picture every day. You rev up the engine mechanically, and at some point the hand takes over and says, "Look, kid, this is how it's gonna be."

I also think there's still room for inspiration in representational art. Abstract work can be formulaic at times, and figurative work can sometimes require a spark to put a plain work over the top. I don't think the style makes a difference.

3/15/2006 02:59:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

hello w.w......

3/15/2006 04:33:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Ahh, fairs are over Edward is back! Great start.

3/15/2006 05:12:00 PM  
Anonymous w.w. said...

hi bambino...!!!!

3/15/2006 05:57:00 PM  

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