Artistic inspiration

Artistic inspiration

Inspiration in artistic composition refers to an irrational and unconscious burst of creativity. Literally, the word means "breathed upon," and it has its origins in both Hellenism and Hebraism in the west. In the earliest discussions of inspiration (in the works of Homer and Hesiod), the ritualistic and divine origins of the breath of a god are important. The oracle of Delphi, for example, as with other sibyls, received divine steam and fumes from a cave sacred to Apollo before she would prophecy. In "Odyssey", 22. 347-8, a poet says that his songs were placed within his heart by the gods.

Ancient models of inspiration

In Greek thought, inspiration meant that the poet or artist would go into ecstasy or "furor poeticus," the divine frenzy or poetic madness. He or she would be transported beyond his own mind and given the gods' or goddesses own thoughts to embody. Plato, in "Symposium" 197a, "Phaedrus" 244, as well as Theocritus, Pindar, and Aristotle (in "Poetics") argue that the poet breaks through to the world of divine truth or divine apprehension temporarily and is compelled by that vision to create. Therefore, the invocations of the muses and the various poetic gods (Apollo and Dionysus, in particular) are earnest prayers for inspiration, for the breath of the god. The only substantially different model for inspiration offered in the Classical world is in the "Problemata" (of unknown authorship, but from the peripatetic school), which suggests that imbalances in the four humours are the origin of inspiration. Otherwise, Virgil, Ovid, and especially Cicero insist, like the Greek theorists before them, that artistic inspiration is a bestowed gift of the gods. Cicero, in fact, was apparently dissatisfied with the figurativeness "inspiration" had taken and used the term afflatus instead.

Inspiration is prior to consciousness and outside of skill ("ingenium" in Latin). Technique and performance are independent of inspiration, and therefore it is possible for the non-poet to be inspired and for a poet or painter's skill to be insufficient to the inspiration.

In Hebrew poetics, inspiration is similarly a divine matter. In the "Book of Amos", 3:8 the prophet speaks of being overwhelmed by God's voice and compelled to speak. However, inspiration is also a matter of revelation for the prophets, and the two concepts are intermixed to some degree. Revelation is a conscious process, where the writer or painter is aware and interactive with the vision, while inspiration is involuntary and received without any complete understanding.

In Christianity, inspiration is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Saint Paul said that all of the Bible is inspired by God ("2 Timothy") and the account of Pentecost records the Holy Spirit descending with the sound of a mighty wind. This understanding of "inspiration" is vital for those who maintain Biblical literalism, for the authors of the scriptures would, if possessed by the voice of God, not "filter" or interpose their personal visions onto the text. For those who understand "inspiration" to be less ecstatic (less Platonic), the human author's personality and views would mediate the holy word. For church fathers like Saint Jerome, David was the perfect poet, for he best negotiated between the divine impulse and the human consciousness.

In northern societies, such as Old Norse, inspiration was likewise associated with a gift of the gods. As with the Greek, Latin, and Romance literatures, Norse bards were inspired by a magical and divine state and then shaped the words with their conscious minds. Their training was an attempt to learn to shape forces beyond the human. In the Venerable Bede's account of Caedmon, the Christian and later Germanic traditions combine. Caedmon was a herder with no training or skill at verse. One night, he had a dream where Jesus asked him to sing. He then composed "Caedmon's Hymn," and from then on was a great poet. Inspiration in the story is the product of grace: it is unsought (though desired), uncontrolled, and irresistible, and the poet's performance involves his whole mind and body, but it is fundamentally a gift.

Enlightenment and Romantic models of inspiration

In the 18th century in England, nascent psychology competed with a renascent celebration of the mystical nature of inspiration. John Locke's model of the human mind suggested that ideas associate with one another and that a string in the mind can be struck by a resonant idea. Therefore, inspiration was a somewhat random but wholly natural association of ideas and sudden unison of thought. Additionally, Lockean psychology suggested that a natural sense or quality of mind allowed persons to see unity in perceptions and to discern differences in groups. This "fancy" and "wit," as they were later called, were both natural and developed faculties that could account for greater or lesser insight and inspiration in poets and painters. The musical model was satirized, along with the "afflatus," and "fancy" models of inspiration, by Jonathan Swift in "A Tale of a Tub." Swift's narrator suggests that madness is contagious because it is a ringing note that strikes "chords" in the minds of followers and that the difference between an inmate of Bedlam and an emperor was what pitch the insane idea was. At the same time, he satirized "inspired" radical Protestant ministers who preached through "direct inspiration." In his prefatory materials, he describes the ideal dissenter's pulpit as a barrel with a tube running from the minister's posterior to a set of bellows at the bottom, whereby the minister could be inflated to such an extent that he could shout out his inspiration to the congregation. Furthermore, Swift saw fancy as an antirational, mad quality, where, "once a man's fancy gets astride his reason, common sense is kick't out of doors."

The divergent theories of inspiration that Swift satirized would continue, side by side, through the 18th and 19th centuries. Edward Young's "Conjectures on Original Composition" was pivotal in the formulation of Romantic notions of inspiration. He said that genius is "the god within" the poet who provides the inspiration. Thus, Young agreed with psychologists who were locating inspiration within the personal mind (and significantly away from the realm either of the divine or demonic) and yet still positing a supernatural quality. Genius was an inexplicable, possibly spiritual and possibly external, font of inspiration. In Young's scheme, the genius was still somewhat external in its origin, but Romantic poets would soon locate its origin wholly within the poet. Romantic writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson ("The Poet"), and Percy Bysshe Shelley saw inspiration in terms similar to the Greeks: it was a matter of madness and irrationality. Inspiration came because the poet tuned himself to the (divine or mystical) "winds" and because he was made in such a way as to receive such visions. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's accounts of inspiration were the most dramatic, and his "Aeolian harp" was only the best of the many poems Romantics would write comparing poetry to a passive reception and natural channelling of the divine winds. The story he told about the composition of "Kubla Khan" has the poet reduced to the level of scribe. William Butler Yeats would later experiment and value automatic writing. Inspiration was evidence of genius, and genius was a thing that the poet could take pride in, even though he could not claim to have created it himself.

Modernist and modern concepts of inspiration

Sigmund Freud and other later psychologists located inspiration in the inner psyche of the artist. The artist's inspiration came out of unresolved psychological conflict or childhood trauma. Further, inspiration could come directly from the subconscious. Like the Romantic genius theory and the revived notion of "poetic phrenzy," Freud saw artists as fundamentally special, and fundamentally wounded. Because Freud situated inspiration in the subconscious mind, Surrealist artists sought out this form of inspiration by turning to dream diaries and automatic writing, the use of Ouija boards and found poetry to try to tap into what they saw as the true source of art. Carl Gustav Jung's theory of inspiration reiterated the other side of the Romantic notion of inspiration indirectly by suggesting that an artist is one who was attuned to something impersonal, something outside of the individual experience: racial memory. Jung's artist is the one best able to feel and express the conflict between the "shadow" primitive and the civilized ego and to encode the archetypes of the human mind. Thus, again, inspiration came from a kind of genius, as these memories were present in all persons (thereby accounting for recognition of the archetypes and memories when viewing artwork), but only the artistic genius could get inspiration/memory. Those artists who followed Jung's thought put an emphasis on primitivism and the study of pre-literate art and myth.

Materialist theories of inspiration again diverge between purely internal and purely external sources. Karl Marx did not treat the subject directly, but the Marxist theory of art sees it as the expression of the friction between economic base and economic superstructural positions, or as an unaware dialog of competing ideologies, or as an exploitation of a "fissure" in the ruling class's ideology. Therefore, where there have been fully Marxist schools of art, such as Soviet Realism, the "inspired" painter or poet was also the most class-conscious painter or poet, and "formalism" was explicitly rejected as decadent (e.g. Sergei Eisenstein's late films condemned as "formalist error"). Outside of state-sponsored Marxist schools, Marxism has retained its emphasis on the class consciousness of the inspired painter or poet, but it has made room for what Frederic Jameson called a "political unconscious" that might be present in the artwork. However, in each of these cases, inspiration comes from the artist being particularly attuned to receive the signals from an external crisis. In modern psychology, inspiration is not frequently studied, but it is generally seen as an entirely internal process. In each view, however, whether empiricist or mystical, inspiration is, by its nature, beyond control.

ee also

*Genius (literature) for the development of the concept of the genius from daemon to innate gift.
*Afflatus for the Romantic concept of inspiration.
*Muses for the Classical source of inspiration.


*Brogan, T.V.F. "Inspiration" in Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, eds., "The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. 609-610.

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