mask

In the 40+ years of making art and sharing ideas and working with other artists, I have never heard any references to “the muse” in any way, shape or form. I believe it’s a word or label that critics, writers, and dilettantes use for the exploration of an idea to its conclusion.

“The muse” is something that has always be referred to by those with barely a glimmer of the sweat, hard work, and risk that go into an idea, image or a piece of work. For them, it appears that attributing that kind of exploration of an idea to a mystical process makes it more palatable. In my view, labeling the effort as something mystical reflects a misunderstanding of the process of exploring an idea to a conclusion and it is demeaning to the person who created the work.

“Muse” and “inspiration” are not the vocabulary of working artists but are used by critics and those who write about art. Words passed on to people learning the art and craft from those who teach art from a formula. They are also words used to define the parts that elevate some works out of formula or work that doesn’t fit into the rules. How else does someone who can’t envision the process or has no real experience define the creative connection? Making it something magical or esoteric is more romantic than hearing about all the failed attempts and much easier than explaining true inspiration or influence.

This muse is misrepresented as much as finding a passion or inspiration is misunderstood. Ideas or a creative thought appear to come unbidden from a magical place but to a working and long-term creative, they come from connecting the dots. The dots are the influences we have stored and adapted from looking and analyzing lots of different arts, from reading and feeling the world around us in the arts. Ideas come in many forms and putting them together is the job we have set for ourselves.

Creating ideas and a message is simple in the beginning; the complexity and depth comes with doing it many times. Read everything. Look at everything. Question everything. Reach beyond your comfort zone for things you’ve never experienced to learn and add to the influences. If all you ever look at is photography, you are drawing from a very shallow pool of influences. There is a huge world of arts, engineering, literature, and humanities out there with important messages to convey. Make all those things a part of your storehouse to draw from when an idea strikes. The more you have in that storehouse of experience, the more ideas are possible. Inspiration that is limited to one thing or based on only one type of work is a sure path to imitation.

The word “muse” implies profound statements and work; this can put paralyzing pressure on a young artist. I have observed this firsthand in many students, bring a kind of expectation to the work that is unreasonable.  The answer is to trade the so-called inspiration and muse for curiosity. “I want to know more about this. What happens if I do this? Why do people find this important?” These kinds of questions lead to making work that says something. The idea of just going out and making stuff that interests you instead of expecting the muse or something important, is freeing. Stuff is liberating and allows your curiosity, experimentation and voice to guide without the pressure to make something profound. The audience decides what is lasting and that isn’t the responsibility of the maker. Our job, as artists, is to give them work to chose from.

The Muse (or inspiration) is experience and it depends solely on the artist how much of that he or she will to have to draw on for their creative efforts. The choice to explore and engage the world and to expand the ideas available for influence is up to each of us. These choices will determine how we work, how hard we work and how we shape the messages and stories we want to tell.  The quip “Get a life” is never truer than when applied to a creative person. Photography, even more than the other arts, draws from life. Having a pool of observations, experiences, and knowledge is the most important tool a photographer can have.