Muse or Ruse?

Our culture romanticizes the myth of artistic inspiration, perhaps because we'd like to think that some people have artistic gifts, and that great literature or beautiful music is more a question of luck than hard work.

By Carlin Flora, published on December 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Why do we cling to the myth of the muse? In the film Girl with a Pearl Earring, Scarlett Johansson plays a young maid whose tender good looks ignite passions—and inspiration—in the 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer. It's not the first time muses have provided fodder for film: Albert Brooks' movie The Muse stars Sharon Stone as a bejeweled, high-maintenance cure for writer's block.

Our culture romanticizes the myth of artistic inspiration, perhaps because we'd like to think that some people have artistic gifts, and that great literature or beautiful music is more a question of luck than hard work or struggle. "It's easier to believe that it just happens," says Michele Root-Bernstein, co-author with husband Robert Root-Bernstein of Sparks of Genius, a book about creativity.

Something unexplainable and mysterious does occur during the creative process, agrees Root-Bernstein, but only if the creator has both talent and technique, and, most important, is working hard. "You have to continually pull things together and imagine things," she says. "When these ideas start clicking, that's inspiration."

But if feelings and thoughts are inseparable, as the Root-Bernsteins argue, then emotions must be part of the creative stew. Love can stir up complex feelings, leaving the artist aching to express new ideas, theorizes Francine Prose in her 2002 book The Lives of the Muses. Active love can fuel the imagination, but an unattainable muse can also do the trick: "Unrequited love may be the metaphor for the making of art, for the fact that a finished work so rarely equals the initial impulse or conception, thus compelling the artist to start over and try again," Prose writes.

Certain artists buy into and perpetuate the muse mystique. A young guitarist who fancies himself a tortured type may seek out a vulnerable woman to play his muse. As long as the relationship stays stormy, he will feel the rage and ardor that bolster his identity.

Many artists rely more on a supportive mentor or spouse. "Creative individuals need cognitive and affective support during the time of their breakthroughs," says Howard Gardner, psychologist and author of Creating Minds. Martha Graham got both from Louis Horst, he adds, while Freud had cognitive support from Joseph Breuer and Wilhelm Fliess along with affective support from his wife and sister-in-law. Sometimes spouse and muse fuse: The dozens of paintings of Pierre Bonnard's wife Marthe in the bathtub are a testament to his obsession with his amphibious love.

But support and inspiration are not the same thing. "If a scientist has a supportive wife who allows him to concentrate on his work," Root-Bernstein says, "she's absolutely necessary to the creation; she's complicit in it, but she's not a muse." Prose quotes the writer Robert Graves, who wrote: "the domestication of the muse can actually destroy the poet's talent."

That Girl with a Pearl Earring is set in the 17th century is no coincidence; the muse reflects an outdated idea of womanhood, when women were valued more for being than for doing. Prose comes up with one example of a "male muse"—Denys Finch Hatton inspired his lover, Isak Dinesan, to write Out of Africa, by listening raptly to her stories when he visited her in Kenya. Switching gender roles may allow the muse-artist relationship to flourish as women become more prominent in the arts and sciences. Or a more symbiotic version might develop, a la Yoko Ono and John Lennon.

The muse, a beloved symbol in great art, can be counted on to sell a book or movie. But she's otherwise flighty. "If the writer doesn't sit at the computer every day," Root-Bernstein warns, "the muse is not going to visit."