“Sing Goddess, the anger of Peleus’s son, Achilleus”: this is how the Iliad begins in Richmond Lattimore’s translation. The Goddess is the Muse, and the poet invokes her help because he is about to chant a 16,000 line poem with nothing to go on but his memory and his skills. The notion that such creative activity is beyond the ordinary—is supernatural or spiritual—is a very old one.
The Iliad is not, however, the product of spontaneous creation. It is the product of a complex technique that must have taken years to learn. Each line is made up of five three-syllable units of which the first syllable takes twice as long to pronounce as the others [Baaiit-Bit-Bit], and these are followed by a unit of two long syllables [Baaiit-Baaiit]. Every pair of short syllables can be replaced by a long syllable, so the line can actually vary from 17 syllables to 12. There is a complex pattern of substitution which involves the names and descriptions of the heroes, gods, and goddesses in fixed epithets, descriptive phrases of various lengths. This apparatus serves as a cue to the memory and a framework for improvisation. Consequently, the help of the Muse is not so much needed for the creation of the lines, as for the effort required to get it all right over the immense length of the poem. In fact, every time something important is attempted, such as a long passage of genealogy, the poet might invoke the help of the Muse.
The Muses eventually became departmentalized, a Muse for every kind of creative activity (love poetry, history, dance, etc.), and this notion of supernatural inspiration was passed down with all the rest of the framework of Classical literature. It didn’t die out until the end of the nineteenth century so it was a major influence on the Romantic poets. Without it, would we be so ready to think that the artist is in touch with something which goes beyond intelligence, feeling, and skill? There is a deep irony in this, for the notion of some “spiritual” inspiration for art, which now lies on the Romantic side of the Classic/Romantic divide, originated on the Classic side. And as it happens, the idea is actually not important in art at all!
To illustrate these remarks, we can look at Degas and Van Gogh who make an interesting contrast. Those with Romantic inclinations might think of Van Gogh as the tortured genius inspired by something larger than himself. In contrast, Degas must seem cold by comparison. In fact, they both thought of themselves as artists in much the same terms.
Degas said, “No art is less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of study of the great masters—of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing. Nothing in art should resemble an accident . . . .” No single statement of Van Gogh’s is as explicit, but every reader of his enormous correspondence with his brother, Theo, has followed the development of his style, beginning with his conviction that drawing is central: “there are two approaches to painting . . . the right way, with much drawing and little color; the wrong way, with much color and little drawing.” Then, he puts color above value: “It isn’t possible to get both values and color . . . . You must choose—as I will—and it will probably be color.” Finally, he seeks to draw in color with his brush: “I am trying to develop brush work that is a varied stroke.” Progress along these lines describes the body of his work in a nutshell.
Early on, we find him copying exercises from a book of instructions for charcoal drawing. Later we find him copying again, transforming others’ drawings into paintings. Throughout, we find him making endless studies to build his technique, seeking books on color and perspective, taking lessons, and studying with others. The letters reveal a long, hard process of self-discipline, and the development of a recognizable technique that has many sources including Japanese prints, the brushwork of the Impressionists, Delacroix’s comments on color, and the advice that Gaugin gave the Nabis: “How does that tree look to you . . . green? Then use the greenest color on your palette. And that shadow . . . bluish? Don’t be afraid. Paint it as blue as you can.” Where is the “inspiration” in this long and grueling odyssey?
His madness contributed nothing to his art (“Starry Night,” for example, was painted before he became ill), and he felt that his illness threatened it. In the letters he wrote between attacks he assures Theo anxiously that he can still paint, and even that his paintings are as strong as they were before. His madness took the now-familiar form of hearing voices, feelings of persecution, etc. At the time of his attack on Gauguin and his cutting off of his own earlobe (not his ear), he believed that everyone was trying to poison him.
Perhaps those who are wedded to the notion of inspiration are really talking about the creation of an idea, and not the way in which it is developed, but we all have ideas: verbal, musical, visual. The person with talent and skills can make something of them, but for the rest of us they are stillborn. For the person with a well-stocked sensibility and practice in musical elaboration, a five-note phrase may eventually become a cantata, but the cantata, itself, does not spring full-blown into the composer’s mind. It is crafted, with greater or lesser effort, over time. J. S. Bach said that anyone could do what he did if he was willing to work as hard as he did. [Don’t believe this for a moment! Bach had extraordinary talent.]
The same thing can be said of every art, and the existing notebooks of the great poets show how they sought words and phrases, changed what they had written to accommodate a new idea, slaved and fretted to produce a text that flows so limpidly, seems so inevitable, that it appears to have always had that final form.
Of course, from another point of view, Degas and Van Gogh are worlds apart and wouldn’t have had much sympathy for each other. Degas’ art is reticent, an art of stillness in which his models are caught, absorbed in their tasks. Degas, himself, was one of the most private of artists, and little is known about him that he didn’t choose to make known. Van Gogh’s art, in contrast, is assertive. He dramatizes the colors and forms to heighten the emotional content. In his personal life, he was opinionated and abrasive, a quality that doesn’t appear directly in his letters which are endlessly self-justifying.
Thus, artistic expression emerges from one’s talent, emotions, imagination, interests, and abilities, nurtured by years of practice. To talk about “inspiration” is to do a disservice to an artist’s control of his or her craft, and to obscure the discipline which all significant artists have had in abundance.