The Myth of the Muse

There is an enduring myth about Artists: they have access to something that most of us do not—a Muse which provides inspiration for some creative action. As this myth goes, the artist is most productive when his muse is whispering in his ear—he need only to listen and then apply his talent. Conversely, when an artist goes through a dry patch, it is his muse which has left him, or due to distraction he has temporarily lost his ability to tune into the muse’s frequency.

The myth of the muse has been perpetuated through the ages because the idea serves the art world well. In particular the myth reinforces another myth—the specialness of the artist; he not only has rare skills, he has a muse—and most of us have neither. The myth is maintained but only very subtly because if pushed too hard the Muse would take on the status of the Leprechaun, and instead of subliminally enhancing the aura of the artist, would reduces him and his Muse to cultural joke.

The myth has been perpetuated both in Art and in writing. In a 2008 article for the Guardian, a UK publication, feminist and journalist Germaine Greer discussed various artists who had living breathing muses rather than the more common Harvey the Rabbit, perceptible-only-to-the-artist type. She had this to say about the role of the muse: The muse in her purest aspect is the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work. She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang, except that, in a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind. (

Artist Judith Levy does her bit to maintain the myth in a piece on her website entitled “Artist and Muse”, where she discusses her work that explores her “artist/muse relationship and creative process.” (

When I’ve asked various working artists I’ve know what inspires them, the typical answer is not Muse, but desperation, deadline, due date, 11th hour. A case in point was a brief discussion I recently had with a young photographer whose work was being exhibited at a small Denver gallery. It was clear that there was a single thematic thread throughout the work, so I asked her what inspired to create art around this theme. Her answer, essentially, was this: with the deadline to get Art up on the wall for her showing rapidly approaching she hadn’t been able to come up with anything. Nada. Finally, in desperation, she just starting shooting, and suddenly it all sort of came together. One image led to another. A theme discovered, a body of work created. Just in time. And it was good work too. Desperation and Deadline, coupled no doubt with sweat and talent, had carried the day—a Muse was not involved.

This entry was posted in Essays.

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