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The Gods have not returned. “They have never left us.”
On choosing to acknowledge the Muse
No other word so characterizes the confusion of our age as progress. Progress is made by the hour—new technologies, terminology, shibboleths, identities are born. Those developing and coining and cultivating the new see themselves as making advancements, as irrefutably improving on things. The advent of the new that is necessarily better by virtue of its novelty: This is progress.
Art lovers know best the fundamental apartness of newness and improvement. They know “the obvious fact,” as did T. S. Eliot, “that art never improves.” Eliot was struck by the fact, as Hugh Kenner tells it, while standing in a cave in southern France, looking upon drawn black lines of magnesium oxide that form the shapes of roaming bison. What has been drawn since then, in any medium upon any surface, with more exquisite sensitivity? The artist had stood in the poet’s place some thirteen thousand years earlier.
It would be nonsense to say that Manet—because later, because he depicted scenes closer to those we know as modern life, because he made rougher and bolder an already loosening brush stroke—is a better painter than Titian, or the free verse of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” more advanced than the terza rima of “Ode to the West Wind.” The history of art, rather than a story of improvement, is one of development, change, and genuine innovation. Aesthetic leaps, small and large, are real. To recognize them where they occur is to be an aesthete—to know great artworks, however familiar they might seem, as fundamentally miraculous, the most uninevitable of all phenomena.
When in the early fourteenth century Giotto painted with light and shadow the deep folds of her blue robe hanging weightily—realistically—between the Madonna’s knees, he was sloughing off the Byzantine convention, orthodox for hundreds of years, of two-dimensional damp-fold drapery. Giotto’s developments upon that wooden panel, subtle and profound, cannot be explained away as adaptations of or play on another artist’s style, nor as the expected byproduct of social, technological, or even psychological change in the period. He was not carried off the shoulders of his predecessors and contemporaries on a wind bound inexorably for the aesthetic magnificence of the sixteenth century. Though Giotto’s innovations eventuated in High Renaissance art, they no more had to, in some predestined sense, than his hand had to dip his brush in that dark blue tempera and apply the pigment as he precisely did.
Novelty alone makes for dryly interesting art—worth discussing once, never returning to again—not masterpieces. But the masterpiece is always that which distinguishes itself from other works not by degrees but fully, in kind. It is a singularity, not a variation. How does the singularity come about?
We have masterpieces because the gods will it. Throughout history, artists have admitted and refused to admit their role. When the gods go unnamed, various metaphors are cited in their place: The artist has been given gifts, or has acted as a medium, or has availed herself of chance or the unconscious. But these are metaphors, all pointing to the same reality. Across art forms, great works have been made to exist by artists acting with an agency lent them, temporarily, briefly, by the Muses. Aesthetic leaps are a consequence of the Muses’ inspiration.
The visionary is another metaphor. An artist with vision can see through the world as it is, past the art surrounding and preceding him, and then realize (make real, tangible and visible) what others could not see. His is a sight in excess of human vision. More accurately, the visionary is an artist whom the Muses routinely visit.
Inevitably, artists implore the gods. Yet their appearances are spontaneous, unpredictable. They cannot be commanded, just as the artist cannot command the right words to fill the page, no more than she can command a snow leopard before her.
They are there in the name of those institutions that collect and display for the public our great visual artworks. From Mοῦσᾰ (Moûsa), “Muse” in English, comes Μουσεῖον (Mouseîon), “the seat, or shrine, of the Muses.” The museum is a temple to the goddesses of the arts.
Who are these gods? Accounts among the poets differ.1 Throughout antiquity, most commonly there are held to be nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Different art forms fall under the auspices of each Muse.
Further details about the nine can be catalogued. What matters is how exactly the gods preside over the arts. Pindar’s invocations are varied: The lyric poet assists the Muse, receives her aid, is her herald, is her partner in verse. Appealing to the Muse for knowledge is one of Homer’s motifs. Such references are in no small part rhetorical, bound by tradition to the poet’s genre. But Hesiod in the Theogony is our guiding source here, his description of the spontaneous encounter between artist and Muse the earliest we have:
And they once taught Hesiod the art of singing verse, While he pastured his lambs on holy Helicon’s slopes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And they gave me a staff, a branch of good sappy laurel, Plucking it off, spectacular. And they breathed into me A voice divine, so I might celebrate past and future.
Here, near the beginning of this 2,700-year-old epic poem, we meet inspiration with all its meaning intact. The poet has been granted a new voice, verbally reanimated, by the Muses. Hesiod’s language is Ionic Greek. What has made its way to us is the Latin: in + spirare (from spiritus, “breath, or spirit”) becomes “into” + “(to) breathe.” The gods inspire the artist; they breathe into him their song.
Of course, this is no longer inspiration’s commonplace meaning. The Muses’ act has long been secularized out of all recognition. Inspiration is an industry, catering to all. Events, images, and especially human stories (of success, of hardships overcome) inspire individuals and the public en mass. There’s a diffuse, ongoing sense to all this inspiration. It hangs in the air, and clings to those passing through, and trails behind them like perfume.
Even for artists today, inspiration is markedly secularized. “This poem was inspired by . . .” something witnessed, a cryptic element in another artist’s work, historical facts, a life experience, the sky at dawn. Or even more diffusely: “I felt inspired today.” Secular inspiration generates the very impetus for artworks to be made.
The gods operate otherwise. Inspiration, source of the aesthetic leap, is bound to artistic process. For the Muse to lend her agency to him, the artist must already be at work. Her voice, for a moment, for some hours, replaces that voice already singing.
What of the atheist artist, who denies the gods? I write of the Muses as real. But even the most trenchantly irreligious artists, those who would scoff at my terms, have recourse to concepts of a requisite power outside their control—a power clearly analogous to the Muses’.
I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance. . . . By all this I hope you won’t get the idea that I think I’m inspired—I just think that I receive.
Seemingly out of modesty, the painter Francis Bacon rejected the notion of inspiration. He spoke fluently about the internal conditions necessary to art making: the forces of will and of artistic instinct (inexplicable, though to some extent cultivated). An external, third force—that of chance, or accident2—was a recurrent subject of Bacon’s engrossing conversations on his painting practice:
As one conditions oneself by time and by working to what happens, one becomes more alive to what the accident has proposed for one. . . . I feel that anything I’ve ever liked at all has been the result of an accident on which I have been able to work.
Your critical side comes into play and you begin to construct on this basis which seems to have been organically, by chance, given to you.
Bacon spoke repeatedly of the images that his paintings manifested having been “handed” to him by chance. “You can’t order chance,” he asserted. But on more than one occasion he suggests that the medium of chance is in fact paint itself, which can assert its own intention over and above the artist’s: “I find that if I am on my own I can allow the paint to dictate to me.”
Bacon is no crude materialist. Though he disclaims inspiration, as is his prerogative, he speaks of paint as though it were imbued with something like an animistic force, an autonomous will that guides the artist. Choosing to acknowledge that will as the Muse’s is our own prerogative.
The gods are not slandered; they are utterly forgotten. To wave a hand and attribute this fact to secularism’s ascent over the past two centuries is inadmissible. Advanced over decades and from various directions, campaigns to demystify art—to make art legible, unmysterious, or more accessible—have obscured its nature, perversely. Those most involved in arts and culture have led the campaigns.
There is the grinding insistence on artworks as social artifacts, pure products of their contexts. Academics have long trained students in lifting veils. For them, ideology—not the Muse—makes a mouthpiece of the artist. Jed Perl, our most important living art critic, wrote a quarter century ago of how a manifestation of the contextualist approach—“the assumption . . . that art is born, lives, and dies in the public sphere”—had brought about a state of “systemic crisis” in the contemporary art and museum worlds. The crisis stands; similar crises afflict the performing arts and book publishing. As Perl explains, contextualists do not believe in art’s freestanding value, since “the very idea of value is regarded as a social construct.”
There is the new sentimentalism, an especially crass fixation on “beauty” as the determining factor of great art. No one’s diet is as bland as the sentimentalist’s. Devoted to drab naturalism, he confuses technical precision for genius and simplifies aesthetic experience to the point of gross distortion. The supposed ugliness of modernism he scorns—yet somehow the great strains of bawdiness and perversion, of the menacing and horrific, that course through the Western canon have evaded this noble defender of tradition. He is, in other words, parochial, ignorant. By refusing to recognize the tradition of aesthetic innovation that constitutes the history of art, the sentimentalist in his own way denies the Muse.
There is the profaning of the Muse herself. Great significance is assigned to the real-life “artist’s muse,” a subject beloved of film, radio, and print. Whether an artist referred to his muse as such is irrelevant. Too little attention has been paid to her life and her talents, too much to the work of the man she inspired. The Muse, of course, bears no relation to this living figure and her inspiration. Commonly, those lacking all aesthetic sensitivity fix on the secular muse as a way to wrangle distracting trivia from an artwork. They can talk about her instead of talking about art.
But the demystification campaign that has been waged most urgently, most gravely, most unremittingly, is that against the dirty myth of artistic genius.
Tracts against genius are remarkable in their similarity: the strident tone, the idle prose. Arguments are not made in these tracts. Typically, they call upon an essay published half a century ago by the art historian Linda Nochlin. “Genius” is gendered, obscures privilege, and is therefore fraudulent, because Linda Nochlin told us so.3
Underlying the question about woman as artist, then, we find the myth of the Great Artist—subject of a hundred monographs, unique, godlike—bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence . . . called Genius or Talent, which, like murder, must always out, no matter how unlikely or unpromising the circumstances.
The scholar does not make the case that works of artistic genius are nonexistent. The myth she points to is, in fact, not genius precisely but “the apparently miraculous, non-determined and a-social nature of artistic achievement.” She calls on her colleagues to be contextualists, to concern themselves with artists’ “pre-conditions for achievement”—instead, presumably, of artists’ actual achievements.
I see no reason whatsoever why, in the twenty-first century, belief in the reality of genius should carry with it belief that the genius artist was destined to be such; could never be thwarted; required neither exposure to art nor training nor certain freedoms (some borne of will and disposition, some socially granted) of spirit, body, and mind. Why would the Muses visit just anyone? By their repeated visits, the gods make geniuses of those artists whose discipline, nurtured skill, and dedication are unquestionable.
Artist biopics, trashy and fun, keep representations of artistic genius alive. Among the highly credentialled, relatively cultured population, the myth of genius has largely stuck. Like the canon itself, genius is taken to be a construct—a tool of power. For many within the arts, for some artist themselves, believing in genius is at best uncouth, a mark of unsophistication. It is at worst morally suspect.
A fair response to my account could cite the art market as proof that belief in genius, far from being undone, has over the last fifty years been consolidated. The basis on which artworks go up at auction for hundreds of millions rather than hundreds is their authenticity, an absence of doubt about the maker’s identity. An Agnes Martin copied in another’s hand will not do. Furthermore, the valuation of masterpieces tends in one direction only; genius is reified with every fall of the auctioneer’s gavel.
In truth, the market’s perversity is all the more reason to affirm the singularity of works of genius—specifically, to assert their concrete aesthetic worth over their abstract monetary value. For the market to hold, as in principle it does, that one Mondrian is the equivalent of a dozen Frankenthalers is ludicrous. Because the gods willed them to exist, the greatest artworks belong not in private homes and storage vaults but on display, for all, at shrines to the Muses—in museums.
That no great artist is wholly responsible for his or her work is today a truism. We continue to be informed, by pedants who think the idea somehow unstale, that artists are influenced; that they borrow and steal; that they require innate talent, yes, but equally encouragement, ambition, training, opportunity, resources, and time.
It amounts to an odd formula, this list of requirements. Here the input: And the output is art. It should come as no surprise that even serious lovers of art have met the prospect of a future in which AI replaces artists with defensiveness and concern. If artwork now means “the output of one for whom the listed conditions are met,” an artificially intelligent machine could well be an artist.
Briefly, two reasons why AI art has been treated with any seriousness at all—albeit erroneously—are worth elaborating. First, a total confusion of categories plagues our culturally illiterate time. Parallel to the mistaking of pop culture for all culture has been the inflating of “artist” to include illustrators and digital designers, people who make not artworks but rather visual commercial products. These artists whose images are informational and embellishing; whose work appears in ads and articles, on websites, posters, and book covers; who make cartoons from the sacred text of Linda Nochlin—these artists will absolutely lose their livelihoods to AI. Writers with equivalent careers—producers of “copy,” op-eds, pop culture reviews, and genre fiction—will also be replaced. They should have our sympathy, and we should not mistake them for artists.
The second reason, more pertinent, is that postmodernism’s rejection of originality, its disbelief in the possibility for newness in art, has been blithely accepted. Once this coarse proposition is taken for fact, it follows that all art is understood as assemblage, juxtaposition, appropriation, remixing. And of what, and what only, is AI capable? Its standard request is to render, in either image or text, a subject x in the style of y. From the internet, the AI culls preexisting contents (subjects) and forms (styles), and reassembles, juxtaposes, appropriates, and remixes them.
And if we simply . . . do not subscribe to postmodernism’s theory of art? Then, the limitations of AI are immediately apparent. It will never produce anything of novel aesthetic value, anything remotely approximating great art. The Muse cannot breathe her inspiration into a machine.
It would also be a vanity to suggest that what one does oneself might help to thicken life. But, of course, we do know that our lives have been thickened by great art. One of the very few ways in which life has been really thickened is by the great things that a few people have left. —Francis Bacon, interview with David Sylvester
We need only survey the state of the arts to deduce there is nothing inevitable about masterpieces. Decades of social, technological, and psychological change precede us. The future for art, if works of genius are to be realized, depends on art being remystified, both in the public psyche and in the minds of artists. Despite our longstanding misapprehension of art’s nature, the gods, as Ezra Pound knew, have never left us.
If you do not hold that your life has been thickened by great art, I will not attempt to convince you it has. One knows only for oneself. Paradoxically, in recalling the Muses, art lovers are brought back to the significance of the individual artist and her process—to the artwork as a result, always and ultimately, of the most passionate and dedicated human endeavor. The Muse returns us to the nonnegotiable humanness of art.
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In two of our fragments of Alcman, earliest of the nine canonical lyric poets, he calls the Muse whom he invokes “daughter of Zeus.” Odd, then, that historian Diodorus tells us Alcman said the Muses were daughters of earlier, primordial gods—Uranus (sky) and Gaia (earth). The elegiac poet Mimnermus apparently wrote there are two generations of Muses: the elder, daughters of Uranus; the younger, daughters of Zeus. Pausanias—the great travel writer, not a poet—says the first to worship the Muses at the sacred site Mount Helicon held there were three goddesses; nine were named later. Three Muses were worshipped at Delphi and known there, naturally, as daughters of Apollo. Homer speaks of a Muse, of the Muses, and, once, of nine Muses. Ovid has a Muse recount for Athena the story of nine sisters who, in their hubris, challenged the nine Muses to a singing contest. Dante invokes them in the plural. An Orphic Hymn calls Mnemosyne the mother “of the holy, sweetly-speaking Nine.” They are Mnemosyne’s daughters, too, for Hesiod and Pindar.
Reviewing an art show in the fifties, Bacon writes that a fellow artist “seems to have the gods on his side.” On his side in what? “In this game of chance” that is painting. For this avowed atheist, the gods are figurative; chance is concrete.
Those portions of Nochlin’s essay that set out to answer the question posed in its title, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” do so entirely convincingly. Her historical facts are incontestable. In no way does she overstate the “universality of the discrimination” (social, institutional, psychic) that has until very recently in history confronted women artists.