The Myth of Artistic Inspiration

pollock Jackson Pollock, the American abstract expressionist painter, seems to represent the pinnacle of pure creative inspiration. In the Hollywood movie based on his life, we see Pollock painting in bursts of inspiration, almost like an improvisational dancer.

The movie portrays Pollock as severely neurotic and alcoholic. Pollock is the perfect image of the Romantic creative figure–uncontrolled inspiration, welling up from the unconscious mind, causing both neurosis and genius.

But art experts know that this is mostly a myth. Just the opposite: Pollock carefully planned his works and revised them repeatedly. And it’s not as if this is a secret; as long ago as 1961, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg (perhaps Pollock’s biggest fan) wrote:

Pollock learned to control flung and dripped paint almost as well as he could a brush; if accidents played any part, they were happy accidents, selected accidents, as with any painter.

Pollock Mural 1943In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, we see a large image of Pollock’s famous masterpiece “Mural,” at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, with a group of experts analyzing “nearly microscopic bits of paint from the canvas to probe its secrets”. Right away, they discovered that some of the paint had dried before new layers were applied. They conclude that it’s “unlikely that the entire work was painted in one manic all-nighter,” confirming what Clement Greenberg already knew long ago.

You’ve probably heard lots of stories about famous creators who supposedly created an entire work in a fit of inspiration, generating something so perfect that they never modified it. Mozart is said to have composed in bursts of inspiration (you can see it in the movie Amadeus); the Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge has the same reputation. And guess what? These stories are just as false as the myths about Jackson Pollock.

  • Music historians have known since the 1960s that “Mozart’s creative process was controlled by a consistently practical approach to the business aspects of music” and that “his manuscripts show evidence of careful editing, revision, and hard work” (Explaining Creativity page 339).
  • Coleridge experts have known since the 1920s that he fabricated his own stories about writing poems in a fit of inspiration. The famous poem “Kubla Khan,” for example–which Coleridge claims to have written in a drug-induced haze–went through many revisions that still exist. Among his Romantic-era colleagues, Coleridge was so famous for making up false stories about inspiration, they would often tease him about it (Explaining Creativity page 322).

No great work ever emerges fully formed from the mind. People become known as “exceptional creators” not because of the power of their inspiration, but because of the intensity and dedication of their work process; because of their ability to stay focused through multiple revisions; and because of their ability to negotiate a zigzag path from the first glimmer of an idea to the final full-fledged work.

*Greenberg, 1961/1996, “The Jackson Pollock market soars,” The New York Times Magazine, April 16, 1961 issue; reprinted 1996, April 14, p. 116.

Also see Explaining Creativity, 2012, p. 305.

18 thoughts on “The Myth of Artistic Inspiration

  1. What about the role of improvisation? Not the planning of it, but the actually performative aspects of the act. Aren’t some of the myths associated with creativity embedded in the performative aspects of improvisation, in-flight creativity?

  2. Most of my own research has focused on improvisation, so I love your comment! I got into creativity research because of my own fascination with my experience as a jazz pianist. Jazz improvisation requires immense expertise, practice, rehearsal…there are a lot of myths surrounding jazz, too–the myth that jazz musicians are untrained wellsprings of musical inspiration. Yes, during performance new things continually happen (although they are more often inspired by other members of the ensemble than by some inner genius) but what makes a jazz performance a great one is when those small little new things are woven together into a compelling performance.

    1. Thanks, Keith. I’ve studied your work on improv in teaching and improv in theatre (and your work on creativity). I’m completing my PhD on the improvisation practice of Pauline Oliveros. Jazz improv, you’re right, has also created a few myths about the nature of improv as it relates to other areas of expertise. I learned from you how socioculturally contextualized these practices actually are. Thank very much for your work.

    2. So you do acknowledge that inspiration exists, but you are reluctant to accredit it if it’s ‘mysterious or sudden’? It’s not mysterious if it’s ‘infectious’, but if it is relegated to some bodiless, intangible it’s not real? I am suspicious of people who are suspicious of invisible realities, as if the 5 senses of a person are the sole criteria of genuine being. Of course there are reams of b.s. in the realms of music and art history inspiration is real enough inspite of the hype.

      1. I am nervous about how some people use the term “inspiration” because it makes creativity sound more mysterious than it really is. But sure, I myself have small moments of mini-insights quite often, I think we all do. I have no nervousness or suspicions about what is actually happening, however. The reality of creativity is a long extended process with many small bits of ideas along the way. Each of those small bits is generally fairly easy to explain in terms of the prior hard work and psychological make-up of the creator. It only seems mysterious and hard to explain if you see just the final created product, and you don’t see the long process of hard work that generated it.

  3. And yes, surprising new things happen during improvisation, that’s part of what makes it so fascinating! But I’m suspicious of an interpretation that it is “mysterious, sudden inspiration.”

    1. Don’t these inspirations happen somewhat regularly to expert and non-expert performers in all kinds of so-called non-creative arenas? Nonconscous automatic behaviour in athletes, catching a dropped glass in the kitchen, the connection-making between two disparate ideas by the student, choosing to tell the truth of one’s experience in a department meeting, letting go of fear/shame in some human activity–aren’t these revelations felt by the performer as sudden?

  4. I agree. In a way, all human cognition is “sudden”–every day, unexpected things happen, and we deal with them. But would you call all of these decisions “inspirations”? Every painter has literally hundreds of decision making moments each day: how long should this stroke be? How much pressure on the brush? At the beginning of the stroke and at the end? Should I mix in more of the red pigment, or more of the yellow? In my view, creativity emerges from hundreds and thousands of these everyday small decisions. Each of them could be said to be moments of “creativity.” I am nervous about calling them moments of “inspiration” simply because that’s a loaded term, but I suppose they are, in a way…perhaps “mini-inspirations.”

    I am reminded of the movie of Picasso painting, called “The mystery of Picasso”…

    1. I hear you. Very intriguing.

      Don’t you experience a differentiation of these moments when writing a first draft?

      Sometimes these decisions are simply small as you suggest; other times, you reach something a little more unexpected, an epiphany, an insight, a surprise. Most writers depends upon these inspirations.

      You can’t predict what they will be, but you can predict that they will happen especially if you remain open to the discovery process inherent in the process of writing.

      I don’t know what to call them, but they happen, feel reliable, but also “reliably unexpected.” Probably not the same as landing your plane on the Hudson, but in a way there is an embodied quality to the experience because they happen in-flight and are experienced in the moment, and like improvised music, are composed and performed simultaneously.

  5. Sure, there is a range of surprisingness to the solutions that come to mind, the phrasings, or the idea to move a paragraph to another location, or a clever heading. I’m like most writers in that I write a lot of stuff in “first draft” form and then most of it never gets used for anything. Yes, the ideas are in there, but sometimes it’s not clear until later (when re-reading) which things are worth pursuing. So the subjective feeling of inspiration isn’t a good measure of what is actually good and worth keeping. At least, for me…

    1. That’s very good point. Nothing like interrogating one’s own improvisations.

      The re-reading part is very interesting. I do the same thing. Sometimes the epiphany is obvious, but more often than not, there are surprising “recognitions” that arrive upon re-reading.

      Oliveros puts this into her practice of “deep listening” where her process is to record all her improvisations and then re-listen to them–to uncover that what was not so available upon first hearing.

      Inspiration is pretty subjective; but so is calling one thing innovative and another thing not. Who gets to decide? It is interesting that outcome-based definitions of creativity are most often based upon after-the-fact judgments.

      As you say elsewhere, there is a bottom-up and top-down oscillation between two kinds of perspectives. What I appreciate about the re-reading point is that there is something “relational” about improvisation, even if it between the self and the self-within or expressed as writers often do–between the creator and the editor.

  6. Thanks for your post, as a former teacher of Art History, I am a Pollock fan. We talk about his inspiration, his freneticism, though in my mind it is the peacefulness of his large canvases that is so moving–like the calm of the white noise of the ocean.

    By the way, do you know how experts discern a real Pollock from a fake? It is the attention to detail. Those extra long drips of paint that so carefully extend from one part of the painting to the other. Inspiration yes, deliberate creativity, ditto.

  7. Thank you for your thinking, Keith. I’m happy to hear of Pollock’s discipline. Here’s my personal take on inspiration and creativity: Every once in a while, I get an idea that comes with a strong feeling. These ideas come in dreams, in the hypnagogic state between waking and sleeping, or when I’m doing something physical that is occupying some, but not all, of my attention, like running. It’s a lovely feeling to discover one of these ideas with feelings. They may be inspired, but they are nothing until I have written them down and then spent hours, days, weeks, and months in the studio turning them into performance material. For me, creativity means making something, and it’s a work process with many random paths and wrong turns that gradually reveal the performance material. Another part of my creative process is practicing my craft, and from investing my attention in the practice, discovering new ideas. As a mime, it is a process of taking the ephemeral and embodying it. It is a fun and exciting exploration: listening for small voices, following impulses, paying attention to this moment, and being open to not knowing where I’m heading.

    1. “The mime who talks,” wow!

      The process you describe sounds just like the creative process in every domain…making, with random paths and wrong turns. I call them “zigzags” and that’s why my new book (coming out in March) is called ZIG ZAG: THE SURPRISING PATH TO GREATER CREATIVITY.

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