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.