Art, Anguish and the Muse

I really enjoyed this recent TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. She raises some very interesting topics with refreshing candour and humour. Specifically the relationship between creativity and suffering, and the concept of the muse.

Are creativity and suffering linked? Does artistry lead to anguish? To me it seems somewhat fallacious to continue the tendency to conflate these states – as in the stereotype of the suffering hyper-talented artist or the intense neurotic writer. I agree with Gilbert, in that I believe these to be dangerous assumptions and do not wish for them to be perpetuated. Yet, considering all the young deaths, suicides and mental suffering that can potentially be linked to creativity, these questions do seem to ask for some scrutiny, don’t they? No. Simply put, correlation does not imply causation. It seems far more likely to me that the placement of a sensitive creative open mind into a social setting hostile toward all things sensitive creative and open will lead to anguish. To say that the creative urge is the cause of it only adds insult to injury.

Openness, inquisitiveness, uncertainty, individuality; these are creative virtues, yet social sins. Can you imagine a politician getting elected with these qualities? Can you imagine an artist painting without them?

The concept of the muse comes up in the talk as a way to psychologically protect a creative person from the results of their work, good or bad. The idea being that this would be a useful concept to bring back into use. I’ve certainly found it useful. When she talked about peoples experiences of the muse, I really connected with that. Could it be a psychological defence I’ve developed? Maybe. But perhaps they’re real. Who knows? In any case, suffering seems the least likely way to get their attention.

A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.

― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

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