By Patricia Yaker Ekall
In 2014, a British Vogue article said the word “inspiring” had been used to death. Because this declaration was uttered from Vogue’s symbolic mouth, that word was doomed to become near obsolete in the eyes of the forward looking.
But what made “inspiring” suddenly so tiresome? It’s a word that conjures up positive connotations, with imagery drenched in mystery and other-worldliness. Moreover, is not the fact that it carries an aspirational air enough for it to remain relevant? And what – or whom – made it fall so out of fashion?
The Artist and The Muse
The rise of the 20th century’s contemporary artists might have been a breath of fresh air to the art world, but potentially also to blame for the over-use the term ‘inspiring.’ It seems there were too many outpourings of occasions where muses whispered into eager ears. Thus, people began to mistrust the idea of inspiration as the source of a genuine form of expression.
A clichéd trope of the type of questions asked of artists often went along the lines of: “what was your source of inspiration for…” While some were happy to oblige with minute details of their processes – real or imaginary for the sake of a sale – others famously refused to try to unravel their minds to entertain the passive curiosity of random people.
Claude Monet once famously said: “Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.”
And Salvador Dali put the nail in the coffin with this straight-forward view: “A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.”
Nowadays artists dread that, frankly, uninspired question because it’s difficult to pinpoint an individual’s personal process from inspiration to completion. Whatever is spoken out loud can never be a true representation of the organic activity that took place to make it so.
So, after years of pretty speak, there ensued cynicism around the idea of ‘inspiration,’ as a cause or result of brilliance. It was too vague, too flowery and soon speaking in such terms was deemed pretentious.
Creative, Born and Bred
Yet – to some, although fragile and fleeting – inspiration is everything. So much so that many believe it’s impossible to get anything done without it. It’s thought that a truly creative individual is inspired by everything they see. Thus, a creative person allows their artistic mind to capture any potentially relevant moment quickly.
Because the visual mind is like a camera, such triggering moments won’t go as fleetingly as they came. They’ll stay long after the initial hit. Creatives are gifted with the ability to store such treasures, as intangible as they may be, into a conveniently located part of the brain knowing they can retrieve it when necessary.
Being inspired on a daily basis means having a talent for remaining optimistic – it’s a luxury few have. Some might assume creativity would have to come naturally in order to see beauty in absolutely any and all. But we are all inherently creative.
Think, for example, of any time we’re faced with an issue. As soon as a problem arises, we use our creative faculties to figure out the next move. We envision the possible outcomes of making this decision, or that. Being able to foresee further complications down the line comes as a result of using our imagination, creating a visual story-line of sorts, to map out our route, our course of action.
However short this process may be – though it likely occurs several times on a daily basis – its role in our lives is undeniable. Arguably, our creativity acts as a protection. But creativity does not always materialise of its own accord. This is why we need inspiration.
Inspiration as a Tool for Creativity
Consciously taking stock of what inspires you is a form of self-empowerment. Choosing to appreciate any and all sources feeding your artistic endeavours (whatever they may be) requires a near stubborn ability to not only wait to be inspired but to endlessly seek it out.
Visiting galleries, attending shows and stomping at concerts is all well and good, but even the mundane can be rewarding. Jean Dubuffet said it best when he stated that “insanity is super sanity.” Normal, to Dubuffet, was the insanity:
“Normal means lack of imagination,” he said, “lack of creativity.” In other words, dismissing the pursuit of inspiration by settling into the hum drum of quotidian life is an abomination in the creative’s view. No matter how small or insignificant, seeing the abnormal in the normal is a crucial part of remaining inspired.
Ask yourself: as a child, did you ever look at the patterns in a leaf, or formulate recognisable silhouettes out of the shapes of clouds? This child-like ability to make-believe is a gift we’re all too keen to shake off as we grow older.
But there are those who would say “good! So much the better” to that, because who has time to daydream?
Like that Vogue article, many think the notion of inspiration, indeed the declaration that one is “inspired,” has become all too pedestrian. It’s as though we think such charms can only be afforded to the truly gifted. Inspiration is not for the ordinary man. Actively seeking it, sometimes through the medium of make-believe, is frivolous and high-minded. And so that notion springs to mind again: “being inspired” is pretentious; pretentiousness is taboo.
Inspiration x Pretentiousness
It may be wiser to embrace pretention – A.K.A make-believe, masking and aspiring – than to reject it altogether. But that’s easier said than done.
In his essay Pretentiousness: Why it Matters, Dan Fox wrote about the adult human’s desire to be seen as ‘real’ and how maintaining an unbending façade of authenticity means sacrificing passion.
“By the time you reach an age at which you can legally drink, vote, drive, consent to sex, or get married,” wrote Fox, “it’s presumed you know where to draw the line between fact and fantasy, where innocent play congeals into pretension.
“And nobody wants to be accused of that.”
And so the urge we naturally have to dream is challenged by an apprehension that we have to grow up by being realistic – an act which, of course, crushes dreams. Going against this pressure to be ‘grown-up’ by seeking out inspiration and even indulging in frivolity is seen as being pretentious.
It seems dreaming and ‘being real’ cannot exist in the same individual.
“One reason art is labelled pretentious is because it embraces creative risk,” continues Fox. “And risk often entails failure… There’s an altogether more generous view of pretentiousness that understands the gap between expectation and actuality as a productive necessity rather than a flaw.”
In other words, pretension is about “over-reaching what you’re capable of, taking the risk that you might fall flat on your face,” but doing it anyway.
Whether we embrace pretentiousness through endeavour or by simply indulging in seeking inspiration in the works of others, we can rest assured that progress would not be made without it.
According to Fox, pretentiousness “is the engine oil of culture; every creative motor needs it in order to keep running and not seize up and corrode with complacency.”
Nothing beats the freedom that comes from being creative; creativity cannot exist without inspiration and inspiration thrives on make-belief – otherwise known as pretention.