“Where do you find your inspiration?”
I’ve been asked this question dozens of times and if you’re an artist I’m sure you have, too. Almost anytime an artist is interviewed this question comes up. But it shouldn’t. Asking an artist, “Where do you find your inspiration?” is a not a good question. It frames art making and creativity in a way that’s pretty flawed. I’d go so far as to say it undermines the true labor of creative work.
Here are five flaws I see in the question, “Where do you find your inspiration?”
1. It implies that there’s a recipe for making art.
In hearing or reading the answer to this question we hope to maybe reverse engineer it, reenact what she did, and figure out the trick to effortlessly make beautiful things. The thinking goes something like this: “If I look at what she looked at, visit the places she visited, live where she lives, had what she has, then I will have the manual. I'll know how to do this.”
But the truth is there is no manual and no recipe. It isn’t a simple set of steps or a particular sketch pad or a mountaintop vista at sunset that you need. You already have everything you need inside of you, without this sort of handed down roadmap.
2. It refers to something passive that comes and goes at random.
“When inspiration strikes.” That’s a common phrase we've all heard. Inspiration is something that comes at you from somewhere else. You’re lucky when it hits because sometimes, or most of the time, it doesn’t, and then you’re stuck in limbo, waiting.
3. It denotes something that comes from elsewhere.
Things that come from elsewhere are out of our control. They’re elusive. We can’t replicate them and we can’t teach them to ourselves, or others. In fact, art making comes from inside. It’s intentional and we start and stop and start again when we choose to. We can train ourselves to work hard, and we can train others to do the same.
Chuck Close said it best.
“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work."
"All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.”
The more you work, the more ideas there are to work on. Sometimes that means the work is crap, but what’s important is that you’re working. You’ve got to make crappy stuff once in a while and throw it out because then you can react to that thing in the trashcan.
4. It doesn’t acknowledge hard work.
There is no pain in inspiration. No trudging through. No unpicking this seam for the fourth time and trying again. There are no long stretches of boring work, of painful revision, of self-doubt.
5. Waiting for it is an easy excuse.
“I can’t start now because I don’t feel inspired.” Maybe it’s the other way around. You don’t feel inspired because you haven’t started. Creative work is work like any other. Some days it flows and some days you have to give yourself a mighty kick in the pants. I can tell you one thing for sure: nothing happens if you never begin.
The next time you're interviewing an artist, or being interviewed, turn this question around. Ask, "Where do artists go when they're out of ideas?" or, "Do you ever have days where you don't feel like working? What do you do then?" If you want to get at who's influencing their aesthetic right now, ask about that. You can most certainly come up with a better question than, "Where do you find your inspiration?"