Inspiration is for hacks and dilettantes?

I think I knew the quote “Inspiration is for amateurs” before I actually knew who Chuck Close was or what he did. I have since grown to like his paintings and admire his perseverance in the face of extraordinary physical disability. As a quadriplegic Chuck knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles. I would definitely go so far as to cite him as an authority on working hard.

And from this position of having been there and having done that he also has some advice for aspiring artists. The quote that everyone seems to know is the tiny bit about amateurs. The full quote fleshes that out a bit:

“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.”

You can see that he is really trying to caution folks against the idea that you can’t get to work unless you have some earth shattering new idea. And I would agree that this is excellent advice. But I’m not sure the shortened version of that quote fully expresses this. Instead it seems to indict ‘inspiration’ as something less than desirable, something unclean that should leave a bad taste if we are trying to be serious…. After all, if inspiration is only for amateurs, and amateurs are hacks, dilettantes, and merely casual dabblers, inspiration is somehow less important, maybe even less worthy, for the serious professional. That’s what it seems to be saying. If you aspire to be a professional or to take what you are doing seriously, then inspiration is not for you. It is for amateurs.

Is it possible to read that short phrase and not feel like inspiration is something sullied? That it is a bad thing? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that shortened quote has always left me feeling somewhat betrayed. Of course inspiration means more than what happens before you get to work, but phrasing it the way he did fails to distinguish that and lumps it all together. You can’t fault Chuck for believing in the virtues of hard work, but perhaps its possible to also say too much by saying too little….. Waiting for inspiration may be less than professional, but the quote everyone seems to notice is that inspiration itself is for amateurs. I’m not really taking exception to what Chuck means by the larger quote as a whole, only what it seems to be saying in the short version.

So I’ve almost always felt the need to ride to inspiration’s defense when that quote gets trotted out. Let me tackle the way it sounds to me. Once my hackles are raised I think something along these lines: Maybe I’m really just an amateur, so I can’t reliably comment on the necessary devotion to an absence of inspiration that professionals may require. Maybe I haven’t reached the stage in my career where inspiration simply drops out of the equation, where the process of art is anything but inspired. And perhaps if that is what is needed to be a professional I might have second thoughts about wanting to be one. You see, I happen to enjoy inspiration. My art almost always benefits from it. My passion for the process is encouraged by inspiration. Rather than seeing it as a vice I would almost always call it a virtue, that it is better to be inspired than not. I would even go so far as to say that a world without inspiration is a world I might not want to live in….. In my mind the more positive inspiration there is the better things will be. The less, the worse….

And so I’d like to dig a bit deeper into that short quote. There seems too much at stake to allow inspiration to carry a bad name. In my mind it seems that inspiration is for amateurs only like medicine is for babies. Or stupidity is for morons. You see, not only morons can say stupid things. Not only babies need medicine or benefit from it. Stupidity is a universal human trait. Medicine has a wide application. We are not defined by an occasional lapse in judgment (Unless of course stupidity defines us). Just because babies sometimes need medicine not everyone who needs it is a baby. The relationship between inspiration and amateurs is neither necessary, sufficient, nor causal. Just as everyone occasionally needs medicine, occasionally says stupid things, inspiration can land on anyone and can be used as a positive step forward. Saying “inspiration is for amateurs” is just calling people names and seems delusional, obnoxiously elitist and plain old mean spirited….

What I’d suggest is that, as Chuck notes, you are not really well served by waiting for inspiration, but if you ARE inspired its not such a bad thing. Inspiration is not a bad thing. Its not something you need to disown. Its not something you need to hide in a closet, but something you can bring out into the light, examine, and decide whether it will lead anywhere. To fail to do this is an act of stubborn resistance that puts momentum ahead of anything else. It signals that you can’t look around to find out what all the bells and whistles going off are because you are simply too preoccupied. Its a nose to the grindstone but never to the flowers. To not pay attention when an idea occurs is to prune the buds before they have a chance to flower. Rather than being the characteristic of a creative soul, I would say that ignoring inspiration is more like the agrarian determination to plow those furrows in exactly the lines that have been laid out and take no detours. But are artists more like farmers than I had imagined? Maybe in their determination, their perseverance, their duty to their task. Being a farmer is not a bad thing. But I would also say that being inspired is not a bad thing either. Its not only for amateurs. If artists are locked into a bovine monotony is this how best they can serve the world? Doesn’t it sound strange that artists are being warned off inspiration?

Isn’t it in fact actually the role of art to inspire, edify, and educate its audience? So how can something that aims at inspiration be so opposed to it? Are we saying that the best way for art to inspire is that it was created without inspiration? That doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, its possible that things created in the dull ennui of an insipid and uninspired afternoon may catch the eyes of an audience, but isn’t that a bit like faking it? You are just not into it, but you can pretend for the sake of others? Isn’t the power of art sometimes precisely that it does express the passion of its creator? The sometimes mad obsessive genius that drives eminent creators forward? The vision of something different? The vision that was mined from an extraordinary imagination, and, yes, inspired? Isn’t the creative passion of inspiration sometimes exactly what elevates an object to something transcending the mundane? Don’t we want to be inspired by art? Don’t we want to be moved by it? If appreciating art was simply a clinical diagnosis would art objects ever have the power and reverence they receive? I think not. If boredom begets boring, then surely inspiration begets inspiring.

So mull this over before you trot out that little quote or the next time you hear someone say it: If inspiration is for amateurs would you really want anything different? Not saying that it doesn’t also take hard work and showing up even when you don’t feel like it. But would you rather be inspired or would you rather live without it? If it is the latter, then maybe a desk job in some cubicle is more what you are looking for. If you are looking to be an artist I would say you already are a person who is not ashamed of looking for inspiration and nurturing its tiny flame when it appears. I would even say that the desire to be an artist is a choice of inspiration. Its not a decision that most people make from coldly rational reasons or from the plodding momentum of one’s life. Being an artist means breaking away from the norm, cutting across the furrows. Heading out into the untamed wilderness. It means taking the face value of conformity and rejecting it. It means burning the bridges of better reasons. Its not a sensible decision. Its the decision of a passionate soul that decides to put inspiration first. Not last. Its the decision of a person who is willing to defy conventions and follow their dreams.

Therefor, my advice for “young artists or really anyone who is willing to listen” is to definitely work your socks off, show up every day (or as often as you can), but also take inspiration as it comes. It can change your life. Only the people who are afraid of change or are unable to accept it are afraid of inspiration. And while you’re at it, look around. Take the time to watch the splendor of a setting sun. Savor the smell of freshly cut grass. Smile in wonder at the tiny spider spinning its web. Bask in the joy of loved ones. Marvel at new things. Visit a museum. Go to a concert. Pick up a paint brush. Take out your banjo.   Love the world.    Don’t hide from it. The world may be full of hard work, but that is not necessarily the best of what it has to offer. Hard work may not always be the best of what it means to be human. Aspire to more. Be inspired. Inspiration is for everyone….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Creativity. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Inspiration is for hacks and dilettantes?

  1. Pingback: Will Artificial Intelligence ever create Artificial Art? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  2. “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Jack London

  3. Beyond showing up

    “You’ve probably got that part nailed. Butt in seat, smile on your face. We often run into people who understand their job to be showing up on time to do the work that’s assigned.

    We’ve moved way beyond that now. Showing up and taking notes isn’t your job. Your job is to surprise and delight and to change the agenda. Your job is to escalate, reset expectations and make us delighted that you are part of the team.

    Showing up is overrated. Necessary but not nearly sufficient.”

    -Seth Godin

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