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Women Artists Muse about Muses


Two friends and I sit down to lunch at the Little Toad Inn out at Lake Roberts after a hike around the lake.

Carlene is reading Spending by Mary Gordon. The story is about an artist and her muse.

Monica Szabo, a middle-aged, moderately successful painter, encounters B, a wealthy commodities broker who collects her work. B volunteers to be her muse, offering her everything that male artists have always had to produce great art: time, space, money, and sex. [ synopsis]

Carlene is herself a talented artist. The idea of a muse for a woman artist intrigues her; classically, male artists had muses, but women? It seems not so much.

Gail is an aspiring artist. The suggestion of a muse captures her. No artist, me; I’m a reader who loves a good story.

After giving us the Cliff Notes on Spending, Carlene raises the question: just what is a muse?

We linger from coffee to entree to dessert, exploring the question. Is a muse always a sexual partner? Does a muse do the laundry? Patrons sponsor artists by providing funds to allow the artist to work. Do muses?

To the probable amusement of other patrons in our restaurant surroundings overhearing our exchange, we go around and back on the question: What is the role of the muse? Somehow, the concept of the muse as housefrau, sex kitten (or tomcat, in the context of Spending) and money bags combined doesn’t sit too well.

I can’t contribute much, having no conscious acquaintance with muses.

Gail goes home and googles ‘muse.’ An interesting 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) pops up: Where Have All the Muses Gone? Helen’s face launched a thousand ships. Inspiration is harder to come by these days. A bit lengthy, the article traces the history and evolution of the muse from the original Greek/Roman divinities – read, no sex – to the Italian Renaissance, when muses left the divine world and became, as the article states, “…earthly, and very touchable, women.” Toward the end of the article, it is posited: “Yet the muse-world has thinned out. Artists may still have a muse, but the once-standard and then legendary relationship is no longer part of our common vocabulary. These days a muse’s role as equal partner and/or equal talent now outweighs her or his function as inspiration. Who, in our proudly individualistic culture wants to feel like a valet to someone else’s imagination?”

Not one to leave well-enough alone, I poke around on the internet a little more. My first stop is Wikipedia, which begins its discussion, “The Muses…in Greek mythology, poetry and literature, are the goddesses of the inspiration of literature, science and the arts. They were considered the source of the knowledge, related orally for centuries in the ancient culture, that was contained in poetic lyrics and myths. Further, Wikipedia reports that The Muses … included Science, Geography, Mathematics, Philosophy, and especially Art, Drama, and inspiration.”

Then, I amuse myself reading through the comments of writers, artists and others who regularly call on their muses. (Quotes About Muse, GoodReads) Apparently there’s a wide range of opinions.

Rochelle Distelheim writes in 1985: “… and I’ll tell you no muse is a good muse unless she also helps with the laundry.”

And this from Helen Hanson, “Inspiration is the windfall from hard work and focus. Muses are too unreliable to keep on the payroll.”

Erica Jong, “But the fact is, she [the muse] won’t be summoned. She alights when it damn well pleases her. She falls in love with one artist, then deserts him for another. She’s a real bitch!”

Mmm, there must be something a little more…elevated.

“All of us need to be in touch with a mysterious, tantalizing source of inspiration that teases our sense of wonder and goads us on to life’s next adventure.” (Rob Brezsny).

I pursue the conversation with another friend, a published author; what does she think a muse is and does she have one? She has a short answer and a longer one. Short: her muse is nature as the divine. Long: we discuss Jung’s anima and animus– anima, the feminine archetype in men and animus, the male archetype in women. Following Jung’s thinking, the muse, anima or animus, does not sit on a lintel fairy-dusting the writer nor set up a trust account greening the painter’s palette. Imagination, creativity, spirit, intuition are the gifts; wisdom-maker, dream-guide, divine messenger and mediator between conscious and unconscious are the roles.

Carlene abandons the book, letting us know that it is up for grabs. She can’t push her way through the relationship quagmire between the story’s artist and her so-called muse. If that’s what a muse is, she’s glad not to have one!

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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