The unusual things that inspire art - and why it happens

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The unusual things that inspire art - and why it happens

Have you ever wondered where artists find their inspiration? The answer, of course, varies enormously from one to another, but many of our greatest artists have discovered meaning and import in places you wouldn’t expect. Why does this happen, and what is it that enables them to connect with such sources when other people notice nothing special about them? The answer is that artists are not quite like other people. Their brains differ at a fundamental level, and while the individual differences might not be all that unusual on their own, a combination of them can dramatically change the way they perceive the world.

The creative imagination
Did you know that we don’t all imagine things in the same way? When we talk about particular individuals having ‘a lot of imagination’, we’re generally referring to their enthusiasm for exercising their imagination, not the experience in itself, but the real differences between us begin at a very basic level. Around 6% of people have no visual imagination at all – that is to say, no ability to picture something that isn’t there, though they can still hold the concept of it in their minds. Only around 25% of people can see images in their mind’s eye which look as real to them as the real world, and fewer still can manipulate those images at will. The ability to do this dramatically changes how an artist can interact with what they encounter in the world around them, rearranging images to construct their work.

Strange inspirations
Although many artists draw, to an extent, on others’ work – participating in a conversation which stretches across centuries – it’s not just the visual that can prove enticing, and sometimes inspiration comes from the strangest places. Michelangelo was inspired by human anatomy, conducting daring autopsies at a point when it was frowned upon by Church and State alike, and hid a brain in his famous depiction of The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Andy Warhol procured and kept an Ancient Egyptian mummified foot, while Jordan Wolfson draws on the cruelty of internet edgelords in developing his animatronic creations, combining aspects of the anatomical and the personal.

Antoine Vollon found inspiration in a big lump of butter and Floris Claesz van Dijck in the glory of cheese. The latter was also an influence on Salvador Dali, whose famous clocks in The Persistence of Memory take their shape from melting camembert. Dali was proactive in his pursuit of artistic stimulation – he slept holding a key which would fall, clang and wake him each time he dozed off, thus keeping himself in a state of semi-consciousness for prolonged periods, as he believed this enabled him to think in more fluid ways and mine his subconscious for ideas. For some artists’ inspiration is simply out of this world – did you know that Qiang Cai-guo designed the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in an attempt to communicate with aliens?

A difference of perception
Studies of creative people have found that they tend to score high in tests of openness, which is seen in some psychological models as one of five key personality traits (along with extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism). Openness doesn’t simply describe communication strategies or feelings towards others – it’s a more fundamental quality which centers on receptivity towards new ideas, and it often functions at a subconscious level. People who are more open are more likely to notice details in the world around them that others miss. More of their mental resources are focused on observation. Though not precisely the same thing, openness is often associated with curiosity, and people whose curiosity has been encouraged in childhood are more likely to grow up to be artists.

Learning how to look
The good news about openness and curiosity is that they are traits you can choose to boost in yourself. Doing this takes effort and comes at a cost – it involves breaking down mental defenses, which can leave one emotionally vulnerable (there’s a reason why some artists are really bad at handling criticism). There’s also a point at which openness becomes associated with loss of sanity, especially delusional disorders. The rewards, however, can be considerable. Some people use psychedelic substances (legal or otherwise) as part of the process of expanding their perception, but if you’re not comfortable with that, you can also do it through a process of patient mental training, for instance, by taking a small collection of objects and trying to perceive them – both visually and conceptually – in as many different ways as possible. Exposing yourself to a wide range of creative perspectives also helps.

Even if you’re not born with the same advantages as the great artists, you can learn to develop a mental process that improves your general creativity and enables you to find inspiration in a wider variety of contexts – even in places so unusual that others wouldn’t think of them.

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