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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

The enduring place of the artist's muse behind 'Great Art'

Does the romantic idea of the intimate relationship between the artist and muse run counter to the very notion of living a creative life as an artist today?  Is the artist’s life-long search for intimacy and emotional stimulation the motivational force behind ‘Great Art’ or does it stand in its way?

The relationship between the artist and muse is intuitive, secretive, visceral, and often complex.  Yet the historic portrayal of the artist as the cool, solitary, rational intellect possessing a revered studious hand, often conflicts with this ill-disciplined, passionate emotional and humanising aspect.

Can Great Art truly come from love, pain and suffering?

The famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche worried that the society (of his day) only emphasised the intellectual nature of Great Art and neglected the role of the emotions. Nietzsche thought it was important to balance the two.

Regardless of the risk, we may argue that this balance between head and heart is still as important today as it was for Nietzsche, writing in 1872. 

Despite claims Nietzsche was a nihilist, and history’s great pessimist, his idea of celebrating life and living creatively can be interpreted as actually affirming life, ourselves and art in a wide sense.  

Through the "duality of perception and intuition' Nietzsche believed a great deal could be done “for the science of aesthetics … just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations”.

Although the relationship between artist and muse can drive the creative process and enhance it, perhaps because of its very intensity the relationship is often fraught with danger.  Even under the friendliest circumstances, there can be pain when the relationship ends.  The more intense the relationship, the more bitter the separation when it occurs.  And when sex is a component of the relationship, as is so often the case, the ending can be disastrous.

The trick according to Nietzsche is not to deny one’s emotions, even as we intellectually strive to understand our lives as purposeful.  For Nietzsche, life without emotion is bleak.

"It is feelings of awe and pain that unite all human beings, says Nietzsche.  Our challenge is to perpetually strive to create our beautiful lives even in the face of hardship".  

Nietzsche’s ultimate creative principle sees us then all as artists, creating the best life we can for ourselves - taking into consideration both reason and emotion.   Through art and in life Nietzsche argues we witness the power of emotions, the transformative power of “the intoxications of passion”. 

Such passion can be either constructive or destructive and therefore needs to be supported by rationality – the balancing of intellect and emotion.  

This fusion can give one purpose, both as an artist and as a lover of life.  Nowhere is this motivational force more evident and the benefits realised than as a result of the seminal relationship between the artist and muse.

One hopes that the place of the muse in the artist’s creative life can endure, despite perhaps the aesthetic and moral strictures of our modern society and the view that the making of Great Art is purely an intellectual pursuit.

Photo 1: Caroline Blackwood and Lucian Freud

Photo 2: Perienne Christian and Lucian Freud

Photo 3: Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), The Birth of Tragedy published in 1872

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia 

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