Inspiration begets inspiration. For years I have maintained that this is a fundamental truth for the artist, writer, or musician, but over the years I have found that so few people know what an inspired work is. In our world where technology and other conveniences are so readily available, anyone can attempt to be creative. In many ways this is a good thing, allowing us all a chance to give birth to our own inspired work, but in other ways it has flooded our world with subpar work and cheap imitations posing as the inspired.
Not so long ago if a person felt the tug of inspiration they were required to spend hours in preparation before commencing work. The artist would have to visit the local apothecary shop and assemble the ingredients to mix their paint, purchase and stretch their own canvas. The endeavor was costly both in time and money. Only the truly dedicated and truly inspired were willing to make the heavy investment.
Even writing required more than flipping a switch on a computer; authors had to carve or purchase their own pens. Page after page had to be rewritten when cut-and-paste, or even the delete key, was not an option. The tedium of the task meant that a great winnowing process occurred for each person who stumbled across the glimmer of a good idea. The inferior would languish under the weight of reality and the great would compel the artist to persist despite the obstacles. It was a time when art actually was a labor of love.
Now, I do not begrudge the advantages that technology has granted me, and I am grateful that my daughters can so easily explore their own creative tendencies without exorbitant expense. Buying my paint and brushes at the local craft store makes my life far more enjoyable that it may have been otherwise, and what would I do without spell check?
However, with great advancements come great responsibility, and now the responsibility falls directly upon the audience and the consumer. We have the choice to mindlessly consume what is laid before us or to seek out those things which move beyond the mundane and into the realm of the sublime.
The difficulty lies in the fact that so few of us were ever taught how to tell the difference. Media campaigns, advertising, and the continual desensitization that fills our lives have dulled our instinctive knowledge of what is inspired and what is merely insipid. No longer can we visit a museum, art show, concert, or movie and clearly feel the distinction between the purely dazzling and the truly great. We need to cultivate our palate, realign our senses, and reawaken our hearts to the power of great art.
As with any task, identifying the parameters simplifies this, and aids us in discovering when the goal has been reached. However, defining a concept as great as “inspiration” is difficult, especially when the design of inspiration is to break paradigms and cause us to challenge our presupposed definitions. Fortunately, the answer is found within the definition.
A work displays its inspired nature when it does just that, when it shatters our paradigms, forces us to grapple with reality as we have known and experienced it, when it challenges our definitions, and compels us to move beyond the comfortable or mundane. If we walk away from art unchanged or unchallenged it has failed to be more than a piece of decoration. If it merely soothes us without unsettling us first, it brings us no closer to truth or revelation and leaves us comfortably numb to the transformations that await those who desire to know something greater than the mundane.
Inspiration takes us beyond ourselves, awakens pieces of our soul that have lain in quiet neglect. It brings to life ideas and understandings that change the essence of who we are and how we perceive our world. When it is experienced it demands that we give it a voice in our realm, a shape or form, so that others can know the incredible gift that we have received. It is evidenced in the book that holds our imagination captive days after we laid it down, the movie we cannot stop talking about, and the song that haunts our memory with its poignancy.
We know that we have brushed past it when we find our thoughts enwrapped in an idea we would have never entertained before that moment, and we begin to evaluate our existence in its light.
The picture, the words, or the melody that can easily be laid aside after a passive smile or two, or even a brief gush of sentimentality, lacks something essential to the inspired work. The piece that offers an experience that is complete unto itself, leaving us no room to wonder or to question, leaves us no room to grow as individuals and a culture.
The inspired work presents us with a description of something higher and greater than even it can capture. There is no attempt at definition, at boundaries that declare the beginning and end of its source; instead it recognizes the immensity of the moment and the limitations of our medium allowing us, forcing us, to step into that realm if we genuinely desire to know.