Why we so often look to art for creative inspiration

Whenever I talk about inspiration, often art is one of the first subjects that comes to mind. From the enormous scale of work in the sistine chapel or the minute details in the gaze of Mona Lisa, to the impromptu yet calculated works of Banksy or the curious splatters created by Jackson Pollock, art has inspired and caused many aheads to wonder.

Art naturally causes something to stir up in the mind; be it curiosity, awe, frustration, or boredom. We can be surprised by artwork and the insights it unveils in our own minds, or question the artist’s intent and their ability to create worthwhile work.

What exactly is it about art that causes us to think creatively or feel inspired? Why is art capable of causing a change in perspective; of what it means to work or create or, in some cases, live?

On the one hand the artist’s lifestyle represents so much of what we lack in regard to daily life: the freedom from rules and rigid constraints. Art is wild and imaginative, seemingly crafted from a place only art can come from. The ability to create something from nothing, often for the sole purpose of having done so. The artist is romanticized to this point: alone in their studio, fighting against the normalcy of routine or the 9 to 5 job.

Photo by  Ståle Grut .

Photo by Ståle Grut.

The artist is free to pursue their ideas and dreams while the rest of the world struggles to fulfill the conquest of someone else—the higher ups or “the man.” Ask a child if they have interest in becoming an artist and they’ll excitedly reply yes. Ask an adult the same question and they’ll likely respond: “if only there weren’t bills to pay.”

Beyond the romanticized lifestyle of the artist, the artwork itself comes from a place distant from reality.

We often turn to art for creative inspiration because it represents pure ideas and histories, born of little else but supplies and the artist’s mind or memory. Artwork can feel limitless, “anything can be art,” we tell ourselves.

The reality is of course that art stems from constraints, boundaries, and rules just as anything else does. But I think what art does well is it shows us a perspective of things we may not be used to or which we do not have easy access to.

Art signals expression in a pure form, free from an explicit purpose or expectation. The best art is the work that makes us think or debate its value. It pulls our minds into a different point in time, a different location, or story, or existence.

Perhaps that’s what makes art so unique and valuable when it comes to creative inspiration: art gives us a picture we can walk into at any time to see things differently. It presents us with an alternate or modified reality we can freely explore and wander about entirely in our own minds, before walking out of again into our regular lives. Like a waking dream we can enter at any moment.

Good art tells stories, the catch is the stories take place entirely in our own minds. The artwork—the painting, sculpture, song, or writing—serves as a means for us to escape into a different mentality. Artwork allows us to temporarily shift our perspective.

As a creative maker or artist our job is not simply to create: it’s to captivate and share part of a vantage or perspective—even if imaginary—with those who might come across our work later on. Rebecca Solnit elegantly summarizes this point in her book The Faraway Nearby where she writes:

“To become a maker is to make the world for others, not only the material world but the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together.”

We turn to art for inspiration because it allows us to travel somewhere else, to jolt our perspective into something we may have not seen before, for the benefit of comparing that experience to something else.

It’s not only paintings or sculpted statues which enable us to be transported to a different time or place. Solnit explains that each object of creation has the same potential:

“Every book is a door that opens onto another world...The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.”

Artwork is often one of the easiest tools to use for changing our perspective, entering a different time or place, and fueling our imaginations. Often the impact art has on us is small, a seed, but once exposed to it the germ spreads and grows into something only each individual’s mind is capable of creating.