Chuck Klosterman once said, “Art and love are the same things: it’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.” Perhaps that is sufficient to describe what we feel when we look at a magnificent painting, read heart-warming poetry, or listen to music that moves us; we feel as though we are a part of it. We imagine ourselves in it, not knowing that subconsciously, we’re diverging ourselves from the present, existing in an alternate reality. If art can do this to us, imagine what it did to the artist who created it.
When we talk about art, we often subsequently digress into recognising the original subject, the inspiration of the artist, The Muse. Although art has no substance in pragmatism, for it exists in multitudes, it is a popular understanding that all art takes inspiration from pre-existing art. The muse serves as an inspiration, a sort of a revival for the artist, that awakens their inner spirit to build something great.
Let’s begin by considering the representation of women in ancient literature and art, which has always been a feign and impoverished affair. The English Renaissance, a period of prodigious creation in artistic and literary works throughout England; limited the role of women, disregarding their humanity, considering them merely objects to be marvelled at.
Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova are Dante’s most famous works, both of which are inspired by his famous muse, Beatrice Portinari. Although Dante was a legendary creator of art, there emanates an irresponsibility and ignorance in his use of Beatrice, amplifying her to something almost ‘non-human’ and ‘heavenly’. Thus, women were perceived as a mere ideal, instead of an entity with flaws and frailties. There exists a fine line between the actuality of a muse’s traits, with that of verisimilitude that is portrayed by the artist, which was often crossed by male artists over the course of history.
As the painter Anna Lee Merritt stated in 1900, “The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. A woman often reflects what her presence or absence does to an artist which is to inspire him to create something deeply rooted in emotion and longing.” This representation of homosocial artistry started to really break through when female painters like Frida Kahlo started gaining popularity. Frida’s artwork often depicted her husband, Diego, as her muse. She portrayed the swerve of his love and the effect it had on her as an artist.
Literature has always paved the way for ideas, discourse and expression to stem from political injustice. From the French Revolution to the Chinese cultural oppression, art and literature have birthed a spirit of rebellion and made way for the primordial framework of dissent to exist. However, the reverse has also happened. Political suppression, racism, unfair social reforms have inspired a myriad of artists across the globe to give a voice to the powerless through their creations.
One of my personal favourite artist-muse relationships that arose from political uprising is of Wu Guanzhong and Qiu Jin. Wu Guanzhong is widely recognized as the founder of modern Chinese painting. In a series of paintings, he shows the ancestral home of Qiu Jin, who was a Chinese revolutionary, feminist, and writer. Unfortunately for Guanzhong, a large amount of his early works were destroyed, seen to be in opposition to national interest as laid down by Mao Zedong, who was the leader of Communist Party of China at that time. This representation of Qiu Jin, who was silenced and persecuted because of her rebellion against the authorities, acts as a vehement link between her and Guanzhong, who was also reprimanded for his dissent in a totally different era.
The discourse on literature and revolution is incomplete without the mention of The Communist Manifesto and Das Capital written by Karl Marx. The famous political pamphlet declaring that history is nothing but a struggle between different social classes, remains to be one of the strongest influences of literature on social and political ideologies. Marx’s communist vision saw history as a gradual unfolding of a socialist system and this theory garnered a profusion of support from the working and labour class. In fact, by the 1950s, almost half of the world was under the rule of communist leaders.
It’s also possible for the revolution itself to be a muse for the artist. This, however, is the ultimate amalgamation of propaganda and creativity. It consummates and paints a lucid version of the reality, that is easier to digest, but wounds a deep cut of self-reflection. In India, for example, the recent protests against The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) saw a flux of artists and poets take the stage for dissent. People from all fields of work came together with witty and funny placards that upheld the crux of protests, whilst being a symbol of non-violence. Similar growth in the art scene was observed in Sudan in 2019, when a massive peaceful uprising against the slacking economy took place that eventually ended with the removal of one of Africa’s longest-serving dictators, Omar al-Bashir. Those who protested were a part in creating murals, paintings, and graphic art depicting a need for peace, asking the world to stand up for the Sudanese people, and ultimately to imagine a better future.
Words by Kashvi Chandok
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