In the Ion, Plato lays out the central problem with artists in general. To wit: they’re crazy. Well, maybe they aren’t crazy all the time, but they are at least crazy when they are making their art. Socrates points out that “all good poets…compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.” Just in case you missed it the first time, he repeats, “lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed.”
In fact, if the poet is not possessed and inspired, she (or in this case probably he) will not produce any poetry. “For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.”
Why? That’s the easy part. “God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers…in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves…but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is conversing with us.”
Hmmm. That’s a disturbing thought. I mean, it’s all sort of well and good if it’s Chuck D, but if God is “conversing” with me through Dr. Dre, I may have a problem. Then again, this may be a fairly theoretical discussion since Plato wasn’t all that interested in having poets and artists hang around his Republic. There are some lasting issues that, as usual, are very neatly laid out by Plato in the passages above.
#1 Creative genius implies a touch of madness. This is a powerful myth in our culture that remains very active in the popular imagination. It is not hard to justify. Consider this famous quote from composer Karlheinz Stockhausen about the star Sirius: “Other snippets of vitally important information then came to me through a couple of revelatory dreams. Crazy dreams, from which it emerged that not only did I come from Sirius itself, but that, in fact, I completed my musical education there.” The problem is, for every Stockhausen, there are plenty of Stravinskys who talk about the creative process in cold and calculating terms. The rule of thumb here appears to be that every time someone says, “This is how artists work”, a great artist emerges that doesn’t work like that at all.
#2 Inspiration is required to do creative work. This one is a little trickier. There is a wonderful passage in Style and Idea where Schoenberg says that he is unable to do a simple counterpoint exercise without “inspiration”. I think that one of the problems in untangling this issue is that Plato is describing a very particular type of oracular utterance. The analogy works very well when we think of action painters like Pollock and de Kooning. It gets stretched a little thin if I think of Thomas Mann toiling away on the four novels that comprise Joseph and his brothers. I think it is still accurate even in the context of concepts like Gebrauchsmusik. We just have to be careful that we don’t understand “inspiration” as the same thing as “ecstasy”. In my experience, most of the people that I know doing creative work have an initial idea that serves as an inspiration for their work. After that initial moment of inspiration, the process of working out that idea is like any other kind of work. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes dull, sometimes emotional, sometimes rational and calculated.
#3 Technique is necessary/unnecessary for artistic creation. This one is also fairly tricky for me to untangle. I’m a big fan of working on technical aspects of my medium. There is a certain sense in which all artists have to have a grasp of the basics. The poets that Plato is discussing were presumably using words and not just speaking in tongues, so they at least had grammar as a “technique”. The difficult part of this issue is that you don’t get to equate mastery of technique with artistic genius. Beethoven studied counterpoint with Albrechtsburger because Albrechtsburger was a master of technique. I’m not convinced that Beethoven ever mastered counterpoint. However, Beethoven created greater artworks (some think precisely because of his technical limitations!) It would be nice if artistic genius was just given to kind, hardworking people. It’s not. It’s often bestowed on the childish and immature. Think of Berlioz. Sometimes astounding gifts are heaped on people like Richard Wagner who had to be one of the most petulant human beings that ever walked the planet. How is it that he was such an ugly human being and produced such beautiful music?
Plato’s explanation starts to sound pretty good after a while.