I read a post last month on Slow Muse that linked to a video of a TED talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert. I highly recommend it (and if you don’t know the TED talks, please browse among the many fascinating offerings, all under 20 minutes). Not only is Gilbert an engaging speaker, but she touches on a subject close to the heart of many artists, whether they think about it much or not: the nature of creation.

Gilbert’s main point is that we have been afflicted, since the Renaissance, with an individualistic conception of the “genius” of creativity, which replaced the Greek and Roman notion of “genius” as something of the place or subject—at any rate, outside the artist—that spoke through the artist. The modern idea lays a heavy psychological burden on the artist, who is deemed solely responsible for whatever art he or she produces, or fails to produce. Gilbert would like to rehabilitate the older view.

Though generally a skeptic in such things, I have sympathy for Gilbert’s position. Many, scientists as well as artists, have attested to the varied and mysterious apparent sources of what is felt as inspiration. I personally suspect that the presence we might call the Muse owes much to our own unconscious, workings unknown, but which must impinge on our actions and conscious thoughts. However, I won’t follow that line of argument here, because I think there’s an alternate understanding that goes beyond the individual.

I believe our cognition is not only embodied–intimately dependent on our physical selves–but in equal measure entangled with the world. Our minds develop in interaction with what’s out there; if the world were different, so would be our thinking, our very ways of thinking. To me this means that even the most conscious and intentional creation is actually a collaboration between the artist and the world as experienced by the artist. For example, on a superficial yet practical level, photographers know that the position of the sun, say, or the fleeting composition of a street scene, can make a great difference in a picture. Those who persevere, who are there and aware when the moment comes, deserve real credit. But full credit, when much remains out of their control? Other artists may be less dependent on detailed cooperation of the elements, yet a similar argument applies. That part we can’t take credit for: perhaps that is what we should call the Muse, the genius of that time and place.

When I’m out photographing, it’s not rare for me to get ideas of what to picture that I find exciting. Typically, I’m much less impressed on seeing the results later. Mostly what I think may be good turns out mediocre. On occasion, the perfunctory images are seen to have a spark after all.

What is your experience of inspiration, or lack of inspiration, and how do you account for it?