As Dean of Arts, I encourage students to look beyond messages and engage with the arts on a deeper level, as both artists and audience members. To help with this, I recently pointed them to the mythological muses of ancient Greece. When we invoke the muses these days, it is often tongue-in-cheek. But a closer look can be instructive. The muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, two mythological figures which can represent important elements of artistic purpose.
Zeus in this context represents the unknown or intangible side of what it is to be human. The poet John Keats called this “the mystery.” He believed that the artist must not try to control the art. Rather, she must let go of what she knows to allow the mysterious, the intangible, to enrich the experience. This is why messaging is inimical to the creative process. The artist shouldn't try to direct the art, she should be surprised by it.
Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, represents memory. Memory is our way of capturing, often imperfectly, that which is now gone. The impermanence of the human experience is what helps us feel and understand its value and beauty. One of the main purposes of art is to capture that beauty. Each sculpture, each plucked string, each dancer's leap says, “We were here, a part of this human story.”
These two elements, mystery and memory, together create the muse––that which inspires the artist.
April 10, 2018
June 16, 2020
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