Is the Muse dead?
Because we are always more than just a pretty face
Muse: a person or personified force (typically female) who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist
In Ancient Greek mythology, muses were the nine daughters of Zeus, each expressive and artistic in their own way. From the Renaissance onward, muses roused iconic work from acclaimed painters and sculptors alike. Even the world of classic rock had its fair share of muses such as Marianne Faithful and Yoko Ono. Almost exclusively reserved for women, the role of the muse has cropped up throughout history as one of influence and intrigue. As we move through the 21st century, a landscape of overstimulation paired with a more diverse, realized sense of womanhood, is the muse itself dead? And if not, should it be?
Society’s definition of a muse implies that women are beautiful tools of femininity that serve a sole purpose: to fuel a man’s creativity. History has forgotten that most of the women taken as muses were not just inspiration, but inspired themselves. Many were artists in their own right. From a historical viewpoint, becoming a muse could be seen as an alternative life path for women more artistically inclined in times when they had little to no options for an independent life. Muses like Emilie Louise Flöge (painted by Gustav Klimt) were bohemian turned society darlings, rebellious in style and nature.
It is easy to slip into romanticism. We can imagine dreamy painting sessions in near empty parisian flats and secret train rides to the countryside. However, the role is fetishized and highly susceptible to manipulation by the male gaze. Imagine a movie scene of a woman simply making breakfast but written by a man: big t-shirt with no bra, perfectly messy bun, dancing around the kitchen while she makes coffee. She is not only idealized, but reduced to a mere prototype.
At its core, the muse phenomenon is troubling. Muses were often depicted with an erotic ambiguity that detached them from their real selves. More times than not, the line between the real world and the creative world was blurred. It is noteworthy that many notable male artists of the 20th century were sexually involved with their respective muses. And of those, the majority were affairs or under other extremely disturbing circumstances. Pablo Picasso was married and forty-five when he began an affair with his seventeen year old model, Marie-Therese Walter (one of his many affairs/muses with a 40+ age gap). Edie Sedgwick was a bright socialite of the 60’s and served as a muse for Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. Her surrounding environment was full of drugs and hostility, leading to a fatal overdose at twenty-eight. Auguste Rodin had an affair with his assistant-turned-model, Camille Claudel. Their particularly volatile relationship resulted in Claudel (an accomplished sculptor herself) succumbing to intense mental health issues, eventually to die in an asylum. While Rodin’s legacy withstands, Claudel destroyed most of her own work and serves as a cautionary tale of a trope we’ve seen too many times before. A talented, passionate, ahead-of-her-time woman meets her demise from sexual immorality. The story never ends well for her.
Despite history being against us, how can we reframe what being a muse is in today’s time- especially without taking advantage of women’s gifts? It is long overdue for women to be more than just an artistic womb in which men create their work. In the traditional sense, muses are no longer fixtures of society, but we still see women oversexualized and diminished in the media. We still see blatant sexism and heternormative ideals in the art world. We can acknowledge that many female artists/muses deserved better than they got, but does giving them praise only posthumously suffice?
Moving forward, we must encourage women in creative fields to embrace their power and claim it for themselves. To see women like Lizzo singing with confidence and self-love from the rooftops is a sign of the times. It is time to be our own muses.
Alex Mowrey is an Online Writer at Rowdy Magazine. She’s a big fan of rice krispies treats, Ikea, and complex female characters! You can reach her (maybe) via @a.mow on Instagram or (definitely) at email@example.com