The Necessary Death of the Modern Muse
It’s within society's conditioning to want guidance. We cling to Gods and religion and teachers and gurus and shamans to give us some semblance of confidence that we are living our lives not as an act of desperation, but in goodness, out of the kindness of our hearts, so that we may change the world in our lifetimes, or at the very least, keep the cogs in society turning. It is from this coveting of pedagogy the indefatigable concept of the muse lives. Men cling to women for inspiration, and these women cling to men so that they may taste immortality; be defined as and likened to goddesses. These women are aiming too low.
The muse was, originally, a beautiful concept. An element of ancient Greek mythology and religion, nine goddesses who presided over the distribution of art, literature, poetry, music, dance – all the creative components you can think of – were not only the inspiration of all artists, but the very reason that artists and philosophers could create. Nine ethereal women as the sole reason the ancient Greeks – those to whom we owe our rich beginnings in art, theatre, music and so on- sounds objectively empowering: knowing the classics can be traced back, in a way, to women (deities, sure, but how often do women get credit in either art or theology?). The concept of the muse outlasted ancient Greece, but as history continued and the muse endured, the respect and empowerment that the original concept demanded washed away. As the patriarchy grew stronger, credit was no longer given to the nine deities, and the power of creativity was assumed by men. The term ‘muse’ was then transferred to the women whom the artist loved, the artist being almost exclusively male. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the power dynamics between muse and creator were warped so much that it was almost one of the requirements of the muse to be left behind. To fully assume women into the world of the inherently patriarchal music industry (a long-overdue commitment) the modern-day concept of the muse must decay, and, in time reinvent itself.
While some relationships between muse and creator worked out well, the power dynamics and treatment of femininity is where the problem lies, consistently, in these relationships. This is true even of the early 20th century, when women (who were still criminally underrepresented in the world of art) were included in the artistic movements as muses where there is a good chance they would’ve been neglected otherwise (see: Gala Dalí, see: Zelda Fitzgerald). Inserting women into the course of history was a step in the right direction, even if the women were to be portrayed unrealistically as martyrs. However, there is a difference between a platform and a pedestal.
Gala and Salvador Dalí in New York, in 1950, in a photograph by Marvin Koner
Leonard Cohen and his muse, Marianne Ihlen (for whom “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire” were written) met in 1960, and their relationship spanned around ten years, but Cohen was, famously, a Ladiesman. Disregarding the infidelities, or the fact that Cohen ended the relationship by inference when he brought his new lover and their child to the house he shared with Marianne at the time, Cohen and Ihlen’s relationship was romantic and idealistic. Marianne had been spurned by her husband and the father of her new-born baby when she met Leonard. Leonard, at that point, was a writer and author and had not yet begun his career as a singer-songwriter, and Marianne had been well-groomed to perform the duties of a muse, as her husband, Axel Jensen, had been a famous author before leaving her. In the time she spent with Leonard on the Greek island of Hydra in the sixties, she sat by his feet, made him sandwiches when he was hungry, and provided him with a space to bang away on his typewriter. The muse, in this instance, is as much a housekeeper as she is an inspiration. The gender roles are so strictly confined to, that, despite the incoming counterculture of the sixties, Marianne’s individuality was willingly stripped from her by men who could never repay her in stability, but in songs and stories. And while this sounds like an impossibly romantic gesture, she had no say in how she was portrayed, she had no autonomy in how, ultimately, the world would view her. Not to mention the fact “So Long, Marianne” launched Cohen’s career.
Much of these failed muse/creator relationships crash and burn due to the power discrepancy between the roles. The creator is always male in these failed attempts, and the woman is often the frail, feminine counterpart that is only revered for her beauty, if revered at all. The unsustainability of the patriarchal structure of this love is what ultimately kills it, and, were romantic at the moment, the instigation of the muse concept only quickens the death. Take Edie Sedgwick, for instance, someone who’s generally considered the queen amongst muses. While her relationship with Andy Warhol existed within the realm of unrequited love and obsessive friendship, she was adored by those who knew her, initially, for her aesthetic. Andy was growing more famous by the second and, with Sedgwick by his side, so was she. Andy created ground-breaking work while she looked pretty, prescribed to the lifestyle of Manhattan grunge-socialites in the 60s, and eventually, suffered terrible consequences. Without a creative outlet, Sedgwick was the always the muse and never the creator. And while she may have enjoyed that life, starring in Warhol’s movies and being his voice in interviews, that’s ultimately all she was: a puppet in Warhol’s creation.
Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick circa 1965. Photo: Steve Schapiro/Corbis
Loulou de la Falaise (muse to Yves Saint Laurent) summarized the entire atmosphere of this article when she stated, "For me, a muse is someone who looks glamorous but is quite passive, whereas I was very hard-working.” The through-line between all these case studies is the space in which the two sexes inhabit: female players as the submissive, and male artistes as the dominant. As soon as the feminine allows herself to be confined to only one of those roles, rather than allowing her soul to roam the spectrum between them, she has shot herself in the foot. In this statement, it’s probably the most generalized way to describe how the patriarchy has thrived for so long: women who are inclined to situate themselves in culture are persuaded to be contented and elated in the role of the muse, to distract her from the fact that she herself has such a huge capacity to be the creator. I look now to Patti Smith, who, with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, had a relationship that allowed her to be both artist and muse, "a role" she says, that "for both of us was interchangeable”. Patti, in Just Kids, brilliantly surmises how many art-loving girls ought to grow up to aspire to be the muse and the creator, when she says after reading The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera that she imagined herself to be both Frieda and Diego. It is not enough for women to strive to be the subject of romantic songs, they must be the ones writing them, or else there will be drastic consequences (just look at the track record listed above). These women who are taken in as muses (and they who have no opposition to assume such a title) are placed on a pedestal so high they can’t get off, and they have no say in how they’re portrayed in the art of the creator. Without the total autonomy over one's individuality, relationships inevitably end up wrecked as a result, and often times the pedestal does irreparable damage to the muse. Edie Sedgwick died aged 28.
Diego and I , 1949 by Frida Kahlo
The lifestyle of both muse and creator must be considered, too: rock n roll goes hand in hand with a deluge of drugs, which is not the most sustainable component of a relationship, as history has taught us. While the failure of muse/creator relationships cannot be wholly blamed upon the gendered power dynamic in said relationship, perhaps it is the lack of an outlet that causes the muse to hunger for something else, often being drugs.
But what happens to the music when the muse concept gets killed? We were blessed with songs like “Sara”, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” by Bob Dylan thanks to his two muses, first his girlfriend Suze Rotolo in the 60s, then his wife Sara Lownds. Rolling Stone ranked his album “Blood on the Tracks” 16th in the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, an album that came as a result of Dylan’s deteriorating relationship with his wife (and muse) at the time of its release. It’s an understandable fear to wonder whether we would have such a glorious outcome if the concept of the muse had been shut down at that time. But so too is the fear that all these women, who were glorified by their artists, had so much more to offer than simply their love and beauty. What if Robert Mapplethorpe kept Patti as only his muse, and, being so confined to the role, she hadn’t the freedom to create herself? What if John Coltrane had met Alice McLeod before she honed her style, and had been simply his lover, rather than a master of jazz, producing countless masterpieces? What if Francoise Hardy had chosen the love of a man over intramural artistic passion when she decided on her life path? Without Yoko, there is no solo John catalogue. Without Anna Gordy Gaye, there are significantly less tracks on “What’s Going On”.
Women are drawn to the role of the muse with the promise that they’ll be depicted and shown off to the world without doing anything but be pretty and interesting. These women were stunning, sure, but their beauty was the least interesting thing about them. Bearing the unrealistic expectations of the martyr can, and has, psychologically damaged the muses. As they play the role of Jesus Christ to their Mary Magdalene counterparts, there’s surely no time to do anything else but to tend to their wanton artist. The pressure to be something other than oneself is an expectation that has been demanded of women since society began to wrangle its powerful fist around femininity, and the concept of the muse only perpetuates it further. Often times, the demise in the relationship between muse & creator comes from the woman’s unwillingness to be exposed in such a way. Take Emma Tillman, for instance, Josh Tillman's (a.k.a. Father John Misty) wife for whom he wrote two full albums. The first of those being I Love You Honeybear, at the apex of their relationship, documenting their (literal) honeymoon phase. The second being God’s Favourite Customer, which has an unequivocally different theme, detailing the breakdown in their marriage which resulted in him living in a hotel for a prolonged amount of time. While the marriage was (thankfully) salvaged since, Josh Tillman highlights the difficulty of the expectations on the muse in his song “The Songwriter”. He places himself in Emma’s shoes, admitting to making his fame from his aptitude for describing his wife (he sings it more eloquently, of course, describing it as repeatedly undressing her in front of an audience of strangers). The unfair strain of exposing and embellishing a love that’s supposed to be intimate, is a huge reason why it’s an unsustainable effort.
As soon as the ideal of the muse becomes stripped of its romanticism, women will find they have a much larger space to create – create well – and breathe. The heteronormative, gender confinements of the muse are spoon-fed to us as young girls as we listen to rock bands, almost exclusively all-male, singing songs like Lyla, Maggie May, Cecilia, Alison, Caroline. There are far fewer Lylas, Cecilias and Alison's onstage, singing songs of their own. Once the promise of glory through the lens of a narrative is realized to be false, the sooner women will be freed of the desire to live vicariously through the opinion of her audience. It has been injected into the very marrow of our bones, as women, to please and be well-liked, and the concept of the muse reinforces that, allowing the patriarchy’s grip on female power to be tightened, and the unrealized immense power, in turn, to be extinguished. Look at Marianne Faithfull, Sedgwick, Ihlen, and the plenitude of other girls and women who could never make it on to this list: they get left behind, not realizing they don’t need the guise of being a muse to be an artistic inspiration. Once this realization becomes universal, the grip of the patriarchy will be loosened, and women will begin to build platforms, not pedestals, of their own.