The muse is what ineffably inspires electrified, creative energy between people, between collaborators. The muse is not a human being. The trope of the muse as a typically young woman, not necessarily an artist herself, disempowers collaborative relationship between artists, even if the age or fame differential is askew. Artists who work with successful artists on pieces deserve to be counted as collaborators and to be credited for their contribution. And with respect and support from other artists, as well as the audience and the art business, an emerging artist can come away from an experience of collaboration greatly nurtured. Without that support, it can be the opposite.
I began collaborating with Paul McCarthy in 2011. It was my first experience with improvised performance although I had been studying acting and art for many years. It was without exception that we checked in with each other and spoke frequently about boundaries and ideas of where an action might go. Nothing ever happened without a feeling of absolute comfort but also freedom. This comfort freed us both to play and experiment. I grew immensely within the container of knowing I was safe as well as understood and free. The fullest expression of one’s creativity requires feeling free to open one’s sensitivity and then to feel everything that is coming through.
I learned to read the language of my own body through these experimentations. If I felt any contractions in my body I began to understand that even if I was intellectually interested in working on something, that my body was leading me to know what was correct and comfortable for me. Your body does not lie. It has nothing to do with reason or logic. And following the body's intuition with creative expression leads to surprising and exciting work. Sometimes these unknowns are scary and can fail. But I had to find those edges and Paul was supportive in exploring and stopping anything immediately that wasn’t working. We communicated with each other and I communicated with myself.
We were both working on using the characters and actions we created to expose deeply embedded cultural conditioning around misogyny, desensitization to violence and idealized female sexuality so we had to be massively sensitive ourselves and trusting of each other to provide feedback as we let it rip as far as we could go. I would not have gone there if I felt there was anything unknown between us or that I couldn't speak up.
It's important for a collaborator to be identified not as a muse but as an artist in their own right. Identifying an artist only in reference to a famous artist they have worked with perpetuates a culture of undervaluing what collaborators bring to works of art that become hugely well known. The goal is not to achieve the fame and isolation of the art star that's been the model for generations. It's about engaging with the entire ecosystem which feeds creativity, and recognizing all the hands and minds that go into a great work when we see it.
Collaboration can be an exceptionally rich experience for artists who can bring each other to new levels of thinking and practice. It’s been indispensable for my creative growth. But because of the power differential when one artist may be putting more financial resources into a piece, care has to be taken to communicate from both sides about what feels good and right.
The old guard of a young, beautiful woman, captivated and defenseless as she is molded into resplendence by the male gaze is dying a slow but certain death in this moment in visual culture. Know it. These so-called muses are powerful with great ideas and are going to start taking credit where credit is due. They can hear the whisper of creative inspiration in their own ears.
Elyse Poppers is a conceptual artist and performer living between Los Angeles and Mendocino County, California.