January 23, 2013

Deconstructing Artist Chuck Close’s Quotable Quote on Inspiration

Work of and by Chuck Close at Art Chicago. Photo by Art Chicago, Flickr


I’ve recently noticed this quote, by the artist Chuck Close, liberally shared on Twitter:
“Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up
and get to work.”
On the surface, Chuck’s statement sounds motivational, but it also appears to belittle “amateurs.” Being called an amateur can be considered an insult—a person lacking formal education and thereby refined skills and sensibilities. But amateurs are devotees of a pursuit. Everyone enters a new discipline as an amateur and advances through it by learning, applying and repeating these actions. Furthermore, being an amateur connotes persistent curiosity, because she or he engages a discipline with sustained interest, not driven by money. Interesting to change the perception of the label “amateur,” from superficial practitioner to a serious practitioner of curiosity.


Inspiration is not only beholden to amateurs. It’s a feeling or sensation that mostly everyone (I hope) strives to realize. When Chuck states that “the rest of us just show up and get to work,” I also want to believe that inspiration was one of those reasons to do just that.


Mostly not revealed on Twitter is that Chuck’s quote is actually part of a larger statement. The original source is not known, but its message about inspiration was part of CBS News’ “Note to Self” series (2012) and a feature called “What I’ve Learned” in Esquire magazine (2001):
“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”
Within its original context, Chuck’s quote about amateurs and inspiration can be interpreted differently, because it relies on its surrounding texture. Though the context helps elaborate and informs Chuck’s line, I wonder if “amateurs” should be replaced by another term: lazy people. Chuck is clearly not one of these.

• • •

Rest of it applied to publishing

This zooming in and picking apart Chuck’s quote does bring up an old but relevant issue, that lines, lifted from their original context, take on a new meaning. It’s ideal, particularly in the shortened form of tweets, to include access to see the bigger picture of a quote’s life.

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