I’ve always struggled to nail down a definitive reason to explain the human urge to be creative. Naturally, my current answer takes me to Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator.

The desire to write, paint, compose, perform, or act is an interesting aspect of human nature. What is it exactly that gives people satisfaction to do these things?

Before diving in, I want to make a distinction between “being creative” and “to create.” There’s some overlap in what drives us to do both, but I think the satisfaction from, say, putting together a bike from spare parts is distinct from doing something we’d call creative like writing a poem.

When someone makes a creative piece of work, what they are effectively saying is “Given the rules we have constructed in this medium, this is my new interpretation of that chaos.” Popular music in the west has a twelve-tone system that today follows basic rules of how to order a verse, chorus, middle eight, etc. A chorus is often times the sub-dominant chord of the tonic, meant to represent a resolve or jubilation. A beat is a rule that provides consistency and predictability, perhaps with roots in the human heartbeat. Chords are combinations of these notes and their relationship to one another has been socially constructed over the last few centuries. Some of these rules change throughout time and some are more consistent. In any case, a musician creates a piece largely within these rules. Some experimental music will go outside these boundaries and often times when music feels “fresh” or “interesting” it’s because it subverts one of these norms. But when a musician composes a piece, they are saying “I understand these rules of the game. Here is my interpretation of them and how I can contribute something new.”

It can be hard to verbally articulate why something creative is beautiful, engaging, rocking, or funny. Often times we can agree that a painting is beautiful but I can’t really tell you why it is and another one similar isn’t. And if I really could articulate it, why can’t I make something just as beautiful? Along the same lines, we all might agree that something is funny, but not necessarily why. A comedian’s expressive tendency comes from saying “society and human nature are full of absurdity and chaos but I’m going to point out the weirdness of it in ways that show I understand it better than you; you will know exactly what absurdities I’m talking about, even if you didn’t notice them before or you can’t explain what makes them absurd.” There’s nothing funny about saying “so I was at the pool the other day and saw a lot attractive women I’d love to kiss!” This is an interpretation of a scenario people can relate to, but it’s also very obvious. Consider a typical Seinfeld bit which is “you ever notice that…” The value here is that it is not only relatable, but it’s non-obvious. Everyone recognizes what Seinfeld points out, but he’s the first one to interpret the absurdity in his special way.

This brings me to the beginning of answering my original question. I believe creating is an attempt at expressing, and expressing is an attempt at trying to be understood. And being understood and sharing with the sentiment of others is of course the ultimate desire of human nature, according to Adam Smith. One may remember from the Benevolent Dictators song Fellow-Feeling the idea our first human impulse is to put ourselves in the situation of others, and to have them understand our joys and share disdain for our dislikes. The emptiness of fame, as Smith writes about, can be viewed through this lens. When Kurt Cobain started making music, it was an outlet for his angst and an expression of his inner spirits. When Nirvana blew up past his wildest imagination, he saw jocks dancing to Smells Like Teen Spirit and he couldn’t stand it. How could people who bullied him growing up and personified his idea of The Man suddenly be rocking out at his concerts? I believe the dream of any musician or creative person at the start is to finally be understood. “Oh man, people will really get me after all this.” If my creative work gets really popular, it’ll be because people really understand me and appreciate my comprehension of the chaos. And then, when that dream is unrealized and you don’t feel any more understood? Well, that’s probably the cliche story of famous rockers who get everything they ever wanted and realize it was all a disappointment.

This is based on my own interpretation of where I consciously get my creative inspiration from and where I try to understand my personal unconscious creative urges. Other people are likely different to some degree. But it seems to explain a lot of the creative world. No matter what an artist tells you, they do care about what people think about their work. This analysis, to me, not only explains why people create, but also why they share it. If a writer didn’t care about what other people think, they’d save the file on their computer (or not) and then never let anyone read it. Artists can be fully confident in their work even in the face of large public disapproval, but even then they still care about someone’s approval.

I don’t care what Garth Brooks-listening people think of my music. But I certainly would care a lot to hear Thom Yorke or Neil Young’s opinion. When we create, we intend to hit an audience whose views we care about, in the same way that Smith’s Impartial Spectator views the propriety of our actions not from the overall population but from the crowd that we necessarily care about. My Impartial Spectator will care little about what a middle aged man from 1200s Ottoman Empire thinks of my actions. My Impartial Spectator will care about what my friends and family and others in my bubble think about my actions. So when an avant garde artist is shunned by people who only like watered-down popular stuff, they might be able to brush it off; but they will care about the views of their fellow avant garde friends and the other artists that they look up to.

Now of course this has to be related back to commercial exchange. Many people have a fundamental disagreement about leaving the provision of creative work to the marketplace. Some argue that works of art have externalities that people do not reflect in private valuations, and this justifies public funding for the arts. To me, the strongest argument in favor of subsidies for the arts actually has nothing to do with consumption of art. I think that people pay for art they value and if they don’t it’s because they don’t value it enough. Those indie bands that struggle to make a living are in their situation because not enough people want to listen to their music. There is no market failure in explaining why my band the Benevolent Dictators does not have me playing music full-time; people simply don’t like us enough. No – the strongest argument in favor of subsidizing creative works is from the producer side. Art isn’t really about the audience and I don’t think it really ever has been. The value of art comes from what it gives the creators. The creators feel like they are satisfying an urge to express that will hopefully get them to be better understood. The right to self-expression is so important then, from a formal rights and effective ability perspective, because it gives the creators an outlet and ability to be understood.

 

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