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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What follows is the fifth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 3, Chapter 3 of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Despite our tendency to engage in sympathetic fellow-feeling, it’s abundantly clear that this is not infinite. We do not feel equally connected to everyone across the world. In Smith’s view, this is limited in part by our ability to put ourselves in the situation of others.

He tells us to consider a scenario where, as a Scottish person in the 1700s that hasn’t travelled much, you hear that an earthquake has happened in China:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake…[a man in Europe] would, I imagine express very strongly his sorrow and misfortune of that unhappy people…he would too, perhaps, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe.

So after saying “aw shucks, that’s so sad,” one would go on to thinking about how this might affect the commerce of Europe – in other words, how would it actually affect me? At the end of the day, this Scot wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep over this tragedy. Contrast this to a scenario that is clearly less severe than an earthquake swallowing up tons of Chinese people:

The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.

Philosophers over the ages observed this pattern in human nature and thought of a variety of remedies to correct this tendency. One group Smith mentions – the Stoics – believed that we should bring down our own feeling of pain and happiness to the level at which we naturally consider those of the anonymous humans we hear about across the globe. Another group – unnamed but implied to be Catholics – suggests that we should feel for others the same way we feel about ourselves; in other words, feel lots and lots of suffering. But Smith thinks neither of these methods gets the point, and is able to rationalize our asymmetric emotions towards our pinky finger and the millions of Chinese people. In his scenario, the Scot has likely never met a Chinese person, never been to China, and only knows vague stories about the country thousands of miles away. To the Scot, hearing of suffering in China is such a distant concept because the Scot finds it nearly impossible to put themselves in the shoes of a Chinese person and understand how this tragedy makes them feel.

Think of the saying “this really hits close to home.” It’s a suggestion that we feel stronger about intense events that happen to those we love, those that live near us, and those that we can relate to better. When a terrorist attack happens in Paris, American social media reacts much differently compared to when a terrorist attack happens in Jakarta. Of course these events are equally tragic in a human sense when lives lost are the same, but Americans are much more likely to know French people, have been to Paris, be ethnically French, or have studied in Paris than to have experienced similar things with Indonesia. If you hear of a school shooting in Iran, how does it make you feel compared to a school shooting in your town?

So maybe reacting to the terrorist attack in Paris differently than the attack in Jakarta can be rationalized by Smith’s conception of a finite level of fellow-feeling, but can we really consider it ethical? Well, here the Impartial Spectator comes back in. Given the tradeoff between our pinky finger and millions of Chinese lives, we would never pick our pinky finger.

“…would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them…human nature startles with horror at the thought…It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power…the inhabitant of the breast, the man within…calls to us…It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the nature misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of the impartial spectator…it is a stronger lover, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble…

The Impartial Spectator thus tempers the absurdity of our self-love and makes us recognize that, although our instinctive fellow-feeling may make the loss of a pinky more intense at first, the honorable and noble thing is to care more about these millions of Chinese lives.

The complete lyrics to Chinese Earthquake:

Far away from where I’m sleeping, tragedy shakes the earth
Myriad of its inhabitants, the Chinese empire swallowed whole
Annihilated in a moment, reflect upon misfortune
But what for European trade? Return to pleasure all the same

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

But if you told me that tomorrow, my little finger would be gone
I’d lie awake in real disturbance, do you tremble at the thought?

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

 

What follows is the third installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 3, Chapter 2 of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love…he desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness.

We are motivated, Smith says, to behave in a way that not only garners approbation of those around us but to live in a way that makes us the proper beneficiary of that approbation. Our love for society and the desire to share in the sentiments of others leads us towards cooperative and ethical behavior.

To judge our actions to the best of our abilities, we use our capacity for sympathetic fellow-feeling to put ourselves in the shoes of our peers and see what they would think of our actions. But oftentimes our interactions with others lack a third party to judge our actions and sometimes we engage in behavior without even a second party directly involved. Smith develops a mechanism for how we judge the propriety of our actions known as the “impartial spectator.” This spectator is an imaginary figure that looks onward at our behavior from the outside, full of all the information others may lack that is needed to judge our actions.

But in order to attain this satisfaction, we must become the impartial spectators of our own character and conduct. We must endeavor to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them.

If we have the opportunity to cheat on an exam or find a wallet on the street, what pulls us towards “doing the right thing” when we could reasonably get away with unethical behavior? It is this desire to be lovely, the desire to be worthy of our peers’ praise. If we ace an exam and win lots of awards, we have an empty feeling inside, knowing we don’t deserve the accompanying accolades.

On the contrary, if we are doubtful about [being the natural object of approbation], we are often, upon that very account, more anxious to gain their approbation and provided we have not already, as they say, shaken hands with infamy…

This explanation is an interesting contrast to many predecessors, contemporaries, and later thinkers who explain human morality as coming directly from God or purely utilitarian motivations derived from expected reciprocity. Our innate desire to belong, be understood, and share in the sentiments of others is what drives us to live ethically and the impartial spectator is our best conception of how our peers’ will judge our actions.

The song is in a sense a love song to our own impartial spectator. Here are the complete lyrics to Impartial Spectator:

How am I to know if what I do is right or wrong
I’m seeking approbation from the need to get along
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

Tell me how it seems from the outside looking in,
I want to be worthy of your praise devoid of sin
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

The emptiness of fame when the public misconstrues,
Fills me with anxiety, ‘cuz you know it’s not true
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes
And to be lovely, but not just to be loved.
Not only loved, but lovely in your eyes

Check out this artistic rendition of Smith’s Impartial Spectator on our very own unisex t-shirt (Available for purchase at the Theory of Moral Sentiments price of $17.59).

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