Why do we Create Art?

Why do we create Art?

One evening I spotted Naveen walking the alley in front of JCR and stopped him for a chat. This conversation happened as we circled the Chapel.

Me: Hey Naveen!
Naveen: Hey Nikhil! It’s been long since I saw you. Where did you vanish?
Me: I could have asked you the same; I didn’t see you either!
Naveen: I am quite active on the campus; it is you who stays locked up in the room. Anyway, how have you been?
Me: I’ve been good, thank you. I have been meaning to talk to you since long. Do you have time now?
Naveen: Of course. What do you want to talk about?
Me: Art. You’re a literature student and quite involved with films and theater; you must have studied a lot of books, novels, and other words of art.
Naveen: Yes, I’ve read some. But the ones I enjoyed the most were not part of curriculum at all. Somehow inclusion in the curriculum kills a novel for me. Anyway. Why do you ask? You want to know about some particular work?
Me: Not actually. I wanted to talk to you about art and artists. I am not too familiar with either; so I thought I’d ask someone who is.
Naveen: Of Course. But what is it that you want to ask?
Me: I want to ask something that I’ve been thinking about since long. I want to know what motivates an artist.
Naveen: I love your questions Nikhil. They are wonderfully abstract and vague. I can never figure out what you mean. But it is their very vagueness that I admire.
Me: That’s very kind of you. But what do you find vague in my question?
Naveen: What motivates an artist to do what? And what do you mean by motivation?
Me: I want to know what motivates an artist to create art. And by motivation I mean to ask where an artist gets her kick from; I want to know what pushes an artist into creating art, instead of doing something else.
Naveen: Okay. I get it. You mean to ask why people create art.
Me: Yes. That might be another way of putting it.
Naveen: You philosophy people have a way of making things complicated.
Me: Perhaps. It’s just that I’m afraid of questions beginning with ‘why’.
Naveen: Why?
Me: That’s a topic for some other day. Right now I need your opinion on what is it that motivates an artist to create art.
Naveen: Let’s talk about it then. But you said you’ve been thinking about this question since long; so you must have examined some possible answers. What, in your opinion, is the answer? What do you think motivates the artist?
Me: I am quite confused about it. Many things come to mind; and I don’t know where to begin.
Naveen: Why don’t we begin by examining the usual motivations of people? Maybe we should begin by looking at what motivates common folks to do the things that they do. Let’s examine why businessmen run businesses, lovers love, soldiers fight wars, mothers care for their children, politicians lead people etc.
Me: Sure. I have been thinking about it. Different people seem to be motivated by different needs and desires. Some are motivated by the need or desire for money. Others are motivated by the need or desire for intimacy; yet others are motivated by the desire for honour, recognition, or power.
Naveen: Do artists have similar motivations? Do artists create art out of the desire for money, sex, honour, recognition, or power?
Me: I hear of artworks getting sold for millions at those New York art auctions and I am led to believe that artists might also be motivated by money, recognition, honour etc. but..
Naveen: But?
Me: …but then, money, recognition, honour can be obtained by other means too, say, by pursuing business or politics; so there must be some motivations that are special to artists alone: motivations that lead people into an artistic, creative act and not into something else.
Naveen: I agree with you there. Pursuing the arts has to be one of the worst ways to obtain money, power, recognition etc. Most artists don’t get paid to create art, and it is difficult for them to survive through their art alone. They have to take up day jobs or pursue other part time professions while they work hard on their art-projects. And yet, most of them languish in vain, for only a tiny minority of them happens to gain money, recognition or honor at the end of their efforts. Others die unrecognized, without money, honour or fame.
Me: Yes. If someone wants money, recognition, or honour pursuing the arts should be the last thing they consider; an artist must be motivated by something else. Artists must be driven by some special motivations which lead them to create art instead of doing something else. I wonder what those motivations are. That is exactly my question.
Naveen: What do you think motivates the artist?
Me: I don’t know! That is what I want to know.
Naveen: You said you’ve been considering some possible answers, didn’t you?
Me: Yes.
Naveen: I’d like to hear them.
Me: But I am not sure if I’d want to tell them; they might be completely ridiculous and wrong.
Naveen: Maybe they are not wrong. And even if they are; why should you be afraid of being wrong? Right now you think you have the wrong answers, maybe after our talk you’ll know if they are wrong; nevertheless that’s progress.
Me: Okay. I’ll tell you if you so insist. One possibility is that the love of beauty motivates the artist to create art.
Naveen: Care to explain more?
Me: Sure. Look. All of us appreciate beauty. All of us like beautiful things. But an artist appreciates beauty way more than the others. An artist is obsessed with beautiful objects and is motivated to create art out of such obsession for beauty.
Naveen: Hmmm.
Me: An artist nourishes the passion for beautiful objects in her mind; and is even willing to forego money, recognition, or honour to pursue such passion. We all know how passions can blinker the mind and lead us to doing things that we otherwise won’t; the obsession with beautiful things is one such obsession. The artist is motivated by that obsession.
Naveen: That’s interesting, but I don’t think it would be correct to say that it is the obsession with beautiful things that motivates an artist.
Me: Why so?
Naveen: Because the assumption that all art is beautiful is a wrong assumption to begin with. Not all objects of art are objects of beauty; indeed, some celebrated sculptures are quite grotesque, some of the greatest novels are painfully long and mundane, and some of the best arts movies are confusing and incomprehensible. If we assume that obsession of beautiful things drives an artist to create art, we won’t be able to explain what motivates an artist to create grotesque art. Hence what you say cannot be correct.
Me: Hmmm. You are right. There are celebrated pieces of art which are anything but beautiful. In fact, some of them are plain disgusting. Now when you point it out, this answer sounds rather naïve.
Naveen: Give me another possible answer? Why do we create art?
Me: It is possible that we create art because we all dread death.
Naveen: What do you mean?
Me: Artists are mortals. They’ll all die someday. The artist also knows it, and is terrified by the thought. They do not want to die. And so they create art. They hope to keep their name alive through the books they write, they hope to perpetuate themselves through the music they compose. The fear of death and non-existence initiates an artist into the creative act.
Naveen: I agree that a glimpse of death & nothingness can motivate people to commit extraordinary feats. But then, fear of death is common to all humans, not just the artists. Also, creating art is not the only response to the ineluctable fact of death. So your answer is not plausible.
Me: I do not understand your objection.
Naveen: Look. Death motivates people to do a variety of things. You must have heard the stories. Misers turn into philanthropists, cowards into warriors etc. And while I do not deny that the fear of death motivates some people to create art; but then, because such fear brings about such a wide variety of responses in people, it cannot be the motivation specific to artists and artists alone.
Me: Hmmm. That sounds reasonable. We are looking for the motivation that drives people to specifically create art and not do something else. The fear of death evokes a variety of different responses; so we cannot say that it is specifically the fear of death that motivates an artist to create art.
Naveen: So what else? Do you have any more proposals?
Me: Well. I have been wondering whether if what a friend of said about artists was true.
Naveen: What did your friend say?
Me: Look, All of us celebrate art, but very few of us ever bother to examine the person behind the art. Scholars and laymen examine, comment on, and appreciate the merits of an artwork to no end; but few care to look into the life and condition of the artist.
Naveen: Okay. But what’s the point?
Me: The point is that artists lead a difficult life. Take, for example, these Urdu Poets. We all find their poetry poignant and heart rendering. But these poets, one and all, wrote their masterpieces while going through the worst phases of their lives. We exalt the works of Ghalib and Mir, but we never appreciate the personal and professional hardships that they faced. And there is no dearth of examples: Nirala, the celebrated Hindi Poet; Beethoven, the German musician; Van Gogh, the Dutch painter; and you’d know that the English poet, Sylvia Plath committed suicide.
Naveen: I still can’t figure out what you are getting at.
Me: What I am trying to say is that a troubled, distressing life motivates an artist to create art.
Naveen: Okay. I get your point now.
Me: Yes. My point is that an artist creates art because she is terribly dissatisfied with her own life.
Naveen: The thought you express is quite pervasive; some of my friends also believe that personal hardship causes an artist to create art.
Me: Perhaps artists create art to escape from their wretched lives. Their own lives are too difficult for them to bear, so they hide away in the creative process. While they create art, they do not have to deal with the bundle of sadness that lives are.
Naveen: You make the creative act sound like some sort of compensatory process; a consolation.
Me: Maybe all art is a consolation. A therapy if you will. Artists do not create art out of a positive desire to create something new, but rather as a refuge from their otherwise painful existence
Naveen: But this runs counter to all that we know about the arts. Art is often joyful and expresses the happiest of emotions. It is difficult to believe that those artists created those works because they had terrible lives or because they were having a bad time.
Me: We should be careful to not confound the nature of art with the nature of the artist. That an actor gives a happy, uplifting performance does not mean that the actor is himself happy. That a painting is sanguine does not mean that the painter is sanguine too. The emotions an art-work evokes in us do not necessarily reflect the emotional state of the artist.
Naveen: I agree that there is a gulf between the emotions a piece of art evokes in us and the actual emotional state of the artist. But, from this how can we conclude that the artist is a sad, distressed person? In fact, I never quite understood the dynamics of how personal hardship could motivate an artist to create art. What fact about a troubled life causes an artist to create art?
Me: Remember that Woody Allen movie you suggested I watch? Annie Hall. Remember the final scene in which Woody Allen is shown directing a play based on his own relationship with his ex-girlfriend? While in the actual life, they fell apart, in the movie Allen gives his play a happy ending; one in which the characters get together in the end.
Naveen: Yes. That was fun. But what does it have to do with our discussion?
Me: Perhaps, like Woody Allen in the movie, we make happen in our art what we cannot in our actual life.
Naveen: So you’re saying that we create art to compensate for the troubles and failings of our lives.
Me: Yes. We all want to rid ourselves of our troubles. We could have fixed our lives – averted death, cured diseases, and mended failed relationships – if we had the power. But then we don’t. The contingencies of life are seldom in our control. However, when we create art, we do possess the power. We have control over our creation.  So we create it just like would want our own life to be.
Naveen: That’s Interesting.
Me: The creative act grants us abilities we don’t otherwise possess; in creating art, we assume the role of God. The more troubled a life, the greater the yearning for such control, such power. This is how a troubled life leads to the artistic impulse. That answers your question about the dynamics of personal hardship motivating an artist to create art.
Naveen: Hmmm. But then, there are many different ways a person could use to escape the pains of life. Not all people turn to creating art when life becomes unbearable; one could very well play a sport, or engage oneself in social work or other activity to deal with life, why create art?
Me: Perhaps because apart from relieving an artist from the pain of life, art also helps her deal with its many uncertainties.
Naveen: What do you mean?
Me: Life is incomprehensible; events happen randomly. We get very disturbed when tragedies strike us at times least expected. We lose loved ones to accidents, or fail at our ambitions despite having invested great effort; natural calamities strike, or people change behavior for reasons we don’t quite understand.
Naveen: Ok. So?
Me: Life and its many events often don’t make sense. An artist is a person deeply troubled by such vagaries of life, and in response, feels compelled to create a world which she does understand. In the midst of an otherwise incomprehensible life, in art an artist creates a small little corner which makes sense to her.
Naveen: What you say sounds reasonable, but I’m afraid it is mistaken. If art were an artist’s attempt for comprehension, all art must have been clear and comprehensible. But then most art is not of that kind. In fact, in my own experience, the most celebrated works of art are deeply perplexing; they defy understanding, and invite a wide variety of interpretations. Consider those novels by James Joyce, or the paintings by Dali. If art were an attempt at comprehension, why would artists create ambiguous and confusing works of art?
Me: Maybe their lives were too straightforward and all they wanted was some confusion; which they obtained through their art!
Naveen: Haha. Jokes aside, I feel that the idea of a troubled life motivating the artist is sheer speculation. People hear of a few artists having had a troubled life; and generalize to say that the lives of all artists are troubled. I wonder if anyone ever cared to look at the facts. Good artists are generally quite rich; many have families and seem quite healthy. It would only be a stretch of imagination to think of their lives as troubled. Conversely, not all troubled people turn into great artists.
Me: But then, the kind of troubles that motivates an artist need not necessarily be lack of money, ill health, or a troubled relationship. It is possible for someone to be rich, healthy, and have a family and yet be troubled.
Naveen: Then, what do you mean by a ‘troubled life’? I see no reasons why we should accept the proposal that a troubled life motivates an artist until we fix what troubled life means.
Me: It might not be easy to spell out. Just like not one thing might make everyone happy, we cannot find one thing that troubles everyone ether.
Naveen: But then, even if some correlation between the troubles of life and the artistic impulse exists; we ought to consider it as purely accidental unless we know how a troubled life motivates a person to create art and not do something else. And we don’t yet know it. Hence, we have little grounds for sticking to this proposal.
Me: Well then, I guess we could look at another proposal.
Naveen: Yes.
Me: I wonder if we create art to assert our humanity. Perhaps the desire to differentiate ourselves from the non-living objects drives us to create art.
Naveen: So you’re saying that we create art to prove that we are not rocks and chairs?
Me: Yes. Rocks and chairs do not create art. We do. Our ability to create art makes us special. The ability to create art is distinctively human. So creating art is like announcing out humanity out loud to this otherwise cold, dark Universe filled with inanimate things.
Naveen: But then, how can you say that the ability to create art is distinctively human. For all I know bird’s nest can be very artistic.
Me: Birds are not inanimate.
Naveen: Doesn’t matter. If you concede that birds create art, you must concede that the ability to create art is not distinctively human.
Me: Hmmm.
Naveen: And then, even inanimate objects can create art. Many computer generated patterns, like fractals etc. can be quite artistic.
Me:  Well, a computer is just the tool and not the artist; like a painter’s paintbrush. Artist is the person who initiates the creative impulse, an agency which an intention.
Naveen: I am not sure if all art is driven by a creative impulse. I wonder if art gets created accidentally, without anyone’s conscious intention.
Me: How can art get created accidentally?
Naveen: I am not saying that it does, I am just wondering if it could.
Me: For example?
Naveen: There are many! If you consider naturally occurring aesthetic objects – like a snowflake or a crystal – as artistic, then art can’t be something that must result from an artistic impulse. Unless, of course, you believe in a creator God or something.
Me: Perhaps we need to settle the question of what art is before we might move forward.
Naveen: The definition of art is another can of worms. We don’t want to open that now. Do you have any other suggestions?

Why do we create Art?

Me: We are not getting anywhere with my suggestions. And if I wanted to run over the confusions of my own mind, I’d have sat in the library and did some thinking on my own. I wanted to talk to you so that I could move beyond my own opinions and gain new insights. I’d appreciate if you share your opinions as well.
Naveen: I don’t have any, Nikhil. And you’re doing quite fine; and your proposals are so interesting. Give me another one. What do you think motivates an artist?
Me: I was wondering if artists create art because they have just too much time.
Naveen: What?
Me: Yes. 
Naveen: You can’t be serious! Artists are not necessarily leisurely; In fact, many artists pursue concurrent professions: they work as teachers, journalists, diplomats etc. Contrary to what you say, it might be difficult for some artists to create space for their artistic pursuits within their busy schedules.
Me: This is not what I meant.
Naveen: What do you mean then?
Me: Artists are people who realize that they have all the time in their lives but very few things to meaningfully fill all that time with. They know that all the time of their life is set to be spent in trifles except the time spent creating art. They create art in an attempt to invest their time in something meaningful.
Naveen: I think I get what you mean; but to be sure could you explain more.
Me: Of course. Look. We all know that we took birth and are alive; but some of us, i.e. the artists, are unable to figure out why they live. After all, people do not come in this world with a manual detailing what they are meant to do and how they ought to do it.
Naveen: I was wondering how you managed to speak for so long without bringing up some existential motif!
Me: It’s not just me. It is the fundamental human condition. Our lives are meaningless.
Naveen: Even if it were, how does it relate to the question? Are you saying that artists are people who wake up one fine morning realizing that life is pointless and hence begin creating art?
Me: The chilling truth that nothing we do matters in the grand scheme of the Universe disturbs us all. And it upsets the artist even more. Art is an artist’s response to the void of existence. Art is an artist’s attempt to make it seem that her life amounts to something. Creating art is like that shrill but short-lived scream that fills that void for a moment.
Naveen: In my experience, amongst the common folks very few find their lives meaningless. It is the privilege only of a philosopher. Most people are sure of what goals to pursue and which ambitions to chase; and so remain deeply engaged in their lives.
Me: But then, most people are not artists either.
Naveen: That’s snotty!
Me: Well. Then you’ll at least agree that most people are not artists for bulk of their lives. But everyone gets blessed by the muses at some point or the other.
Naveen: Doesn’t matter. And we’re off the topic. Let’s get back. So you were saying something about the existential angst driving artists.
Me: Yes. Artists are the folks who somehow realize the pointlessness of their existence. They find themselves with all the time in their lives but don’t know what they are meant to spend that time doing. They try to find a meaningful ways, but fail to find one. So they are forced to create a meaningful way to spend their time. This is the origin of the creative act. Artists create art because otherwise they will get bored to death with all the time they have.
Naveen: Hmmm. That’s a fascinating story. But, why should we believe that life’s meaninglessness drives people to create art, and not do something else? If one is so bored, perhaps one could commit suicide. That would solve the problem too, won’t it? So I am not sure whether it is true.
Me: Neither do I. I told you my answers are no good.
Naveen: Doesn’t matter. If a story is interesting it fails to matter whether or not it is true. And answers need not be true to be good. Interesting, convincing, or practical answers are good answers too. So you shouldn’t think your answers aren’t good.
Me: But I am not looking for an interesting answer. I am looking for the Truth. That’s why I thought I’d talk to you. And it is unfair that you haven’t given me any answers yet.
Naveen: I do not have an answer Nikhil; especially not the kind of answer that you seek. And I am not sure if the kind of answer you seek can ever be found.
Me: What do you mean?
Naveen: In seeking to know what motivates an artist, you seek to know the motivation that drives all artists, and only the artists but no-one else, right?
Me: Yes. That would be the right kind of answer.
Naveen: But what if it were the case that no such motivation exists?
Me: How could that be possible? There has to be some reason why people create art; something that pushes them into the creative process instead of doing something else.
Naveen: In my experience I have seen no two artists driven by the same motivations. Some work for money, others work for prestige. Yet others create art because they have nothing better to spend their time doing. I suspect that if we suffer from the obsession of finding that one answer, we might never find it.
Me: Perhaps our failure to see that one motivation is merely our failure to be rational and critical enough. If you co-operate a little and if we reason better, we might just discover it.
Naveen: I am not as optimistic about it. In fact, I am doubtful if this subject even warrants a rational inquiry.
Me: What do you mean?
Naveen: Even if there’s some motivation common to all artists, it might be so elusive and mysterious, that its rational inquiry might be principally impossible.
Me: How so?
Naveen: Maybe the artistic instinct is some kind of divine madness that can’t be pinned down to one reason or the other. Maybe it happens because of some arbitrary interference from the Gods.
Me: That doesn’t diminish the role of reason a bit. Even if the creative impulse had such inscrutable origins, we will still need an argument to show that it does. What argument do you have to believe that artistic motivations cannot be discovered by reason?
Naveen: I guess I don’t have an argument.
Me: Perhaps we can work together and find one.
Naveen: It’s quite late now; and haven’t we had enough arguments for a day? I need some rest, as someone said “after the philosopher has overheated his brain, he goes and plays backgammon”. Now I can’t offer you a backgammon game, but I have an electric kettle and I can brew you some tea.
Me: I already have sleep issues and I’m afraid having tea at this hour would keep me awake all night. But I can’t resist the temptation of a hot cup either. Let’s go get some tea.


We leave for tea.

3 Replies to “Why do we Create Art?”

  1. This one is more engaging. I liked it. Only that arguments are too easily given up. Naveen has played smart.

  2. Kindly upload more things. Would you like to upload something on dream representations?

  3. Thanks for your comments 🙂

    Naveen indeed is smart! I’ll upload something soon, probably something on teaching.

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