Why art is self-actualization
Art & Maslow’s hierarchy
One reason I’m writing Getting Art Done is because I believe making one’s art is a means of self-actualization.
Humanity has progressed so that more people than ever have their basic needs met. Our creative energy is free to be explored. But we need to reconnect with that creative energy in order to do so.
Creative energy, I believe, is the next resource to be optimized, following attention, and before that, time.
If art is a means to self-actualization (I went so far in The Heart to Start to say that art is self-actualization), what does self-actualization look like?
Let’s look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow believed some needs depended upon other needs on the path to self-actualization.
- Physiological needs: The basics like food, water, and rest. The things you need to keep your body running.
- Safety needs: The things that keep your body in one piece. Shelter, lack of violence.
- Love/belonging needs: Friends, family, intimate relationships, and community.
- Esteem needs: A feeling of accomplishment and being respected for those accomplishments.
- Self-Actualization needs: Achieving your full potential.
I’ll go ahead and conflate self-actualization with art here. Creative endeavors are often placed in the “self-actualization” level on Maslow’s hierarchy by people who know more about the hierarchy than I do.
If you were to then take this hierarchy literally, you wouldn’t be able to create art until you not only had your basic needs met, but also your needs of belonging and esteem.
But that’s clearly not the case. Art can be created at any level of Maslow’s hierarchy. In fact, art can be used to skip levels on Maslow’s hierarchy. Sometimes the middle levels on the hierarchy can be filled later.
You don’t need 100% of physiological resources to create art. How many starving artists have there been?
You don’t need 100% safety to create art. How much art has been created in war zones?
You don’t need 100% love and belonging to create art. How many great poems have been written about unrequited love?
You don’t need 100% esteem to create art. Success in art can actually bring you esteem.
I’ve personally experienced a skipping of levels on Maslow’s hierarchy through art. For me, art used to be a salve for loneliness and ostracism. My success in art brought me self-confidence and esteem, which helped me create a sense of belonging, and even freed me up to take care of health issues I had neglected.
The complicated thing about this is that after art helps you skip levels on Maslow’s hierarchy, you have to recalibrate your relationship with art. You made art because you were sad and lonely. Now you’re not sad and lonely. Now how do you still make art?
This is probably a cause of the “sophomore slump” phenomenon in music. You struggle and starve to create your first great album. When the world accepts you and you can pay your bills, the creative pathways you once used have been blocked. Your next album flops.
For me, after my success in art helped fill in the middle parts of the hierarchy, I had to discover how to use art as a source of joy and satisfaction, rather than an elixir to cure my woes.
This skipping of the levels is why there’s an entire field of Art Therapy, with a licensing board, and a code of conduct. As unsavory as it may be to see art measured and quantified in a clinical setting, it does help people.
The levels of Maslow’s hierarchy interact with each other dynamically. Not only can art help you skip levels, so too can love and esteem. Consider this interpretation.
Notice that as your self-actualization needs rise, your needs in all other levels drop. Maybe this is why many enlightened people become minimalists.
To be fair, this is more about intensity of needs than some objective measure of what is required to meet those needs. As your self-actualization needs rise, your physiological needs probably drop because they are so secure that you hardly notice them.
I will say that the bottom of the “self-actualization” curve could probably extend a little farther left. How far? I can’t say from personal experience.
In any case, it’s just a diagram. It’s a “stuff” turned into a “thing.”
Many people feel ashamed of their “first-world problems.” They feel that they’re so high on the hierarchy, it’s unfair that so many people are so much lower on the hierarchy.
First of all, many of those people they pity are more fulfilled on the middle part of the hierarchy than most first-worlders like to think. The valuing of material goods over self-actualization that is rampant in the U.S. deteriorates love and belonging, and as a result, safety. This material culture runs on lack of esteem: There’s something wrong with you, so buy this thing.
I live in a non “first-world” country. Granted, my living standard is somewhere toward the upper rungs of that society, and I know much less than everything, but the feeling of satisfaction and contentment (Americans would say “happiness”) is palpable in Colombia. I posit that lack of resources can bolster relationships through forcing people to live more closely and share. (Obviously there would be a happy medium here).
By the way, this tendency to pity those in other countries exists in Colombia, too. I asked my girlfriend why there was a picture of a starving African child on the wall of her family’s kitchen. They’re middle-class Colombians, so a few generations share their 700-square-foot home. The picture was to encourage her nephew to eat because “there are starving children in Africa.” Of course there are plenty of starving children in Colombia, or the U.S. for that matter.
Secondly, “first-world problems” are a sign of an opportunity to make art—maybe even a duty to make art. The dynamic interaction of the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy may exist not only within the individual, but also within society. As more people achieve self-actualization, sometimes through art that helps them skip levels on Maslow’s hierarchy, that “rising tide lifts all ships.”
There’s no one universally-accepted definition of art, but I think it goes something like this: You take your interests, experiences, and circumstances — everything that makes up you—and you create something. That something can be shared with other people. The inherently relatable nature of the human experience makes that thing connect with those people.
Art can take many forms, it can be a painting or a novel or an album, but it can also be an NGO or a world-changing for-profit endeavor. When you extend the above definition, art could be as simple as a smile.
This is why I believe that art is a powerful path toward self-actualization. Art can help you skip levels on Maslow’s hierarchy, and at the same time help others do the same.
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