Psychologist Abraham Maslow has written, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write — if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.” The question for many would-be creators is simply how to get to “must.”
Maslow spent a lifetime researching mental health and human potential. He emphasized the study of healthy minds and successful systems rather than the abnormal and the ill. He was particularly interested in the hierarchy of needs, meta-needs, self-actualizing persons, purposeful play, and peak experiences. Leader of the humanistic school of psychology, he referred to his ideas as a “third force” — beyond Freudian theory and behaviourism.
Maslow saw human beings’ needs arranged like a ladder. The most basic needs, at the bottom, were physical — air, water, food, etc. Then came safety needs — security, stability, comfort. Then psychological or social needs — belonging, love, acceptance. At the top were the self-actualizing needs — the need to fulfill oneself, to become all that one is capable of becoming. Maslow felt that unfulfilled needs lower on the ladder inhibited a person from climbing to the next step. For example, someone dying of thirst is not likely to write or paint. People who managed the higher needs are what he called self-actualizing people. These folks, he found, are able to focus on problems outside themselves, have a clear sense of what is true and what is phony, and are spontaneous, creative, and not bound too strictly by social conventions.
Here are a few of Maslow’s ideas for artists wishing to further evolve:
Systematically study, understand and neutralize the effects of lower needs. Accept the world in all of its complexity, mystery and ambiguity. Take cues from the winners in this world, not the losers. Keep the company of the doers, not the talkers. Play your personal game on as many levels as you’re able. Fall in love with your processes, innovations, dreams and higher ideals. Be sensitive to and welcome the arrival of peak experiences. Have no guilt when you see yourself becoming compulsive and proactive. Allow yourself to be swept up in your personal “must.”
PS: “Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? A good question might be not why do people create, but why do people not create?” (Abraham Maslow, 1908-1970)
Esoterica: Peak experiences are profound moments of love, understanding, happiness or rapture, when a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world — more aware of truth, justice, harmony and goodness. Maslow found self-actualizing people have many such peak experiences. Acts of art can be structured so an individual sets himself up for a series of them. He feels good, becomes habituated and demands their repetition. Maslow was not a snob about his conclusions. “A first-rate soup,” he said, “is more creative than a second-rate painting.”
This is a favourite Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Letter previously published as “Getting to ‘must’” on November 23, 2007.
Not going anywhere
by Mellissa Meeks, Huntsville, AL, USA
This was the best one!!! I got sooo much out of that last couple of paragraphs… perfect timing — because my art career is beginning to expand — networking is key. Surrounding yourself with like-minded doers is a must! Often we find ourselves in stale conversations with some individuals that think you are “braggin’ ” if you are merely discussing your goals, accomplishments, and future objectives. Some people are resentful of what you are doing… meanwhile, they hold down their sofa cushions and wonder why they aren’t going anywhere.
Worthy of the indulgence of creating art?
by Marcie Maynard, South Acworth, NH, USA
This was a profound and important letter. I have believed in this idea for years (but have struggled with actually doing my artwork — and justifying the doing of it — daily needs to make a living always seemed more pressing, and I didn’t feel worthy of the “indulgence” or “selfishness” of doing my artwork on a regular basis, even after grappling with illness. Things are finally shifting.
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Givers and doers
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I found this to be very inspiring, particularly the “Take cues from the winners in this world, not the losers. Keep the company of the doers, not the talkers.” I make it a practice to spend my time with the doers of the world. My friend Rick often says that there are two kinds of people, the givers and the takers. I want to be remembered as one of the givers.
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by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Getting to “must” is only possible if you are constantly striving to work at what it is you do. You can’t be a “weekender,” a “once-in-awhile” person. It doesn’t take a genius to understand if there is anything you wish to do… you do it. You don’t talk about doing it, you do it. You don’t ask advice or seek permission… you do it. You do it because you must.
The danger is this: Just painting doesn’t make you an artist. Just playing an instrument doesn’t make you a musician. Writing a poem doesn’t make you a poet. To be any of these things you “must” be it. It must become a part of you. It must burn within you to the exclusion of everything else. Otherwise you just make pictures; dabble at music; write meaningless words. It isn’t a mystery; it isn’t science; it isn’t alchemy. It’s work and dedication and years of study. It’s climbing a mountain where you never reach the top.
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The joy of the process
by Ina Beierle, Glencoe, IL, USA
The last line in this letter you write how Maslow compares a great soup to a second-rate painting… that line alone filled in the very cracks in my creative soul. I love to create in the kitchen and as a painter; the meals are sometime (not always) more satisfying than making art. From this experience throughout my life I have been grateful for any creative endeavor I take on: painting, mixed media, cooking, beading or knitting. The most rewarding time is when something comes from the hand and heart — not machine made, but conceptualized and put together with my thoughts and time. When I saw crafted work (not paintings) in the shows of: Redon, Grant Wood, Gauguin, and certainly Picasso, those were moments that formed a connection between what it is to “create” whatever one is making. I have been a painting snob many times, thinking that only painters of all genres, and sculptors as well, were the “real deal” when it comes to making art. But again, that last quote of Maslow says it all for anyone putting together “good work” whatever that might be, I’ve known for a long time now that it is the process that can carry me. Oh, the joy of the process… whatever one is creating.
A solid core of conviction
by Lynda Lehmann, NY, USA
I read so many of the humanist psychologists back in the ’60s, and what wisdom l might have gleaned from them, seems to have remained with me. Thank you for reminding me of people like Abraham Maslow. I also read Carl Rogers’ book, On Becoming a Person. And Eric Berne, who wrote Games People Play. Also Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. And many others. I only wish that such dialogues and conversations were going on today, as we seem to have lost so much of our humanity. And especially in times where violence, loss of stability, and loss of trust in institutions prevail, we certainly need to regain and redefine our common humanity. At any rate, we who are addicted to creativity are certainly blessed, because we have a solid core of conviction and passion that will carry us through circumstances, through adversity and fear, and through despair and loss.
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Art as recovery tool
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
Recovering from PTSD and speaking up about what triggered it caused my family to disown me and my employer to begin to build a paper tiger to rid themselves of me after a boss abused her whole district. I had a breakdown as a result of the abuse and became disabled. I lost my career. I believe that I am destined to write a recovery book that puts myself out there to strangers after having such losses. November 1st, I submitted an article that is a start of this writing, to The Sun magazine for an upcoming topic called “Speaking Up.” I have worked for years helping others who were harmed in the workplace. It is scary to go forward, but I must do it for the very reasons that you outline in this letter. A few years ago I painted a painting called Lady Justice Slays the Paper Tiger. It is about knowing the truth and shining light on abuse. The sidewalk represents the paper trail that employers create to sink truth tellers. Justice is not blinded because she needs to see the truth. The cat is fat. The light is peaking out from behind the violence, represented by the red circle.
There is such stigma surrounding mental illness. Many hide in the shadows to protect themselves. I am writing because I feel I must be part of the solution, and I have learned many things over more than 30 years of recovery that can help others. My plan is to put the recovery details and tools first in my book and the story in the second part because story is what connects us. Art was a one of my recovery tools and I will have a chapter on that.
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Enjoy the past comments below for About getting to ‘must’…
oil on paper by Cyn McCurry
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes John F. Burk of Timonium, MD, USA, who wrote, “Maslow’s concept sounds to me like the essence of a healthy existence. You are there, brother.”
And also Gins Doolittle of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “Quote from Maslow’s biography: ‘Maslow’s life was dedicated to the study of people.’ Indeed, self-actualizing people are those who have come to a high level of maturation, health and self-fulfillment… the values that self-actualizers appreciate include truth, creativity, beauty, goodness, wholeness, aliveness, uniqueness, justice, simplicity, and self-sufficiency.”