Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Artistic creation motivation

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Artistic creation motivation:
What motivates artists to create art?

Overview[edit | edit source]

What motivates an artist to create art? Various great artists have existed in history and modern times producing art that captivates and moves audiences. The likes of Pablo Picasso, Michael Jackson, William Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci are all considered artists who have created music, paintings, literature and sculptures that are famously adored. But what motivates an artist to do this? Do they do it seeking external rewards like money, fame and others approval? Do they do it because it makes them happy, or is it a way to express emotions? This chapter will explore the theories that explain what motivates creativity in artists, what the purpose of art is, and will discuss research into the motivation for different types of artists, for example graffiti artists and art students.

Learning objectives

  1. Define art and creativity and describe the link between them
  2. Psychological theories behind the motivation for artistic creation
  3. Purpose of art
  4. Research into motivations of different types of artists

Imagine an artist, Lisa, is a gifted painter. She is 30 years old and works freelance, painting and selling her works in her own gallery. Lisa will be used as an example throughout the chapter to illustrate theoretical concepts discussed.

Definitions[edit | edit source]

Art is an expression of creative skill and imagination, in a visual form such as paintings or sculpture (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). Art has also been described as creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, sculpture, music and literature (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). An artist is a person who creates, performs, or practises any creative art as a profession or hobby (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). Within these definitions there is a clear link between art and creation, or the artist and creativity. An artist can be a composer, author, visual artist, choreographer, performer or film director,[grammar?] furthermore anyone who produces new artworks (Towse, 2001). Creativity is the use of imagination and ideas to create something (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016).

Motivation can be described as being moved to do something (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Intrinsic motivation can be defined as doing something because it is enjoyable or interesting and in contrast,[grammar?] extrinsic motivation is doing something in order to obtain an independent outcome (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation has been measured in studies as ‘free choice’ to do something without any external reward or as self-report of enjoyment and interest in a specific activity (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

With these definitions in mind, the question of ‘what motivates an artist to use creativity to make art?’ is posed.

Learning objectives
Now that the first learning objective has been addressed, why not quiz yourself to see how much you remember?

1 Which of these would be considered art

A painting
A poem

2 Select which scenario describes an intrinsic motivation

Doing something to earn money
Doing something because you enjoy it
Doing something because your Mum says you have to.

Theories of artistic creation motivation[edit | edit source]


Freud[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Sigmund Freud the founder of psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud studied artists throughout his career and applied psychoanalysis to art. Freud wrote a controversial paper on Leonardo da Vinci in 1910 (as cited in Blum, 2001), which despite its many limitations, sparked a psychological perspective on art. Freud’s paper on Leonardo investigated the contribution of the unconscious mind to an artist’s creations (Blum, 2001). Freud’s work on Leonardo and artistic obsession focused on an imaginary approach, in which he believed art was created from imagination and could be analysed to interpret the meanings (Blum, 2001; Kemler, 2014). Freud investigated the link between Leonardo da Vinci’s childhood and the art he produced in his adult life. He addressed his relationship with his mother and explained Leonardo’s artwork as being a displacement of this fixation with his mother, as well as considering Leonardo was lacking part of masculinity due to an absent father (Blum, 2001).

Figure 2. Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Freud analysed unconscious motives behind the smile of Mona Lisa and speculated that this was based off Leonardo’s mother, as well as other paintings which Freud described as representing female figures in Leonardo’s life, potentially showing a fantasy of synthesis of mother and infant (Blum, 2001). In summary, from Freud’s work on Leonardo, he described motivation for artists to be a way to release egotistic daydreams (Kemler, 2014). In addition to this, Freud thought that repressed sexual and aggressive drives led to anxiety in an artist, and that creative work was formed as a result of unconscious defence mechanisms, such as denial and sublimation, against anxiety (Kemler, 2014). Furthermore, unconscious fantasy is a major focus of motivation for art according to Freud (Kemler, 2014). Later work by Freud suggested that an artist creates artworks to satisfy unconscious desires and artists retract into a fantasy world as a result of dissatisfaction with reality (Kemler, 2014). The work of Freud proposes various interesting explanations behind the motivation of artists including to satisfy unconscious desires, as an unconscious defence mechanism and to release egotistic daydreams.

According to Freud’s theory Lisa might find herself painting something like a picture of a person climbing through a smashed or broken window due to dissatisfaction with her life as an unconscious fantasy of wanting to escape or break free from her day job.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Diagram showing [what?] types of Human motivation

[Provide more detail]

The self determination theory[edit | edit source]

The self-determination theory breaks down human motivation to explain the factors and psychological needs that influence it (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The types of motivation in this theory include amotivation, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Figure 3 outlines the self-determination theory. Amotivation is a lack of personal cause or intention for a behaviour. Extrinsic motivation can be broken down into four different levels, external regulation, introjection, identification and Integration (Ryan & Deci, 2000). External regulation is motivated by external demands or rewards, introjected regulation is motivated by the pressure to avoid guilt or to enhance self esteem, identification is motivation involving the self importance of the behaviour and finally, integrated regulation is motivated by value to self, however still involves an instrumental value (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation is behaviours that are self-determined which satisfy the psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

With these explanations in mind we can address whether an artists motivation to create is more intrinsic or extrinsic. In relation to self-determination, people high in creativity, such as artists, are found to be more self-determined and possess personal autonomy as a core characteristic (Sheldon, 1995). Personal independence is important for artists, meaning artists are unique people, are self directed and can go against social norms when necessary (Sheldon, 1995).

Research has investigated extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for creative writers and found that creativity was much higher for writers with intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic (Amabile, 1985). This research further suggested that a writer motivated by tangible rewards (e.g. financially security), external evaluation (e.g. impressing others), external direction (e.g. encouragement to pursue a writing career) or as a means to an end (e.g. getting a good job), was less beneficial to creativity than being intrinsically motivated (Amabile, 1985). In addition to this, it has been found that external evaluation results in less creativity, which would be detrimental for an artist (Amabile, 1979)[Provide more detail]. Taking this research into consideration it could be concluded that being intrinsically motivated would be more beneficial to an artist.  However, this is not always the case as under the right conditions external reward is not always detrimental to intrinsic motivation and creativity. If a reward is given that is contingent to the task, creativity and intrinsic motivation are not undermined (Eisenberger, & Shanock, 2003; Selart, Nordström, Kuvaas, & Takemura, 2008).

An extrinsic motivation that could be potentially relevant to artists would be money. Compared to other professionals, artist’s[grammar?] are younger, have higher levels of education and work more hours but earn less (Towse, 2001). Many artists have another job for paying bills and then earn a small amount of money from freelance art work (Towse, 2001). This indicates that extrinsic reward, specifically money, is often very minimal for artists due to the competitive market, and suggests they would have other motivations for creating artwork (Towse, 2001). However, money can be considered both an extrinsic and intrinsic reward in reference to art. Payment for art can be a kind of ranking method, as an artist paid higher than another artist, can feel more valued, which is an intrinsic reward (Towse, 2001).

"Movie studio mogul Michael Eisner once stated, 'We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective'. According to Friend, Eisner’s focus on monetary gain resulted in unoriginal, formulaic films" (Friend, 2000 in Eisenberger, & Shanock, 2003).

If Lisa was extrinsically motivated to create art she would be painting to earn money or because someone else is telling her to. If Lisa was intrinsically motivated she would be creating art because she loves it and gets great pleasure and enjoyment from it.

Essentialism vs contextualism[edit | edit source]

It has been proposed that there are two contradicting reasons why people make art[factual?]. An artist can be motivated to create art for personal psychological reasons, such as for one’s own pleasure or to gather a sense of self. These types of artists are viewed as essentialist's[grammar?] and their motivation can be can be described as intrinsic (Anderson, 2004). An artist may also be motivated to make art for social reasons, such as a means of communication for something significant to someone else (Anderson, 2004). An artist using art as a social tool is viewed as a contextualist (Anderson, 2004). An essentialist artist would consider the worth of art to be entirely intrinsic, meaning they believe that art is self explanatory and are concerned with whether the technique and composition of the art is aesthetically pleasing (Anderson, 2004). In contrast to this, a contextualist artist believes that art should be viewed in context to determine the meaning of it and that it should communicate something beyond itself (Anderson, 2004).

If Lisa was a contextualist she would paint a picture of the sunrise which signified the start of a new beginning for her.

If Lisa was an essentialist she would paint a picture of the sunrise because she enjoys painting and wants to create a beautiful image, she would focus on whether she has used the right colours of blue, orange, yellow and pink and the correct brush strokes and detail.

Learning objectives
We have now covered another learning objective so its quiz time!

1 What are the four types of extrinsic motivation in the self determination theory

external regulation
Internal regulation

2 What did Freud believe the motivation for artists was

to satisfy unconscious desires
unconscious defence mechanism
to release egotistic daydreams
to satisfy conscious desires
to reduce repressed anxiety

What is the purpose of art?[edit | edit source]

Mosaic of a Native American dance

The question of ‘what is art for?’ and understanding the purpose of art may help answer the question of what motivates artists to create. An article by Bloom (2011) suggested three characteristics for art: art is universal, art is integral in most societies and art is a source of pleasure.

Humans have been creating art as far back as forty thousand years ago in the form of cave paintings, statues and musical instruments (Bloom, 2011). Art is universal as all cultures have been involved in some form of creative expression (Bloom, 2011). In tribal cultures, such as Native Americans, ceremony and dance through use of creative expression and art is apart of life and has purpose in education, entertainment, worship and more (Bloom, 2011).

Furthermore, art has various functional purposes. Art can be viewed as important because it reflects real life and conceptualises experience (Dissanayake, 1988). In addition to this, art is important as it is considered to be therapeutic due to it providing escape from reality, as well providing meaning to life (Dissanayake,1988). Another purpose of art is its use as a means of communication. The social aspect of art allows an artist to either symbolically or directly share a feeling (Dissanayake, 1988). Art can be a means of reaching out and communicating affinity and mutuality (Dissanayake, 1988). An artist can communicate their insights and subjective experiences symbolically through the art they create (Anderson, 2005). In addition, artists may also create art as the process results in pleasure. This pleasure may be connected to how art allows the artist communicate significant aspects of the world and being alive (Anderson, 2005).

Therefore there are many purposes for art, indicating an artist may be motivated to create art for various reasons.

Research into artistic creation motivation[edit | edit source]

Example of a public legal Graffiti wall

[Provide more detail]

Graffiti artist motivation[edit | edit source]

It is debatable whether graffiti should be considered art or a nuisance, either way motivation for graffiti has been investigated. Motivation for graffiti artists is a relevant example to explain motivation for all artists. Motivation for graffiti are comparable to motivations for other forms of art discussed above such as recognition as an artist, fame, or for pleasure and desire to create (Halsey, & Young, 2006; Watzlawik, 2014). When interviewed in a study by Halsey & Young (2006) graffiti artists indicated they were initially involved in graffiti for social interaction and aesthetic appeal however continued to create due to the personal sense of pride, enjoyment and pleasure. These reasons are prime examples of intrinsic motivation. However, some graffiti artists did also participate due to the recognition they receive from their work from other graffiti artists (Halsey, & Young, 2006). This kind of response would be considered an extrinsic motivation.

This research indicates that motivations for art can differ between individuals.

Extrinsic motivation Intrinsic motivation
"I don’t know, it’s just getting to have your name well known all around the place ... They’ll be like, they’ll see your tag and they’ll be like, that’s good ... and they’ll be like, I know who writes that, I’m his friend ... he’s heaps cool.”
(Halsey, & Young, 2006)
  “Researcher: So who do you piece for?

Interviewee: Me.
Researcher: You did them for you?

Interviewee: I don’t have to prove anything. I don’t want to make anyone else happy. It makes me happy, that’s all I care about.”
(Halsey, & Young, 2006)

Art student motivation[edit | edit source]

Looking away from major psychological theories, another topic that has been researched to understand the motivation for artists, is the motivation for aspiring artists, specifically students of the arts at university. Research has investigated why students want to become artists. A study by Elias & Berg-Cross (2009) proposed three models to explain different motivations for fine art students; visionary artist model, self-actualized artist model and commodity artist model. The visionary artist model represents artists who are motivated to create in order to self express as a way to deal with mental suffering (Elias & Berg-Cross, 2009). The self-actualised artist model embodies artists who create as means of mediation or emotional outlet (Elias & Berg-Cross, 2009). Finally, the commodity artist model describes artists who create art for consumers, with a motif for profit and financial gain (Elias & Berg-Cross, 2009). This kind of artist would aim to create art that would sell, rather than art that expresses personal meaning (Elias & Berg-Cross, 2009). In a sample of 75 artists, 65% identified with either the visionary or self-actualized artist model, 10% with the commodity artist model and 25% thought none of the models described them (Elias & Berg-Cross, 2009).

The number of students enrolling in the arts at university continues to grow, leading to oversupply of graduates, even though this career often entails periods of unemployment and lower pay rates (Daniel & Johnstone, 2015). A study on Australian University students studying the arts by Daniel & Johnstone (2015) also investigated the motivations for these[grammar?] students. They found that students were slightly more motivated by intrinsic rewards than by extrinsic rewards (Daniel & Johnstone, 2015). Intrinsic motivations included personal satisfaction for creating art and autonomy, whilst extrinsic motivations include social status and monetary return (Daniel & Johnstone, 2015). This research also found that students were aware of the difficulty in obtaining employment in this field, but still chose to pursue art (Daniel & Johnstone, 2015).

This research indicates that students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to pursuit a career as an artist than they are extrinsically motivated. 

Specific artists[edit | edit source]

An article by Smith & Marsh (2008) titled Why we make art contains interviews with seven different artists, each discussing what motivates them to create art. After discussing theory and research of the motivation for artists to create, this article provides great insight into real life examples of specific individuals motivations.

Pete Docter Kwame Dawes
Pete Docter works for Pixar Studio’s and has worked on animations for Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Cars, and Wall-E and directed Monsters, Inc. and Up.
“I make art primarily because I enjoy the process. It’s fun making things. And I’m sure there is also that universal desire to connect with other people in some way, to tell them about myself or my experiences. What I really look for in a project is something that resonates with life as I see it, and speaks to our experiences as humans” (Pete Docter in Smith & Marsh, 2008).

Pete went on to discuss how he likes to tell stories and connect with other people. Pete’s motivation is a fine example of intrinsic motivation for an artist, as well as representative of the communicative purpose of art. Also the use of art for communication means Pete could be considered a contextualist.

Kwame Dawes is a distinguished Poet and is the author of 13 books.
"I write in what is probably a vain effort to somehow control the world in which I live, recreating it in a manner that satisfies my sense of what the world should look like and be like… I want to somehow communicate my sense of the world—that way of understanding, engaging, experiencing the world—to somebody else. I want them to be transported into the world that I have created with language" (Kwame Dawes in Smith & Marsh, 2008).

Kwame also expresses how he writes in order to communicate his sense of the world, in this sense he could be considered a contexualist. He also expresses how he writes to satisfy his sense of the world should be like, this mentality could be related to Freud’s theory depicting unconscious fantasies.

Artist Example
Relevant to the social purpose of art, Sanford Biggers was motivated to create art to start a healthy conversation about the prominent issue in the USA of police shootings of innocent black citizens. See the TED talk by this artist.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

To answer the question of “What motivates artists to create art?” the answer would be that it differs between artists. Freud proposed theories around artistic creation motivation and suggested artistic motivations satisfy unconscious desires, are unconscious defence mechanism and release egotistic daydreams. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation along with the self determination theory can be applied to artistic creation motivation. Also artists can be described to be essentialist or contexualist meaning they either create art for one’s own pleasure or as a social tool, respectively. Art can be used for many purposes including as a tool for communication,[grammar?] it reflects real life and conceptualises experience, as a therapeutic tool as it provides escape from reality and provides meaning to life. Graffiti artists, art students and working artists have all been used to explain the different motivations for an artist to create. From these examples we see that there are various theories for artistic creation motivation and that artists individually have different motivations and purposes for art[vague].  

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Anderson, T. (2004). Why and how we make art, with implications for art education. Arts Education Policy Review, 105(5), 31-38.

Amabile, T. M. (1985). Motivation and creativity: Effects of motivational orientation on creative writers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(2), 393-399. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.48.2.393

Art. (2016) in Oxford English dictionary, retrieved from

Artist. (2016) in Oxford English dictionary, retrieved from

Bloom, S. L. (2011). Bridging the black hole of trauma: The evolutionary significance of the arts part 2: The arts and evolution - what is art for?: Bridging the black hole of trauma. Psychotherapy and Politics International, 9(1), 67-82. doi:10.1002/ppi.229

Blum, H. P. (2001). Psychoanalysis and art, Freud and Leonardo. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 49(4), 1409-1425. doi:10.1177/00030651010490040501

Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140(4), 980-1008. doi:10.1037/a0035661

Creativity. (2016) in Oxford English dictionary, retrieved from

Daniel, R., & Johnstone, R. (2015). Becoming an artist: Exploring the motivations of undergraduate students at a regional australian university. Studies in Higher Education, , 1-18. doi:10.1080/03075079.2015.1075196

Dissanayake, E. (1988). What is art for?. University of Washington Press.

Eisenberger, R., & Shanock, L. (2003). Rewards, intrinsic motivation, and creativity: A case study of conceptual and methodological isolation. Creativity Research Journal, 15(2), 121-130. doi:10.1207/S15326934CRJ152&3_02

Elias, D. M. G., & Berg-Cross, L. (2009). An exploration of motivations of fine art students in relation to mental and physical well-being. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 23(4), 228-238. doi:10.1080/87568220903163850

Halsey, M., & Young, A. (2006). Our desires are ungovernable: Writing graffiti in urban space. Theoretical Criminology, 10(3), 275-306. doi:10.1177/1362480606065908

Kemler, D. S. (2014). Psychoanalysis, artistic obsession, and artistic motivation: The study of pathography. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 118(1), 225. doi:10.2466/24.22.PMS.118k16w7

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.

Selart, M., Nordström, T., Kuvaas, B., & Takemura, K. (2008). Effects of reward on self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and creativity. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 52(5), 439-458. doi:10.1080/00313830802346314

Sheldon, K. M. (1995). Creativity and self-determination in personality. Creativity Research Journal, 8(1), 25-36. doi:10.1207/s15326934crj0801_3

Smith, J., A., & Marsh, J., (2008). Why We Make Art, retrieved from

Towse, R. (2001). Partly for the money: Rewards and incentives to artists. Kyklos, 54(2‐3), 473-490.

Watzlawik, M. (2014). The “art” of identity development—Graffiti painters moving through time and space. Culture & Psychology, 20(3), 404-415.

External links[edit | edit source]