On Motivation, Creativity, and Personal Expression

Whatever you do to satisfy yourself will fulfill those in the world who are like you. What takes form within you will be felt outside of yourself. But if you try to satisfy someone else, you will serve neither that person nor yourself. Thus you will never know any peace.

—Alfred Stieglitz

Almost every time I teach or speak about the practice of photography as expressive art—as a means of expressing one’s subjective experiences, distinct from the practice of photography toward objective, mimetic representation—questions arise having to do with viewer perception. Some common questions are: “What if viewers fail to understand what I’ve tried to express?”, “If people don’t like or understand my work, is it my fault?”, or “Where can I learn how to express certain concepts visually?”

I enjoy answering these questions and the discussions that often ensue, but independent of offering answers to these questions, I think it’s also worth highlighting an interesting observation having to do with the motivations underlying the questions themselves.

When asked such questions, rather than address them directly I am often tempted to redirect the conversation with such leading retorts as, “why do you ask?”, or even “why do you care?” My point is not to be sarcastic. My point is that understanding these motivations may lead to different and more useful answers. Alas, when time is limited, these conversations sometimes play themselves out only in my own mind, which is why I decided to articulate them here.


Try to answer these questions for yourself: Do you consider consciously if or how your viewers may respond to your work in the process of making photographs (i.e., not before or after)? Do you decide (entirely or partially) your subject selection, composition, and processing choices with the explicit goal of achieving popular appeal? Do you avoid making photographs you suspect others may not “get” or like?

There are no universal “right” answers to these questions, but they do serve to distinguish sharply between two different—and in some ways incompatible—attitudes toward photography. There are those who pursue photography primarily as a personally meaningful, enjoyable, and challenging endeavor for its own sake, and find the practice of it sufficient reward to justify the effort (the term for such pursuits, which are rewarding in their own right, is autotelic). There are also those who pursue photography primarily as a means of sharing some experiences and aesthetics with others, who judge their photographic success by the quality and quantity of favorable responses from viewers (whether in the form of “likes,” sales, awards, or other).

These differences in attitude explain why some photographers are more driven to challenge themselves to make creative, original, personally expressive work, while others—implicitly or explicitly—prefer the rewards of popularity and social interaction more than the rewards that may ensue from deep immersion in creative work. Put another way, some favor rewards ensuing from the results of their efforts over rewards ensuing in real time from intense engagement in attention-consuming creative work. In the concise terminology of scientific researchers: some are motivated primarily by extrinsic rewards (provided by others), and some are motivated primarily by intrinsic rewards (resulting from qualities of their inner experience, independent of any external influence). To the point of this discussion: the answers to the questions in the opening paragraph will be different, at least in some important ways, depending on whether one’s primary motivation is extrinsic or intrinsic.

Note my use of the term “primarily” in the preceding paragraph. Certainly many/most photographers find at least some value in both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. However, it is important for individuals to acknowledge consciously which of the two sources of motivation takes precedence in their own work, and to what degree. The reason, as neurologist Alice W. Flaherty explained (in a paper titled, “Homeostasis and the Control of Creative Drive”) is this: “Because motivation is a product of brain resources that have physical limitations, motivation is a limited resource too.” When it comes to limited and valuable resources, we should be diligent to assign them in the most optimal way, which may be different for each of us.

The two types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—are not just different in their consequences, they are in some ways antagonistic. The short-term contentment arising from an extrinsic reward will have the effect of suppressing intrinsic motivation. (Why work hard and risk failure trying to be creative, when working to please others can be easier and the results more predictably enjoyable?) On the other hand, those who find deep contentment in such states as flow, which require dedicating one’s attention entirely to some activity, may find that these intrinsic rewards are so powerful, and the memory of them after the fact so satisfying, that the risk and effort of pursuing autotelic activities feel justified without need for further extrinsic reward, especially if the pursuit of such rewards may diminish the capacity to experience flow. By comparison, for such people extrinsic rewards may seem far less satisfying, and therefore less worth pursuing.

In attempting to answer the questions in the opening paragraph, we must consider that creative work, by virtue of being novel, always comes at the risk of upsetting or contradicting existing tastes and sensibilities, and therefore more prone to misunderstanding. If you are one who favors the intrinsic rewards ensuing from deep immersion in creative, mindful work, then rationally you shouldn’t care too much (or at all) if others may understand, relate to, or accept the results of your efforts. The efforts themselves are sufficient (intrinsic) reason to create. Because motivation is a limited resource, whatever concern you may have for extrinsic rewards will by necessity come at the cost of diminishing your intrinsic motivation and rewards. Indeed, since complete, undistracted dedication to a task is a known pre-condition to flow, such distractions (i.e., considering extrinsic rewards) may even make the difference between experiencing flow and not experiencing flow.

Historically, we find many examples of artwork that in its day was misunderstood and unaccepted, that later became recognized as a work of genius, sometimes even after its creator has suffered some misfortune for daring to challenge the zeitgeist of the day, or even passed away never knowing the disputed work would someday come to be revered and their reputation restored or even enlarged. These artists chose to remain at odds with prevailing tastes and judgments, even endure scorn and hardship for their misunderstood work because their intrinsic motivation—the pursuit of creative experiences for their autotelic benefits—rewarded them so profoundly that they did not consider such things as ease, popularity, or even financial remuneration as sufficient alternatives.

Oscar Wilde described the attitudes of defiant and intrinsically motivated creators in stark and unambiguous terms. To Wilde, art was only meaningful and important if its practice was entirely free of considerations of popularity and understanding. According to him, any misunderstanding of art is never the artist’s fault, and the blame for it falls squarely on viewers who fail or refuse to venture beyond their hard-wired, shortsighted, overly conservative sensibilities. He wrote:

The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play. And the more completely he can suppress his own silly views, his own foolish prejudices, his own absurd ideas of what Art should be, or should not be, the more likely he is to understand and appreciate the work of art in question.

Friedrich Nietzsche was among the earliest philosophers to consider the importance of pursuing art as a creator-focused, intrinsically motivated experience, rather than spectator-focused, aiming to satisfy the tastes and expectations of others. Martin Heidegger explained the importance of Nietzsche’s idea. He wrote:

This is precisely what is decisive in Nietzsche’s conception of art, that he sees it in its essential entirety in terms of the artist; this he does consciously and in explicit opposition to that conception of art which represents it in terms of those who “enjoy” and “experience” it. That is a guiding principle of Nietzsche’s teaching on art: art must be grasped in terms of creators and producers, not recipients.

Nietzsche, of course, was not one to mince words (on this or any other topic). In his book, The Will to Power, he wrote:

This differentiates the artist from the layman (from the spectator of art): the latter reaches the height of his excitement in the mere act of apprehending: the former in giving—and in such a way that the antagonism between these two gifts is not only natural but even desirable. Each of these states has an opposite standpoint—to demand of the artist that he should have the point of view of the spectator (of the critic) is equivalent to asking him to impoverish his creative power. [emphasis added]

A review of writings by those historical artists we consider in hindsight as “the greats” will reveal that a significant portion (perhaps most) of them have embraced the creator-focused, intrinsically motivated attitude emphatically, and created their work according to their own sensibilities, sometimes in defiance of common taste, but almost always in utter indifference to common taste. Even such a popular and much liked photographer as Ansel Adams had to defy common perceptions of photography in his time. Describing in an interview the respoinse to his first public exhibit, Adams said:

People reacted strangely. They didn’t understand that kind of photography. The criticisms were actually very funny, since my work was completely new for most people, who had seen only the pictorialists’ photographs. The average person had not seen any photograph that had a sharp, precise image with a glossy surface. People scratched their heads and said, “This doesn’t seem to have any art quality–or does it?” And there were more letters to the museum director, saying, “What is photography doing in an art museum?”

Many artists, past and present, pursue their work primarily or entirely based on extrinsic motivations: they account explicitly for viewers’ tastes and expectations, and consider favorable viewer response as an important (or even as the only) factor in decisions regarding subject matter, style, (lack of interest in) originality, eliciting predictable emotional responses (perhaps even sales). Certainly, there are many practical factors that may drive individual creators to pursue intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, but for those who pursue photography by choice, without professional obligation, I think it’s worth contemplating this question: which attitude is, in terms of personal value, more rewarding?

The most obvious answer is this: it depends on the individual artist’s personality. Creative, open, confident, introverted, self-aware artists may reap greater benefit from their work by excluding considerations of viewer response from their process. On the other hand, artists motivated extrinsically—by such things as popularity, sales, awards, peer approval, and so on—may not enjoy their work as much without such rewards.

The less obvious answer, founded in scientific study, is one I think is worth serious consideration by any committed artist. Original creators, driven primarily by intrinsic motivation, who are willing to invest time and effort in their work without regard to whether anyone else likes or understands it gain additional benefits from their attitude than just the rewards they may find in their work; they also tend to do better in terms of general emotional wellbeing. This passage from the book Wired to Create, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, describes a conclusion based on recent creativity research:

People who set aside a special time and place in their lives for creative thinking and work . . . also tend to score higher on measures of creative potential. In contrast, those who are more motivated to develop a final product (agreeing with statements like, “I work most creatively when I have deadlines,” “If I don’t have something to show for myself, then I feel I’ve failed”) tend to score lower in creative potential and intrinsic motivation and higher in stress and extrinsic (reward-oriented) motivation. Those who derive enjoyment from the act of creating and feel in control of their creative process tend to show greater creativity than those who are focused exclusively on the outcome of their work. . . . learning to embrace and enjoy the creative process itself—with all its peaks and valleys—can yield immense personal and publicly recognized rewards. [emphasis added]

Think about it.

Streaming Shadows

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13 thoughts on “On Motivation, Creativity, and Personal Expression

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  1. Another brilliant essay, Guy. In reading it I was reminded of when Bob Dylan “went electric” in 1965. He was severely criticized and called a “Judas”. Now, all these years later, that period of his career is seen as when some of his most important work was done. The times they are a-changin’…

  2. This blog post has answered questions I have asked myself over the past 50+ years. Thanks so much for these inspiring and enlightening words.

  3. Another one of your articles that expresses exactly what I am feeling. Whenever tempted to step away from the path of autotelic work and venture into the realm of external validation, because society wants to tell me that’s how it has to be, I come out exhausted and disappointed and full of doubts. Whenever I stay true to myself and use my art for my own personal expression, I come away empowered and I know that I reach the people who really matter.

  4. Another wonderful article Guy. You’ve seemed to articulate a difficult subject without expressly pissing off anyone which I admire 🙂 this article gets at the heart of a lot of topics – again, nice work!

    1. Thank you, Matt! Pissing people off is never my intention, but it’s sometimes unavoidable when expressing an opinion on any subject of importance. As philosopher Walter Kaufmann put it, “If it does not upset, it is not philosophy.”

      The difference is really up to the reader. Some walk away from (or condemn) anything that offends or challenges their world view, and some, if they realize the author makes a good point, try to reconcile their own views with the challenge to avoid the risk of persisting in error. Of these two attitudes, only one is conducive to ongoing learning.

  5. Thanks Guy – I’ve been considering a request of you to discuss the topic of “audience”. Of course, you’ve answered the more root question in this post. I have become acutely aware of the tension within me to create work that is intrinsically motivated, and thus more likely misunderstood or less “appreciated”. I so desire to move in the direction of self expression and personal meaning in my work. You’ve played a major role in my growth in this direction and for that I am grateful!

    1. Thank you very much, Jim!

      If you’re inclined, I found some very eloquent thoughts about art and artistic motivation in the writings of existentialist philosophers. I mentioned Nietzsche and Heidegger here, but I can also recommend Albert Camus and José Ortega y Gasset.

      “If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be meaningless recreation.” —Albert Camus

      “Art has no right to exist if, content to reproduce reality, it uselessly duplicates it. Its mission is to conjure up imaginary worlds. That can be done only if the artist repudiates reality and by this act places himself above it.” —José Ortega y Gasset

  6. Thanks Guy… The entire issue is summed up in the bold portion of that last Nietzsche quote, but your thorough explanation certainly adds to our enlightenment.

  7. “Everyone has to stand before a picture as before a prince, waiting to see whether it will speak and what it will say to him; and, as with the prince, so he himself must not address it, for then he would hear only himself.” Schopenhauer, WWRII, Ch. 34

    Many thanks for a brilliant, and much needed, article. True food for thought. The issues that it raises, i.e. of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation and of creative power vs. receptiveness seem to me to lead to an irresolvable existential dilemma of the first order.

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