Maslow’s Artist

8 Jan 2019 · Karl Finch · Permalink

...and so, the pyramids begin.
...and so, the pyramids begin.

It remains true that the full spectrum of creative thought and action can be deconstructed with nothing more than good intentions and a starkly narrow worldview.

To be in a position of uncertainty towards such endeavours, which is to say attempt them at all, means your fundamental needs as an organism are satisfied. Food, warmth, shelter: delete as appropriate (though we can’t be too fussy these days with the implosion of the middle class). To contend with art, certain provisions for survival must be a given.

This is as much the case now as it was some tens of thousands of years ago when, on a good day for our ancestor, hauling back a fresh deer carcass to the family cave left the rest of the day open for more refined activities, be that etching symbolic figures into stone or practising throat-singing for the next funeral in the tribe.

Only now do we come to psychologist Abraham Maslow. In his hierarchy of needs, conceived in the form of a pyramid, these minimum requirements for life make for the lowest and most basic level out of five: the physiological. Although the man was only very concerned with healthy and intelligent people, it’s actually possible to differentiate an individual, their beliefs, and the ideas they dispense. Using this foundation, we can consider the direction of the artist’s progression—because we’re not nearly done with abusing the analogy of this monument.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Climbing the pyramid above physiological is safety, followed by social belonging, esteem, and then self-actualisation. For the sake of recursion, let’s place a sub-pyramid at the level of esteem, where matters of social status and ego needs are in full play as they poke awkwardly upwards into the domain of mastering the human condition.

This is the pyramid of the artist.

1. Psycho-physical

Time is required—not a lot but the more, the better. Harking back to our cave-dwelling cousins, a spare afternoon or evening here or there is enough for art to emerge in earnest. A spark will suffice, but focus cannot be entirely elsewhere.

There must also be the inclination: curiosity, interest and ethos combined. Unfortunately, this calls for a creative type, so it all very quickly becomes a hot mess.

From the psychic we return to the physical, this time the strictly practical matter of technical ability. Opposable thumbs and toolmaking are definitely a boon here, but the simple faculty of, for instance, applying pigment to canvas satisfies this criterion. We can’t expect too much—not yet.

the hierarchy of the artist

2. Safe Art

Not to be mistaken for idle desire is will, here meaning the drive to act on creative compulsion alongside (and even above) others.

Praxis: merely performing an act of art, especially repeatedly, brings strong emphasis on experimentation, failure and alteration. It becomes a space for honing and refinement that enables a better artist.

3. Skill/Belonging

Any talent is now realised. Whether by creative processes and/or members of the artist’s social groups, the artist’s skill is refined. This is a likely place for technique, style and perhaps even tradition to evolve.

Now comes assumption of the creative role, which we might also describe as discovery of vocation. Again, this is a social and therefore amorphous phenomenon, but history again serves up a firm example in the form of primitive class structures emerging as society becomes agrarian, sedentary and then stratified. Put bluntly: now that everything’s settled, we can worry less about starving and more about who gets to be king, priest—and artist.

4. Esteemed

Now we attain total meta at the fourth tier within the fourth tier, being itself in the context of itself. Here we have inspired creative action (or simply ‘illumination’), and it’s threefold, a triptych of significance.

First comes originality insofar as it exists—that is: do it new, or do it better. This is only a facade, though, since novelty ties in with the other components of what we now know as illumination. Of greater concern is genuineness, as Auden described: ‘Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.’

Second is essence, found in a work that not only embodies an abstraction but demonstrates presence in some way. We leave this vague for reasons of mystique, and because what follows is a pleasing segue.

Third, timelessness: separated from place and period, the work still holds enough value to be retained (or destroyed). This may be value in meaning or just currency, there being no accounting for taste. Consider a piece of art’s importance in terms of its localised [cultural] and universal [human] importance. More severely, this is a matter of the rate of decay, a story of survival.

Consider a piece of art’s importance in terms of its localised [cultural] and universal [human] importance. More severely, this is a matter of the rate of decay, a story of survival.

5. Self-artualisation

Forgive the pun, as this is the nadir at which art and artist transcend not only time but their own mortality. Fame or no, it matters not—this is another social metric typically but not necessarily accompanying the (very good) creative and their (very best) efforts; it exists in parallel.

This is oneness, for the artist to be synonymous with their work to the extent that the actual human individual responsible must be specified as such. As a rule of thumb, any artist commonly referred to by just part of their name is likely Pretty Good and maybe even self-artualised. Shakespeare is as ever the prime offering: Macbeth and the like has its own soul, separate from the man we call the Poet and further still from a man who lived and died.


There’s a line traceable from the lofty capstone of the artist’s pyramid down to the humble slabs of the psycho-physical where monument meets earth. This line is called Life and Death. Forming the miserable mass that is the lower reaches of these hierarchies, there’s solace in the thought that the top is made of the same stuff albeit in better shape, owing its existence to what has come before—and beneath.

Edited 2019-01-09 for style.