Note: I originally shared this on my Facebook page in February 2018, but many people haven't seen it there so I'm reposting it here.
Last night my partner and I went to see the animated movie “Loving Vincent”. On the drive home, we were discussing the movie and art in general. He asked me something that others may be wondering about as well, so I thought might be interesting to share. (Disclaimer: this is an abridged and not a 100% accurate transcript. We both swear a lot more in real life.)
D: There’s one thing about these crazy artists that I don’t get. Why did it matter so much to him [Vincent van Gogh] that people like his art, if he did it for himself? Isn’t it narcissistic? Some people don’t even care and take on pseudonyms.
Me: He wasn’t a narcissist for wanting people to appreciate his art. And people take on pseudonyms for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they don’t want to be judged because they’re publishing something controversial. Maybe they’re a woman who couldn’t get published otherwise. Maybe they’d just rather be anonymous. Taking on a pseudonym is not morally superior to using your own name.
D: Fine, it just seems narcissistic to me, but I’m not an artist so I’m asking you to explain.
Me: You know the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, right?
D: Of course, he wouldn’t paint 800 fucking paintings if he wasn’t motivated intrinsically.
Me: Right. He couldn’t. That’s how it works. You create art because you have the inner motivation. You paint, write, play music because you enjoy doing it, you love spending time being in the creative flow... It’s your favorite thing to do.
When you’re done, you’re proud of having created something new. And what are you supposed to do with it then? Burn it?
Of course you’d want to share it with other people. We’re social animals. We can talk all we want how we don’t care what other people think, but we do need some kind of feedback from our tribe. We need significance. He wasn’t able to have it in any other way—not in his family, nor in his career... Art was his only way of getting it, and even that didn’t work out very well.
When you show someone your piece of art, you don’t really care if they will consider it beautiful or become fans. What you want to hear is: “I appreciate your work. I can see you’ve put so much of your heart and soul in it, and it’s great that you did it.”
We want to feel like our work matters and that we belong here. That we’re not useless. That among the doctors, teachers, and bartenders there is a place for us in the world, too.
D: OK. I like that.
(P.S. Watch the movie. It’s beautiful.)