May 28, 2008

Maslow & the Caribbean Artist

Maslow Hierarchy of NeedsAbout a month ago, thebookman wrote an interesting post about the value of art and its relationship to money. According to thebookman:

I believe that artists should talk about money, because they should talk about value, and they should educate their patrons about value. Artists should determine these standards, although anyone may seem to be able to, as the saying goes, ‘wash their foot and jump in…” to the art arena, and clearly the arena is willing and able to absorb them. The art world of Trinidad and Tobago needs to set standards of quality. If so, everyone will rise to the level that they are comfortable with, and things would not be so ambiguous as they presently seem to be.

This is an important discussion (especially given the relative wealth of Trinidad) because it begins a dialogue between two groups that are often at variance with each other: artists and their patrons. The seeming differences between artists and patrons are often caused by a lack of understanding of each other's needs. In order to create a common language, it is often useful to use Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to gain a broader perspective about the issues.

Basically Maslow's theory and its subsequent revision in 1970 states that there are seven human needs:

1. Physiological
2. Safety
3. Love and Belonging
4. Self-Esteem
5. Self-Actualization
6. Knowledge/Understanding
7. Aesthetic

"The first four layers of the pyramid are what Maslow called "deficiency needs" or "D-needs": the individual does not feel anything if they are met, but feels anxious if they are not met. The deficiency needs are: survival needs, safety and security, love and belonging, and self-esteem." (Wikipedia). In other words, for most individuals their physiological needs must be met before they consider anything else.

I stress "most individuals" because artists throughout history have been known to forgo the first four needs in order to concentrate on their aesthetic needs. For once an artist has sensed beauty, she begins on a path to explore her initial impulse and the many surprises that will come as part of the journey. This lifestyle has often artists at odds with their families and their patrons.

Many of the patrons of the arts, who have achieved a certain level of self actualization by meeting their physiological, safety, belonging, and self-esteem needs, do not understand the aesthetic need. They have a roof (or roofs) over their heads, money and time for leisure, security guards and police at their back and call, and because of the goods and services they provide, they are often respected members of a community which means that they are afforded a certain kind of respect or perhaps even love.

Yet many of these patrons while knowledgeable about many other areas of human endeavor, remain ignorant about the arts because they have spent most of their lives providing goods and services of monetary value, but are not created from "the joy of Being"--the domain of artists. And because artists operate at an intuitive level to meet aesthetic needs, the questions that some patrons ask such as "But what is it for?" and "So, what's the purpose?" are often misinterpreted as a threat to the artist's existence, and the questioner is dismissed as a "barbarian."

In such a conflict, both sides lose. The potential patron is deprived of an experience that could broaden her understanding of what it means to be alive in a certain time and place, and the artist has lost a means of meeting her physiological needs and self-esteem needs. For even if the artist thinks she has risen above her basic human needs, sooner or later she will have to eat. And if she chooses to eat or get health insurance, she will face some very interesting dilemmas. In order to eat, does she "dumb down" the presentation of her subjects? Does she pander to "lower needs" by only tackling subjects that will "bring home the bacon" instead of pursuing the complexity of her art that comes with maturity? And although her art may ultimately be a form of spiritual practice, until she transcends the belief that her self-worth is attached to recognition by others, her ego will take a beating as she sees others being rewarded for work that is informed by fancy and not the imagination.

And what about the patron? Without any sense of artistic value, which only artists can provide, if she is to purchase a work of art or commission a mural, how can she be certain that she has not wasted her money? Yet without the support of the patron, the community will lose the opportunity to see "one of their own" working at the highest level of human endeavor, and creating a life through an imagination uninhibited by mundane materialism. A patron who has mastered the language of currency can help the artist to repay her community by allowing the artist to create works for the viewer to enter a communion with a landscape--"the clay from which we are born and to which we will return."

The need for the continuation of this conversation has never been greater, and thebookman is to be congratulated for starting the dialogue. For as the pressures of globalization and the boundary-less Internet erode the issues of communal/national identity, Caribbean artists may turn away from the important work that they do in discovering beauty in a space that has only known tragedy, ugliness, and genocide, and begin to concentrate on meeting their physiological needs. If left unchecked, this can lead to our communities losing the habit of seeing beauty in our everyday experiences and a coarsening of human intercourse. For artists also provide a means for us to ask questions such as "Who are we?" and "Where are we going?" "What is beautiful?" And if these questions of identity are left unanswered over long periods of time, our community will lose a sense of wholeness, which despite the best efforts of business persons and politicians, will not satisfy the most basic questions of human identity that only artists can answer through the medium of metaphor.


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