The rules of creative expression

I’ve been wrestling with the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations in our creative expression. There is seemingly no way out of the conundrum that an artist often makes new things to fit in the surrounding world, but those motivations can be conflicted between what we want to make and what seems to fit better in the wold of other people’s needs and desires. Artistic commerce is often a tension between living up to our own artistic inspiration and living up to the ideals of a marketplace. The trouble is that we have very few guidelines for how to navigate that tightrope.

“A lot of people believe that there is a right and there is a wrong, and that there are creative rules. I think that trying to figure out what’s the right or wrong way to do things is a form of fear. This inhibits people, and holds them back. In creative departments, you need to create a culture where you can break lots of rules.” Alex Bogusky

And yet, we make cups for people to drink out of, and there are rules for how cups fit hands, how they pour liquid, how they contain it, and how the user feels about the experience. There are an audience’s personal preferences, cultural norms, and even gender and age differences in addition to the potter’s own influences.


We make paintings that go on walls in homes or museums, and there are rules for how they best hang, how big they are, what subject matter is appropriate for which space, etc., and these may have nothing or everything to do with why and how these paintings were painted. We write poems and stories to go in books and magazines, blogs and live jams and readings, and there are rules for how these things fit their particular context. But the writing itself is sometimes more that an author has these things to express rather than a particular audience to express them to….. Every creative act can be seen as expressing the role of intrinsic and/or extrinsic motivation.

And yet, all these extrinsic rules and conventions are merely prescriptions forced on us from the outside. They are one way of looking at how we best execute our intentions to communicate. That is, if our intention was to communicate. But as is soon obvious, no one set of rules takes in all circumstances or audience members. A pottery bowl can be an open ended opportunity. It can be used for cereal, ice cream, pasta, cat food, or underneath a potted plant. It can be broken into shards and used in a mosaic. That painting can be hung as a distracting decorative touch in a doctor’s office, as a symbol of cultural status in a busy hotel lobby, a personal treasure in a lived-in bedroom, or as an example of artistic heritage in an antiseptic museum. It can also be taken out of its frame and used as a place-mat. It can be cut into small pieces and sewn into a garment. And poems and stories can be read aloud to a loved one, consumed diligently in a coffee shop, glanced at sporadically while keeping an eye on one’s children playing at the beach, and devoured from cover to cover in a sleep and food deprived marathon. Books can be actively read or line shelves in dusty bookcases. They can prop up wobbly tables and they can feed flames. The people who use the same books can get different things from them. Different from what others get, but also different from what they themselves get at different times. The author’s intentions are sometimes entirely beside the point…..


Which still leaves the problem that creative people often TRY to communicate specific things. We still have intentions, regardless of how they are spoiled in the reception. We can aim more or less for particular audiences, but we can always aim. We can aim better and we can aim worse. But we can also refuse to aim at all, and simply express what we have to say justified only by our own intrinsic values. There are no rules except how we wish to be heard. If that matters….. All else is tyranny and dogma.

And so, the difference between our intrinsic intentions and extrinsic motivations can map out in perplexing and entirely contradictory ways. We can aim for external conventions and we can generate according to our own sensibilities and ideas alone. We can march to the beat of the drum, someone’s drum, or we can make it up as we go. We can give ourselves our own rules and we can adopt the conventions of others. We can let go and “just do it” and we can fly on autopilot. Creative expression is not simply one thing at all times.

The point is, we have these choices at every turn. Even to refuse to choose is still a choice. The problem is that we don’t often think of it that way. We are often so used to expressing ourselves by habit and the rules that surround us that we fail to see the bars of the cage that pens us in. Even if sometimes that cage is of our own manufacture……. You can’t choose unless you know its a choice. And too often our awareness falls short of our own autonomy and agency. There are pressures acting on us that we are ordinarily not aware of. Sometimes we play it safe simply because the known mediocrity is preferable to the risks of the unknown.

So we sometimes end up repeating ourselves for no discernible reason or motivation. Sometimes the simple act of moving in a certain direction becomes self-reinforcing. The steps we take wear the treads and make that path continually easier to follow. What is a habit, other than an internal non-rational enforcement of conformity?

But there are good habits and there are bad ones. Good and bad for different reasons. And as long as we repeat ourselves or the way we do things and what we do we are often expressing a habit. And if its a ‘good’ habit, that seems worth knowing, that there are good reasons for doing it this way. But if its a ‘bad’ habit that also seems worth knowing. If its something we could be doing differently, that seems like an important bit of information.

But how often do we think these things through? Are we always aware of the difference between doing things as ends in themselves or as means to other ends? What in our creative practice is an intrinsic motivation and what is an extrinsic one? Are there consequences to these variables? If we simply do what we’ve been told, or do it because that’s the way its always been done, is that enough? Doesn’t it make sense to figure out where we stand and why we stand there?

For instance, creative professionals are often dependent on their situation in a marketplace. But professional artists almost never become professional simply to make money, though as professionals they usually need to make a living from what they do. And they choose their art, not because its the best way to make money, not because its merely one alternative out of many equivalent job options. Rather, professional artists loved what they do, and they simply attempt to keep it in their lives more exclusively or as their full time employment. They are motivated by the intrinsic value that art making has in their lives. Usually. Its the idea that more of a good thing is always better.

However, sometimes there are hidden costs. The unfortunate complication of doing something we love for money sometimes means that the extrinsic “for money” motivation compromises not only what we make but why we make what we make. We may not have set out making art to make money, but as soon as pay is added to the equation our motivations sometimes reflect it.

On a personal note, for instance, I can usually sell all the mugs I make, and thankfully I enjoy making them, but I also enjoy making teapots, which I never seem to be able to sell. If I love making teapots as much as I love making mugs, my intrinsic motivation suggests that I should make as many of one as I make of the other. What would you guess the proportion of mugs I make to teapots I make is? Sadly, 400 to 1 might even be short most years….. If I can’t sell it I now have this new motivation not to make things I otherwise would have enjoyed making for free. My intrinsic incentive for teapots gets confused and subverted by the extrinsic demands of the marketplace. And I’m sure that many working artists can identify with this if they think about it.

Thankfully artists often like exactly what the customers of their art would like anyway. This is a best case scenario for minimizing the conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic justifications. But what if they don’t? What if an artist is so far off the beaten path, so far ahead of the curve that their work fails to meet the expectations of a marketplace? Do we persevere and hope the market catches up? “Make it, and they will come”? Or do we try different things with greater audience appeal? Do we die starving artists, or do we make less of what we want but live with better comfort and financial breathing room?

These are hard choices, especially if we are supporting more than ourselves……

One real difficulty is that when we get paid for doing things we love there is an increased psychological risk that we will not enjoy it as much and even come to dislike doing it. This is known as the overjustification effect. Getting paid for what we enjoy is a double edged sword. Getting paid is good. Doing what we like is good. So how can getting paid for what we like doing not also be good?

David McRaney explains it as follows:

“You run the risk of seeing your behavior as motivated by profit instead of interest if you agree to get paid for something you would probably do for free. Conditioning will not only fail, it will pollute you. You run the risk of believing the reward, not your passion, was responsible for your effort, and in the future it will be a challenge to generate enthusiasm. It becomes more and more difficult to look back on your actions and describe them in terms of internal motivations. The thing you love can become drudgery if that which can’t be measured is transmuted into something you can plug into TurboTax.”

And so its an issue that is especially important for artists to consider: Passion is vulnerable to pay. The passion of artists is threatened and can be corrupted from without when extrinsic motivations compete with the intrinsic justifications we gave ourselves. If creative people become professional artists as a means to make a living, then making art is sometimes no longer an end in itself. It serves a purpose, the purpose of getting paid. And when we think of how much we wanted to be artists because this was what we loved doing, then we can see where the conflict arises. What we would have done simply because its what we love doing we now do “for pay”, which is an entirely different motivation, and records its success and failure very differently.

And so, the rules of our expression are things it makes sense to pay attention to. If we are playing cricket it makes sense to know your wickets. As artists and as normal human beings it isn’t always clear what motivates us or why. And any situation we find ourselves in often seems open to multiple interpretations. We move from one stepping stone to the next. The question is, have we dug ourselves into a new hole, are we treading water, or have we climbed the mountain and can now kick the ladder away? Or are worldly concerns sometimes more important than our own desires. Its not a simple question, and there may not be any universally right answers…..


Any stories out there of the creative difference between intrinsic and extrinsic artistic motivations? I’d love to hear what you have to say. I’d especially love to hear how you solve the potential conflicts between the two….

This video talks a bit about these issues and has at least the hint of a possible solution:


Also, see this post from Brainpickings on a commencement address that Calvin and Hobbes author Sam Watterson gave on these issues.

The wisdom of babes and imaginary creatures.....

The wisdom of babes and imaginary creatures…..

All for now!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Creative industry, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The rules of creative expression

  1. From Debbie Millman, courtesy of Brainpickings:

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    An epic post, and a very good one! Why we choose to make what we make is a perpetual puzzle to me; not sure I’ll ever understand it, or that I’d like the answer if I did. Your patented ‘paragraphs of questions’ reinforce this sense of unknowing — midway through each of them I can feel the simulation module in my brain start to overheat from trying to calculate all the possibilities.

    Good work, my friend!

    • Thanks Scott!

      This is such a big issue that I was pretty worried that my trying to cover it from as many angles as possible would only muddy the waters that much more. Hope the ‘overheating’ didn’t cause any permanent damage!

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    “It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves.” – Bill Watterson, from that Brainpickings post.

  4. Hey Carter,
    Bullocks! I think your are propagating two myths that aren’t really true.

    The first is the romantic idea that we all are walking around with this thing called “self-expression” inside of us and that we each have this unique “self” that desires to be expressed. That’s a nice story but it doesn’t include the fact that along with whatever amount of individual autonomy we possess we are still animals. We, as animals, are profoundly affected by history and what other people do and have done. In other words our self expression might not be as solely individual as we wold like to believe.

    The second point of yours I will challenge is the idea that “passion is vulnerable to pay”. The Overjustification Effect is a controversial theory more often applied to the business world and recently grasped by arts managers in their ever growing attempt to justify the arts using language business can understand.
    But is it really true that passion is vulnerable to pay? If it is then would the opposite be also true? Is drudgery or unpassionate work remedied by pay? Does getting paid well for something you hate to do make that hate go away? The answer is no. It may displace the hate or take your mind off of the hate for a time being but it doesn’t really make you not hate what it is that you are hating. Or think of it this way, maybe getting paid well for being passionate makes being passionate more possible by removing some of the financial obstacles we face in this society in being passionate about art?

    • Hey Richard,

      I absolutely agree that there is no ‘self’ that is a disembodied originator or manipulator of our actions in this world, and yet it seems that every discrete individual DOES express themselves. Think of it as more a descriptive shorthand rather than a metaphysical statement: There are individuals, and individuals do things, and what gets expressed is somehow connected to whomever expressed it. Its the only way our teachers could grade us in high school. Its the only way we can expect civic responsibility. Its the only way we can be held responsible for our actions.

      So of course there are influences that affect what one says and does. I’m having trouble figuring out where I said anything different. What’s that old saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”? And that doesn’t even come close to navigating the nature/nurture divide. So I think you misunderstand me if you believe that talking about creative expression implicates a metaphysical agent. It doesn’t, and I’d be the last person to think it.

      In fact, one of my pet peeves is the artist’s default of a ‘signature style’. Too often it is pretended that artists have this necessity in their creative work, that they have to find their ‘voice’, and that this is somehow an authentic expression of their ‘selves’. I call bullshit on that. There is no stable center to a human life. We change all the time, and we contradict ourselves on a daily basis. We are multiple selves and we are fluid evolving selves. And once again, I’m not making a metaphysical statement here. This is purely descriptive.

      But the interesting thing is that this drive toward signature styles comes from somewhere. Where do YOU suppose? How is it that artists make work that has more unity and coherence of expression than any other aspect of their lives? Clearly this is not a natural phenomenon. Clearly its not an intrinsic value. Rather, its entirely extrinsically motivated. Sticking to one thing is about the least natural thing we can do. In fact, its not just passion that is vulnerable to pay, its often what gets expressed, and too many other things about our creative practice to name. Any artist that makes work that caters to expectations, panders to an audience is working with extrinsic values. Refusing to change what they do for fear of alienating an audience is giving weight to an external set of values. Any time we choose to do a thing not because its what we necessarily want but because its what’s expected of us we are dealing with extrinsic motivation.

      I get the feeling you are having difficulty with the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic qualities. Anything you do for its own sake is intrinsic. That’s the definition. Anything you are motivated to do for pay you do for an extrinsic cause. Now, take that with what you said in your comment and see if that makes sense: “We, as animals, are profoundly affected by history and what other people do and have done. In other words our self expression might not be as solely individual as we wold like to believe.” Our self expression, in fact, is rarely free if we are paying attention to the commercial virtues of what we do and how it fits in a marketplace. Do you see that? It just seems strange that on the one hand you would say that we are affected by history and what other people do and then deny that we are affected by the marketplace. Is this possibly inconsistent? It seems that we are affected by just about everything we come into contact with, and the only question is HOW it affects us.

      The only exception is what we do that is done for its own sake.

      Let that hang there for a minute and think about it……. Consider the implications.

      Its not what we do for the sake of getting paid, living up to expectations, or making our mark. We can find passion for those things too, but then the question is whether these passions are the same thing or whether we can simply trade one form out for the other. The other thing to consider is that if we can pick something up we can also let it go. Passion is not an immutable quality, but it also waxes and wanes, is born and dies. Right? So why would our passion not be vulnerable to extrinsic qualities? Extrinsic means ‘outside influence’ and the question is whether we do things for pay that we don’t always like or would rather have done differently. Doesn’t this seem to implicate passion?

      I think I’ve phrased it four or five different ways to you now and I seem to still have difficulty making this point clear. I am not saying that getting paid automatically kills our passion, just that it has an influence. And if it is sometimes a positive influence then sometimes also it is a negative one.

      So how would pay adversely affect passion? Well, assuming we start out with passion, we are intrinsically motivated and we do the things we want. Our passion comes from doing what we want. However, if we start to get paid to do our work, its just possible that some artists will confuse the reasons they have for making their art. Right? Or are artists the only people who are not confused about their motivations? Are artists simply the most steadfast people in the world? And I’m not saying that all artists succumb to this, simply that its something that all artists may face, and if their intrinsic motivation is weak, that’s when you see a difference.

      So how does getting paid influence us?

      As I suggested, working as a professional artist often has these pressures to conform to a style, to make what the market wants, etc. And in some cases making what the market wants is fine with the artist. Sometimes, even, their tastes are not that radical and they’d rather just be making pretty flowers and puppy dogs etc. But what if our tastes are radically out of line with the public? Does every artist survive that conflict unscathed? I think it would be wholly unrealistic to think that with all the ways you, Richard, see the outside world affecting individuals that artists somehow escape this influence. Even if artists are ‘special’ people they are not that special.

      So it turns out that some artists make things that are not exactly what they’d have been making on their own, not what they’d have been making if it were up to themselves, not been making if they were entirely intrinsically motivated, not been making if they were doing what they wanted to do, not been making if they were not getting paid. Do you see that? And if you are not making what you’d rather be making, doesn’t it seem likely that your passion may suffer?

      That’s all I’ve got. I hope this made a little sense. This is not an attack on artists. I’m just pointing out that artists are human beings too, and we are subject to all the foibles and biases and psychological nuances that every other person suffers. Its not about art. Its about being human. Artists are not superhuman. If anything, artists are MORE HUMAN. We feel things as deeply as they can be felt. We are sensitive to things that other people can’t even see. And we hit those peaks and valleys with our creative fervor. If there is something a human has the capacity to endure, artists will be there to chart the way. If humanity is flawed, then artists will often shine a light on every wart, every pustule, every bit of grime and sourness. So please don’t tell me that artists don’t suffer the intrusions of extrinsic motivations. Please don’t tell me that their passion is not as vulnerable as that of every other person alive. If anything, Id worry that artists’ passion was TOO vulnerable, that they feel the hate of the haters, the negativity of the naysayers that much more keenly. Artists are sensitive people. Do you wish to say they are not?

      Hope all is well Richard!

      Thanks for the comment. Sorry if I went a bit overboard….. Ah passion! Once you have a head of steam its sometimes difficult to put the brakes on. Good thing I’m not getting paid to do this. I might have had to watch what I said and watered it down for nonthreatening public consumption……

  5. Carter,
    I don’t believe that passion is immune to the pressures of the marketplace. Never said that. But that’s not the driving point behind the blogs posts which we both have been reading. Their position, if I am reading them correctly is that passion can be diminished by pay. The argument is that passion, intrinsic passion can be corrupted somehow by being paid or being paid to much for what intrinsically motivates you. It’s that belief I disagree with and there is really no evidence that evens shows that to be the case. If it is true, if intrinsic passion can be influenced by external factors such as pay then at the very least passion could be motivated by getting more pay. And I’m all for getting more pay!

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