The Private Makers of Art

Meredith Melnick, Huffington Post editor, writes in praise of intrinsic motivation:

For four years in her early life, the novelist Nell Zink worked as a bricklayer and told The New Yorker it was “more valuable to my intellectual life than my entire college career.” During this time, she taught herself French and wrote fiction without any particular interest in publishing it. Nearly 30 years later, at the age of 50, her first published novel, The Wallcreeper, became available last year. To her many fans and literary critics, she is a late bloomer. But to those of us with an admiration for work outside of work, she is a recognizable creature: A private maker of art.

There is little respect for creative work that is not destined for market. Dismissed as hobbyists or hacks, private artists aren’t seen as important — perhaps because we don’t have the cultural language to recognize what they do. When does a practice leave the realm of “keeping busy” and grow into an essential pursuit? When is work unencumbered by the dutiful grind that accompanies a job? Yet a third space, neither hobby nor vocation, yields some of the best, most personal work. It has nothing to do with recognition or even public consumption.

This kind of art – Zink’s, but also author Norman Mailer’s rarely-seen drawings, ABT’s makeup artist Leopold Allen’s unknown fashion sketches and designs, or Louis Nardo’s stunning photographs of Tribeca – is fueled by intrinsic motivation, what W.B. Yeats described as a desire to please the “high secret self.”

It turns out that intrinsic motivation is a major driver of creative work, according to the American Psychological Association. Research on intrinsic motivation is typically centered around the qualities or personal traits of individuals who can deliver as employees in corporate settings, but one central premise of this literature shows that intrinsic motivation helps to generate new ideas and sustain creativity. The internal desire to see something through for its own sake can act as a salve, greasing our creative muscles to work through failures and long hours, and generating the kind of persistence that leads to risks that pay off.

In an extreme example of this type of persistence, Zink told The Paris Review of her conviction to avoid writing professionally:

Whatever I was writing at the time, I knew there was no market for it and never would be, because there’s never a market for true art, so my main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think.

Though Zink decided to go public by publishing through traditional routes, the mark of working in obscurity is plain in the singularity and clarity of vision, in the unmitigated volume — three novels have been published in two years. Similarly, in the case of Allen, Mailer, Kessler and most of the POBA artists, the work speaks for itself, revealing original creations that never verge on self-parody or even self-reference. This is the luxury of making art outside of the marketplace.

It’s a complicated dance: The artist has to embrace the possibility of – and at the same time – repudiate the audience. For the audience’s part, we have to approach these works as if we were approaching an abandoned trunk – a cache of work left behind that reveals the spare endeavor of pursuing artistic expression without any outside stimulus and only because of the desire to make it. We have to keep in mind that it wasn’t intended for us or for anybody, really.

And though we’re glad to see it, we’re oddly better off for not having been considered at all.

Meredith Melnick is Lifestyle, Health and Science Editor for the Huffington Post and has been an advisor to POBA