The Invisible Economy: Self-Expression
The Invisible Economy incentivizes people to express themselves freely and to do it in the service of something larger than themselves.
By Beatriz Ramos and Yehudit Mam
Part 7 of 12
Part 6: Autonomy
Artists discover self-actualization — the desire for fulfillment and the realization of our full potential — through the artistic process, and through self-expression. They have an innate desire to follow their curiosity and often feel more gratified by doing the work than by leisure. The Invisible Economy incentivizes people’s intrinsic drive to direct their own lives, to express themselves freely, to get better at something that matters to them, and to do it in the service of something larger than themselves. When that drive is encouraged, people live happier lives. “At age ninety, Frank Lloyd Wright was still designing, Imogen Cunningham still photographing, Stravinsky still composing, Picasso still painting”, write Bayles and Orland.
A few years ago we hired a friend to draw, greet, and interact with artists from the DADA account profile. During this time, he would frequently tell me how much he loved the job, how therapeutic it was for him to draw every day, and how much he liked the community. However, since he stopped doing this paid work, he tells me how much he misses drawing on DADA. I was puzzled by why he wouldn’t continue doing it since he can freely draw any time under his personal profile. It turns out that when extrinsic rewards (a salary) replace intrinsic rewards (the love of drawing), intrinsic incentives can diminish and sometimes even disappear. In our friend’s case, once he was paid to draw, he was no longer motivated to draw for the love of it.
In 1973, a team of researchers conducted a seminal experiment to discover what happens when you reward an activity that children already enjoy doing. They selected children who chose to draw during their playtime, separated them into three groups, and asked them to make some drawings. The first group was told to expect a reward if they made the drawings. The second group didn’t expect a reward but they received one after they drew. The third group didn’t expect nor receive any reward.
The experiment was repeated two weeks later but this time none of the groups was offered or given a reward. The study found that when children didn’t expect the reward they drew just as much as before. Only when they expected the reward they drew less and spent less time drawing than before.
Teresa Amabile, a professor of psychology at Harvard who studies creativity and innovation, asked a panel of successful artists and curators to rate, based on creativity and skill, a selection of commissioned and non-commissioned works. The non-commissioned work was rated significantly higher in creativity than the commissioned work, yet there was not much difference in technical quality. Experts found commissioned art less creative, and artists reported that commissioned work was constraining: they found themselves working towards a goal they didn’t endorse, in a manner they didn’t control. Amabile’s findings underscore the importance of having the freedom to make art without external constraints.
In Punished by Rewards author Alfie Kohn states, “if your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless. In fact, as we are beginning to see, they are worse than useless — they are actually counterproductive.”
Similar experiments with adults have consistently found the same results: expected, extrinsic, tangible rewards such as money, promotions, status badges, and awards diminish our intrinsic motivations. That is, they diminish the enjoyment of an activity and our urge to follow our own interests and curiosity, and by doing so they reduce productivity and impede creativity.
In today’s environment, realizing one’s potential and succeeding are two different things.
We may think we are pursuing self-actualization only to find that as we climb the ladder of success, as author Stephen Covey warns, it is leaning against the wrong wall. Extrinsic and material rewards can be far from fulfilling.
Psychologist Tim Kasser’s research on materialism shows that the more that people care about extrinsic goals, the less they experience personal wellbeing. People whose value system is focused on money, image, and status face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy. Materialistic values perpetuate feelings of insecurity, weaken the ties that bind us and make us feel less free.
Yuval Noah Harari questions the yardsticks we use to evaluate success in our society. The success of nations is measured by GDP. Singaporeans are more productive than Costa Ricans, Harari writes, but Costa Ricans report far higher levels of life satisfaction than Singaporeans. “Would you rather be a highly productive but dissatisfied Singaporean, or a less productive but satisfied Costa Rican?”
In today’s society, productivity is dogma. The entrepreneur represents a heroic figure who can achieve anything through sheer willpower. This belief is insidious. In The Burnout Society, philosopher Byung Chul Han argues that excessive work and the obsession with performance escalate into auto-exploitation. For Chul Han, the achievement society of the 21st century is defined by the positive mantra “Yes we can”.
This is a shift from what Michel Foucault called the disciplinary society, defined by the negativity of prohibition, in which people become docile under constant surveillance. The society of surveillance has been replaced by a society in which people are controlled by their own duty to perform and achieve. Prohibitions, commandments, and the law are replaced by projects, initiatives, and motivation. In this new paradigm, the enemy is not outside but inside us. If the disciplinary society consisted of the exploiters and the exploited, in the achievement society the exploiter is also the exploited. “The disappearance of domination does not entail freedom”, writes Chul Han. “No longer being able to be able leads to destructive self-reproach and auto-aggression.”
Today, someone commits suicide every 40 seconds. Suicide claims more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined, and work and financial troubles are among its leading causes. Not surprisingly, the arts are one of the professions with the highest suicide rates. A British study found that people who work in the arts are up to four times more likely to commit suicide than the average person. Most artists live in precarious conditions. “To be precarious”, says art curator Cheyanne Turions, “is to be dependent on something beyond one’s authority. It’s a material or immaterial insecurity that comes from control resting with another — often a set of circumstances.”
In his seminal theory “Hierarchy of needs” from 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that people are intrinsically motivated to pursue self-actualization once their basic physiological needs like food and shelter, and emotional needs like family and friendships are covered. Maslow sees self-actualization as the highest level of psychological development: it is the full realization of one’s true self.
In 1835, in “Democracy in America”, Alexis De Tocqueville famously wrote that under wage labor “the art advances, the artisan recedes.” But more recently, On Anarchism, Noam Chomsky argues that this is inhuman “because what you are really interested in is the artisan, you are interested in people. And for people to have the opportunity to live full and rewarding lives… even if that happens to be economically less efficient.”
In advanced economies, where most basic material needs are covered, people’s needs are changing. People increasingly want happiness, fulfillment, and quality of life. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a leading researcher in positive psychology, argues that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow, “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” People engage in these activities just because they find them interesting, challenging, and meaningful; that is, they are motivated by intrinsic incentives. This is how art happens.
Art can manifest itself in all kinds of ways, but it always requires us to abandon ourselves fully to artistic exploration in order to discover concealed, unrecognized aspects of ourselves. Art involves the sublimation of the artist’s fears, feelings, and repressed desires. This is how it heals and transforms. As Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents: “Artists worked on the raw material of their own unconscious conflicts through the art materials which allowed the audience to identify with these unconscious conflicts embodied in the artwork and rendered in culturally acceptable symbolic form.”
To say that everyone can make art is not to say that everyone is an artist.
Academic drawing doesn’t require talent to master, it requires practice and observation. Yet the drawings of Paul Klee, Jean Michel Basquiat, or Joan Miro, as seemingly simple as they are, require something else. A sense of color and expressiveness are hard to teach, learn, and master. And finding your own distinctive voice as an artist could take a lifetime. “For the artisan, craft is the ultimate goal. For the artist, craft is the vehicle to express your vision,” write Bayles and Orland.
This is why DADA was conceived to encourage self-expression and art-making. Inspired by the iconoclastic spirit of Dadaism, we strive to unleash people’s creative juices, to uncover the visceral, expose the raw and the absurd, accept imperfection, embrace mistakes, and favor intuition and free expression. “Beyond building artists’ skills, enhancing their creativity, and creating studies for future masterworks, developing a regular sketching habit can provide a much-needed outlet for dealing with depression, anxiety, and the struggles of everyday life. It is important to recognize that 10xing global creativity, as ambitious as it sounds, is only the starting point for DADA, in my opinion, and far from its loftiest goal”, writes Jason Bailey.
It is imperative to support and encourage artists to follow their own creative path and make art without any constraints or pressure to produce. Because, as stated in Art & Fear, “When you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.” This is what the Invisible Economy makes possible.
Part 8: Greater Good