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Is Creativity A Type Of Addiction?

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

What is the motivation behind an artist's creative drive? And how and why do artists continue to create despite facing difficult odds? What keeps the artist going?

Being an artist is a high-risk pathway, there is no definitive career ladder to climb, like in other professions. Perhaps, if artists did want a ladder, they would probably want to create the ladder before they started climbing it. For some... it probably wouldn't even be a ladder you could climb, there might only be the representation of a ladder?

René Magritte - This Is Not a Pipe

All this to say that a career in the arts isn't straightforward, and artists aren't the most straightforward of people as well. 

How artists develop a career path is not predictable. Everything seems to start from grass roots, but then they enter a chaotic world - a place where the definition of success is as objective as the art itself.


At IMA we have come to understand how the life of an artist today shares many similarities with the life of an entrepreneur. However, where it is almost second nature for entrepreneurs to pull a team around them to work towards to a goal, the artist keeps a solo pursuit.

How many of us keep creating and continue to invest time and energy, even when in the middle of rejection and a dry spell of sales. Are we just waiting for a moment and hope one day we will make it? Are we neglecting creation in favour of staying on top of our social media? There is not just one solution or method that works for all, which is why we see the gold standard as being longevity. The longer we can stay practicing arts, usually the better.

Understanding one's own WHY of being an artist, with firm reasoning, will form a strong belief in your art practice and help you continue your practice through the lull periods.

IMA co-director Amit Rai Sharma was recently invited to write an article to open the 2nd edition of the Museletter. Amit's masters thesis was a qualitative study on why creative people continue to create despite the difficulties they face. In his paper he discussed creativity in comparison to psychological models of addiction and motivation. So it only seemed fitting that for a publication about the arts he would choose to revisit this topic in light of all the learning that has taken place since beginning IMA Studio.

The following article presents a psychological perspective as to how and why creative people are the way they are.

“1 out of 100: an exploration of the artist through value-based cognitive models”

Imagine; you put on a solo exhibition and invite 100 people. 99 people are indifferent. They didn’t outright tell you that they didn’t like your work, but you sense it. It hurts. You begin to get anxious thinking about just how much time and money has gone into this pursuit of being an artist. But then, 1 last person comes along and tells you how much your work touched them, that despite what other people think you must; “never give up”... You feel invigorated, vindicated even! With that 1 comment you feel reassured that you are doing the right thing.

Does this sound or feel familiar? The following article will point to existing research to explore the idea that creative individuals may well unintentionally be victim to their own creativity.

Setting the scene,

We fall in love with our creativity. And like love, we are able to hate it as passionately as we are able to cherish and care for it. We slowly begin to prioritise our creativity above other things, and this ‘love’ develops within us a dedication and focus towards our practice that is instrumental in helping us sharpen our skills and ideas. It becomes obsession, and through obsession we begin to cultivate mastery. However mastery doesn’t happen over-night. It takes time. And during this ‘time’ we inevitably expose ourselves and our work to public critique.

The research,

Daniel Rubenson and Mark Runco, in their ’92 paper; ‘A Psychoeconomic Approach To Creativity’, proposed the idea that personal investment of both money and time increases the value of our creative pursuits to us.

In his work on ‘flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined the phenomenology of enjoyment as having eight components:

1 - realistic possibility for completion of task 2 - concentration on task

3 - clear goals 4 - immediate feedback 5 - awareness of ‘outside world’ removed through deep, effortless,

involvement in task

6 - a sense of control over actions 7 - self is ‘lost’ in task, only to re-emerge with a stronger identity after task 8 - time vacuum

Not all components are necessary to achieve flow, but only ONE is required to increase enjoyment.

In the ‘80s, Jacqueline Eccles’ research was to do with how we value tasks. Her Subjective-Task Value (STV) model posits that our choices have 4 dimensions;

- Attainment value; how close the choice will be to the sense of oneself - Interest value; how enjoyable the choice will be

- Utility value; the perceived usefulness of the choice (especially how it fits with

future plans)

- Cost; to time & effort, finance, mental well-being, etc.

The effects,

So then, what are the implications of this?

Well, a large part of how we value the things in our lives come from how much we invest in them. And for our creativity; investment starts early. Perhaps in school, or before, and the main investment is time. As we study more rigorously and begin to develop our careers we invest financially; we buy materials, equipment, and software. We pay for education, we rent studios, enter competitions, attend courses, art shows, museums, etc.

Another part of how we value things is determined by the value it brings us. And for our creativity; this is huge. In our practice the outside-world can melt away. Our work gives us immediate feedback. We learn more about who we are each time, and so we allow ourselves more time to enjoy it and explore it.

And if the above happens enough times - investment and return value - we can't help but consider trying to make a career of it. And in almost every case, once we’ve decided on pursuing a career in the arts we’ve made a value / identity assessment of ourselves. In many ways, though it goes unsaid, we’re artists now - for better or worse.

From this point onwards we are more likely to pursue opportunities that are art-adjacent because we will value them higher on ‘Attainment’, ‘Interest’, and ‘Utility’ (see Eccles STV mode, above). However, commonly for artists is that we often ignore the ‘Cost’ value. Why is this? Is it because we are driven so heavily to justify (and perhaps capitalise) on our initial investment as Rubeson and Runco suggest? Or is it because it is partly balanced by the enjoyment and ‘flow’ achieved through our own practice?

Viewing the creative pursuit through these lenses of value based cognitive assessment brings to the forefront the heavy tax that comes to our judgements and decision making abilities.

We, as humans, are constantly assessing and re-assessing all life choices in light of our ever-changing immediate positions. And these assessments are heavily swayed by the importance of our practice in our lives at that time.

It may be the reason why that 1 person is not just saying something nice, but that they’re in fact the viewpoint that aligns strongest with our identity; our sense of self-worth, and our sense of usefulness in this world. That viewpoint allows us to ultimately continue doing what brings us the most joy in the world.

Further reading:

Runco, M. A. (2007). Motivation, competence, and creativity AND Eccles, J. S. (2007). Subjective task value and the Eccles etal. Model of achievement- related choices, both appear in A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation. New York: London: Guilford.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: London: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Note: Article first publish on Museletter 2 edition in June 2019


When you think about your own practice and how you assess and measure your progress, it is so important to measure it against tangible goals you've set for yourself. How you react if you don't meet those goals is also important. You must take the time to look at the practical reasons why things may not have worked out.

The tremendous passion is there from the beginning yet you will run out of fuel many times on the road. The best way to thrive is to build yourself a strong foundation with clear goals and reasons of WHY being an artist important to YOU.

Then you no longer need people to top up your motivational fuel, you just need you.

Best Creative Wishes,

Team IMA

re-IMAgining the art world

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