Creativity Is Not The Last Thing People Need

When I mentioned organizations addressing issues of health and safety in my post yesterday, I was thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Between high school and my first couple years of college, I felt like every class except for foreign language and mathematics brought Maslow’s hierarchy up as a way to open up a conversation about what motivates humans. If you aren’t familiar with the pyramid below, Maslow’s theory said that the lower needs on the pyramid below had to be satisfied before people could move on to higher concerns. So you need to be secure in physiological and safety needs before you can work on intimate relationships.

It should be noted that despite the popularity of this model, there is no scientific data to back it and studies have found that different cultures prioritize needs differently.


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

I mention these criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy because it is easy to look at this pyramid and get the impression that creativity has to wait until all these other needs are met. This reinforces the idea that arts and culture are a luxury that should yield before all the necessities have been addressed. I think we all know there will always be something else that needs to be solved if you subscribe to that thinking.

I will confess that I engaged in that mode of thought at one time. I was elated by the idea that being able to engage in creativity was a sign that you were approaching your fullest self, but depressed when I realized you pretty much had to be independently wealthy if you were going to check-off all the lower levels in order to get to the peak.

I think the case can easily be made that creativity has an important role at lower levels of the pyramid. Shared creative activities contributes to belongingness. Social groups or clubs whether oriented around religion, service, sports or creative activities all create a sense of belonging.

So too does creativity contribute to the next level up, esteem. Feeling that you have mastered a technique or have enough of a grasp of the fundamentals to metaphorically start drawing outside the lines with confidence can bolster self-esteem.

Continuing to develop all your skills, be it creative, personal, emotional, professional, etc eventually leads you to self-actualization as defined by Maslow and others. However, creativity for its own sake, (as opposed in pursuit of securing safety and physiological needs), begins to factor in much earlier.

So don’t be fooled by this popular image into thinking that creative activities are the last thing that people need in their lives.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


5 thoughts on “Creativity Is Not The Last Thing People Need”

  1. We are not born into the world already human. Our mere biology doesn’t determine the life we will end up leading. Rather, we are born into cultures where we need to learn what it means to be human. Imagine being born into a world where no stories were told, no tragedies, romances, comedies gave insight into what it meant to be human. Imagine being born into a world where there was no such thing as play, where a child’s imagination had no resources to unfold, where creativity was non-existent.

    It is not an accident that we have art in our lives. To be human is IN FACT to be born to a world where we learn what it means to be human through the activities of art. You can’t be human and not have a culture founded on the basis of art. It is not dispensible, as if it were merely some choice. Art isn’t optional. It is not simply added on to an already human being. Art is part of what makes us human. If you take the art away you are not left with a human being in the absence of art. No. You are left with something that isn’t human to begin with. No single being we call human arrived at this state in the absence of language, community, or art. Art is foundational to being human. It is constitutive. Maslow’s hierarchy pretends the human wears its various needs as mere accessories. There is nothing human in the absence of language, community, or art.

  2. My org’s audience surveys show that very few respondents attend alone. Bringing someone a concert is a relationship-related experience. It may not make you feel like you belong, but it can strengthen pre-existing bonds.

    A cultural experience where you learn something could meet an esteem need, too.

  3. Joe, thank you for this essay. I don’t personally know any independently wealthy individuals, so I don’t know if they use that lofty position to be fully creative. However, I know hundreds of folks/friends who are far from wealthy who have given themselves to their art/craft and enriched millions with their creativity.

    • Right, you definitely can’t wait until you surmount the lower tiers before seeking fulfillment in creativity.

      And of course, having money doesn’t guarantee you will ever feel a sense of belonging or esteem.

  4. That pyramid is definitely messed up—it reflects one view of priorities that is far from universal. One only has to look at how many people are in bad relationships to see that a lot of people put the need for love (or illusion of it) ahead of safety. And lots of “Type A” individuals put esteem (or the illusion of it) ahead of love and relationships. The stereotype of the starving artist definitely puts creative needs first—even before basic needs.


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