Why and how we make things, part one

On browsing through the Wetcanvas forum one day I came across a question, or rather two questions in one, posted by Fritzie in the Creativity forum. I gave a quick and naturally glib answer at the time and promised to answer in depth on this blog.


            I am involved in some research this year exploring two questions. First, what are the reasons we make things (intentionally) / There are surely a variety of motivations carrying different weights for different people, as well as different motivations for different things each of us may make….


Dear Fritzie,

Given the context of an art forum I will assume that by making things you mean making art objects, although some parts of the answer could be applied to any area of making from architecture to pikelets.

Why are some humans, you and I among them, makers of art? There are a number of reasons that form the mix and we’ll discuss just three in depth; capability, pleasure and example. I hope to show that no one factor makes us want to make art but many. Aside from the personal the limits to being an artist are cultural and social, so a little side trip into sociology may also be in order should the mood take me.

We make art because we have the capability to make art; hands with opposable thumbs and eyes with colour capture. It does not matter, for the purposes of our discussion, how or why these attributes evolved. Can art be created without any of this attributes? Yes it can but, importantly, only because we are social animals and what cannot be sensed or manipulated by one person can be described or formed by another.  There is nothing unique to artists about these abilities. What is different, I have observed, is how each very human capacity is developed by the artist.

What can we do with our hands? Pick stuff up, turn it around, carry it to our mouths for consumption, bring it closer to our eyes for examination or our noses for smelling. Watch very young children as they check out the objects within reach, and stick them in their mouths to the horror and amusement of onlookers. Many other animals, indeed most other animals, can’t do this. The sense receptors of the finger tips are capable of distinguishing differences in texture only microns apart so it is unlikely that unpleasant tasting mud will be plastered on the taste buds more that a few times.

There are artists who paint and sculpt without using their hands, without in some cases having ever been able to use their hands, and without using a surrogate to carry out the work. In these cases the influence of the role model and society is stronger, at least initially.

Our eyes, and the plural is important, are not like cameras. Our vision is binocular, providing a perception of depth. We also see in colour which, once again, is not common amongst animals or even other mammals. We also have an amazing capacity to ‘see’ what our eyes can’t detect and to ‘not see’ what is right in front of us. This is because the ‘eye’ is more than the flawed focal mechanism at the front of our skulls; it is the interpretive system of the brain and the tangle of nerves that connect them. Humans presented with a deliberately inverted image of the world for a length of time will, eventually, interact with that world without difficulty and become disoriented when the image is normalised. Human vision is adaptive.

Art objects are made by those without sight, modelling of figures in ceramic media in particular. The tactile world of experience and imagination is transferred to forms that can be as beautiful and moving as any produced by the sighted.

So amongst humans there is an almost unique tool in the hand, a nearly unique sense in vision perception, an absolutely unique tool in the socialisation of sharing sense tools and from infancy the impulse to interact with foreign objects. An impulse that is rewarded. We are fiddlers, jigglers, huggers, doodlers and hummers because we take pleasure in using our parts and in the sensory feedback it provides – it may not get better if we pick at it but what a frisson there is in the picking.

This explains why we interact with things. The things we interact with could be provided for us of course. Our food cooked by others, our clothing decided by fashion or tradition, our music on a playlist, our mate determined by dowry and caste, our careers an apprenticeship to our fathers – and for many people at many times this has been the case and continues to be so.

So why make things? Some things need to be made or at the very least adapted to meet our needs as social animals, naturally occurring houses are thin on the ground for example and even the most commodious cave is soon filled. Animals are often reluctant to drop dead for our convenience and delicious roots persist in their underground habits. So things are made to meet our basic needs of food and shelter. This does not explain the making of art or any other adornment of ourselves or our environment.

Pleasure does. In the making of a thing there is pleasure. Not just at the utility and form of the finished thing but in the process of making. That a pleasing thing is the result is a bonus for the maker and in a social environment that positive feedback can be reinforced by others.

Are there other reasons for making art? Dutton[1] makes the argument that making art helps attract mates because it demonstrates manipulative skills and the wealth of time for making. Not very helpful since making a better weapon and some strategic alliances could get you as many artists as you needed and as many mates as well. I seriously doubt artists get more sex just because they’re artists so the persistence of the trait would seem counter intuitive. Let’s face it, making art requires more than instinct and time. It’s a good book though.

Cave art is often cited as an example of the artist as shaman and this is true of its practitioners today, the aboriginal Australians and the Xan. Art as magic, as controlling by sympathy the movement of animals and recording the dreams of magicians, the history and place of peoples. Perhaps so, a purpose for art that is not unknown in recent history and blazoned on the walls of temples and palaces. A purpose is not what makes an artist however. Amongst our distant ancestors as with ourselves those who were good at making art met the purpose, it did not make them.

The answer lies not in the stars Horatio, but in ourselves. In our physical being. In each artist to greater and lesser degree. In the rewards our senses and to a lesser extent our culture give us.

I do not make art because of harmony, beauty, truth, social responsibility, money, family pressures or the course requirement.  Whatever I may make for any of these reasons may be one of a number of things but not necessarily art. I make art for pleasure. A personal pleasure that is due as much to my sensory relationship with my materials and the physical act of making as with the finished piece. As a bonus I have kind friends and strangers with money who also get some pleasure from what I make, or at least take enough interest to express some feeling about the objects.

From observation I will generalise that pleasure in making is true of most artists. Those few, mostly writers you will note, who complain of ‘suffering for ones’ art’ are either bad artists and masochistic or referring not to the pain of making art but rather to the circumstances that surround making art in uncomfortable conditions. Shall we leave them to their garrets and guttering candles?

So, we make art, amongst other things, for pleasure. A motivation for making but not for making art in a particular medium or using a particular theme.

There are sensory compensations in using particular media – the buttery run of oil paint through the fingers, the trembling passage of the chisel through the sandstone, the slow unveiling of the silver on the glass, the steady beat of the loom – but most of us choose or have a medium chosen for us.

What drives these choices? Neither nature nor nurture but a combination of the two and a generous dash of experience added to the mix.

We are physically capable of making art. Born so. Some would argue that we, the artists, are also genetically predisposed to do so and others that we are touched by some spiritual agency with the impulse to be sub-creators. The first view is unproven, although art as an extension of non-verbal language is being explored. I personally find the idea of spiritual inspiration highly improbable.

There are other aspects of character and behaviour that can be ascribed to genetic inheritance but we’ve all met artists. Aside from the making of art they conform to no particular character type. Examples of saints and sinners abound.

What forms the artist, affecting not only the choice to make art but also which forms they will make and how they will make them lies mainly in their, our, experience. For much of our early lives, our formative years, we have little or no control over that experience. As we become more independent with age, forming friendships and confronting authorities outside the family, the experience changes. We rebel or conform in varying degrees with a range of expectations. We are nurtured into our attitudes to art.

The nurturing forces are experienced by us across time as family, friendship and culture but they all interact, often in ways not obvious to us until we pass adolescence, and for some not even then. My explanations are necessarily coloured by my own experiences and the culture that surrounded them, so insert variations where applicable.

Dodie Smith referred to family as ‘that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape’. Our parents, particularly our mothers, are the primary forces that shape our attitude to the wider world. Factor in siblings (if any), uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents as we grow older and more aware. Very young children travel either within their own neighbourhood or between the homes of relatives. Here are the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes that comfort or disturb them. The habits and rituals that attract or repel. The music, the pictures, the games, the meals. The associations that provide such fodder for the therapy industry. What our families do sets our own norms.

Did you draw as a child with your mother or father? Were there pictures on the walls of your family home? What were your first picture books? Any gnomes or flamingos in your grandparent’s gardens? Was mum a seamstress? Dad a welder? Uncle Bob an architect?

Then comes friendship, and an awareness of difference however slight. The child of your own age just over the fence, the kids whose mothers all gather in the same park or who all play in the same sandpit, your first schoolmates. What you have in common, age and place, are less important than the excitement of meeting someone whose experiences are separate from yours. In friendship we encounter things together and react together as we would not react separately. There are new places to see, homes to visit, classrooms and playgrounds to negotiate.

Were your friends a different colour? A different gender? Did they speak a different language at home? Wear different clothes? Eat different foods? Have different pictures on their walls and in their books? Or no pictures at all? Take their shoes off whenever they entered a house? Take risks you wouldn’t? Have your family’s approval?


Culture is a term that means many things for many people. To some it is bound up in language or in preserving traditional forms of ritual, even in insisting on resistance to technology. What I mean by culture is the social idiom that surrounds us in our daily life, typified not by strenuously enforced laws but rather by casually assumed habits of social behaviour. Some of these habits may mean that an artist will work in a medium traditional to their social position. Or deliberately work outside that tradition. Or introduce elements from other cultural traditions. Artists do not exist independent of their culture – even if we think we do.

Often the first encounter we have with the wider culture we inhabit is through the news and entertainment media; books, films, music. We may even visit museums or theatres with our family or friends. We begin to communicate with others what we feel about those encounters, forming opinions and asserting them. We argue. We learn. We resist or accept. A lot of these encounters take place in school and schools are high pressure, even if unconscious, conveyors of culture

Generally school is only a context for being taught and carefully mimicking. [2]What we need to know is usually delivered effectively. The rules of social interaction, the foibles and strengths of authority, basic literacy and numeracy. We scribble in the margins of our notebooks, learn to draw buildings from one friend and cars from another. As school changes and we age more rules and bells appear, more tests, more judgements. The balance of family, friends and culture shifts.

What were your favourite films? Who’s on your playlist? Did you read comics or comix? What extracurricular activites, if any, filled your evenings and weekends? Did you have a holiday job?

Then, real life. As some unctious adults put it. As though there were something unreal about being in school or at university.

This is where the artist now finds themselves, Unable to make art because of circumstance perhaps, making art in the time left over from milking cows or feeding machines, continuing an apprenticeship in others studios, walking from gallery to gallery with a portfolio, entering upon a first commission. The weight and the light of nurture and experience has done one thing however. Somewhere along the line a piece or collection of objects, a sensual experience, a nod of approval has determined, at least for the time being, what themes the artist will explore, and how.

We will continue to change and grow in our art making. New experiences and opportunities will present themselves or be forced into the open, Children will leave the home and a spare room behind them. We will travel, or change partners. We will know further joys and greater sorrows.

So Fritzie it is because we can, it is because it gives us pleasure, it is because the materials and the examples are available, and it is because of the reaction of others that we make things.

So Fritzie it is because I can, it is because it gives me pleasure, it is because I was given some encaustic waxes and wanted to be an architect when I was a child, it is because of Sailor Dog and In the Night Kitchen, it is because I almost died twice and look at the world differently and with more intent, it is because of tree ferns and tuis and pukekos, it is because I live in a colonial society on the margins of two cultures and had a relatively happy childhood, it is because I am literate and curious, it is because I am a socialist atheist. Thanks to my family, my friends, my teachers, my life and my home at the furthest reaches of the world.

1 (Dutton, 2009)

[2] As an aside I am in two minds, as someone who teaches art, about the value of much art teaching and particularly about expectations based on age. Judgement and guidance are necessary as unqualified praise or censure is pointless. Art lessons with someone who is evidently in love with art, plastering their walls with all types of pictures and filling their shelves with little figures and colourful books, can be motivating but some school children never get more than a term with art as an elective.