Exploring the Mystery of Why We Make Art

For the last few months, I've been feeding my need for knowledge and education in a number of ways including listening to The Great Courses on CD in my car. I'm just finishing up a 24-lecture series titled Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior by Professor Mark Leary of Duke University. I've thoroughly enjoyed the series, finding myself curious to learn more about the various topics and studies covered in this psychology lecture series.

I've been entertained, delighted, and pleasantly surprised by a number of facts. Today, however, I had my first experience of disagreement with the final lecture, "A Few Mysteries We Can't Explain Yet."

One of the topics covered in this particular lecture is the behavior of creating and enjoying art. While I'm intensely interested in what makes people do what they do and appreciate the science that explains it, I'm also an artist at heart. So I listened up a touch more when Dr. Leary first introduced the topic. After all, I spent four and a half of my finest years in classes at the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. This topic presented by a personality and social psychology is a welcome intersection of parts of my self.

The professor said that it is rare for people to engage in artistic activity by themselves and never share their creations with anyone. Surely I am not rare. I create – or as he said, "do art" – for myself alone more than I create for others. I write prose and poetry I have and will never share. I draw and paint for no one but myself. And while I'm a data set of one, I can't imagine that I'm alone even though I do like to think I'm unique.

I also enjoy art alone. I will purchase art, listen to music or read literature without every telling another soul. Am I missing the lecturer's point that the enjoyment of art happens in groups? Obviously my assumptions are not scientific. I'll admit that.

Then I had to laugh when, while discussing the self-expression aspect of art making, the professor said that it's not clear why artists would express themselves in these symbolic ways rather than just telling someone more straightforwardly.

I don't believe language is the only form of communication. Some concepts transcend language. Sometimes art is the best way to express ideas. Am I out of line to say it's that obvious?

Sure, I probably need to come back to what these lectures have been about – the science of human behavior. Even Dr. Leary notes that it's extremely difficult to study artistic activity because the act of being studied changes the activity. I suppose it's not particularly empirical simply to say that creative endeavor is simply part of being human. Maybe being an artist gives me a different perspective than being a scientist. Maybe the philosopher in me is battling the scientist in me.

Dr. Leary hypothesized that perhaps we engage in artistic pursuits, not for the product, but for the process. He talked about the flow experience and how pleasant it may be for artists and enjoyers of art. On this, we can agree.

Don't let my little disagreement stop you from enjoying the other eleven hours and 25 minutes of these lectures. They're well worth the time. Okay, even that other five minutes are worth the time.

Mark Leary's latest book is The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life.