Friday, December 31, 2010

Creativity Requires Dissatisfaction

Mises' insights regarding what impels human action are applicable to any kind of human action, including creative action. Why does the creative artist create? Because they feel dissatisfied. There is something they want to be in the world that is not in the world, and they create to put it there. They may succeed -- and thus create nothing else. Or they may fail and fail again (or, as Thomas Edison said in regards to all his attempts to invent the lightbulb, discover a large number of ways that don't work) -- and thus create and create and create. Competition among artists also compels creation, of course, since competition is of course a discovery process, as Hayek rightly observed. But let us stick with this idea of the artist as dissatisfied.

For example, I find little in Mises to disagree with -- a few details one can attribute to what was known and not known at the time, but nothing of real substance in regards to his ideas. With Hayek, though I find myself agreeing, disagreeing, sort of agreeing, and all sorts of other variations. He's right in interesting ways, and wrong in interesting ways. He's always willing to throw out an idea that's not fully formed or thought through, and is then equally willing to have someone develop it -- or explain why they reject it. Mises is marvelous if you are looking for great quotes supporting what you believe; Hayek is marvelous if you want to think in new ways and develop more ideas. Reading Mises is satisfying. Hayek is much more generative of scholarly work, precisely because he is so unsatisfying. This is a lesson in economics consistent with Mises:

We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is easger to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims as bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be prefectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care. (Human Action, 13-14)

Peter Boettke has argued that Mises is the greatest economist to have ever lived. (You can listen to his podcast at EconTalk.) Yet, most Austrian economists seem to deal with Hayek. Why? Mises is satisfying, and thus does not drive one to act; Hayek is unsatisfying, and thus impels one to act. That's why scholars love him. Dissatisfaction creates disequeilibrium which drives growth and creativity. I read Mises and say, "Yes, yes, yes, and yes!" And then I turn to Hayek so I have something to write about.

One may argue that I am in fact using Mises now. Yes, but I am inspired to use him prcisely because I am using him to discuss literature, which creates a disequilibrium in the attempt to put the two -- Mises and literary analysis -- together.

Let us consider this from an artist's point of view. I read Camus's "The Plague," and am satisfied that there is nothing more that can be done. It is a marvelous piece of fiction. And it is the pinnacle of that style of novel. Yet I read anything by Faulkner (another Nobel Prize winner), and I'm inspired. There is so much that is good -- and so much that can be rethought and rewritten. His novels have inspired writers from Milan Kundera to Toni Morrison to Cormac McCarthy. He makes me want to write novels and short stories. Some works are satisfying -- one reaches an equilibrium with them; other works are dissatisfying -- one is in disequilibrium after reading them and, thus, in a creative space. Creativity only occurs when a system is in a far-from-equilibrium state. One work may create that; in other cases, it is the combination of several works. Life, too, invades. The creative artist is in fact always already in a far-from-equilibrium state, always ready to create. The smallest input can create a butterfly effect and set the artist off to create a new work. Thus, works which may be satisfying to the average reader can be inspiration to the creative artist.

The creative person -- whether the creative artist or the inventor -- is not just dissatisfied with what he has. The creative person is dissatisfied with what is available. The creative person is dissatisfied with what exists -- and sets about trying to create that thing with the world is, in his estimation, missing. His actions, of course, create dissatisfaction in others, who now know about this newly created thing they had never seen and never knew they wanted until it was invented. Thus the creative person plants the seeds of dissatisfaction in the world, creating the very conditions for human action.

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