On Motivation: Beloved Composer Leonard Bernstein on Why We Create
A journey to the heart of “the mindless, useless, glorious pursuit of artistic truth.”
By Maria Popova
An even greater and more enduring mystery than the question of what creativity is and how it works is the question of why we humans create in the first place. One of the most beautiful and profound responses to that eternal question comes from legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, a sage of music and a man of inner conflict. On May 26, 1964, Bernstein gave a speech at New York’s Brandeis Creative Arts Award Dinner, which was eventually adapted into an essay titled “On Motivation” and included in the wonderful 1982 compendium Findings (public library) — a composite portrait of this extraordinary creative hero painted through a selection of his letters, formal writings, speeches, and personal notes.
Bernstein begins by relaying an anecdote from another award ceremony he had attended the previous week at The American Institute of Arts and Letters:
A young composer, sitting on my left, but unknown to me, was receiving a grant; and as he rose to receive it, and bask in the glory of his citation — which was very fancy gibberish — I heard, among a welter of extraordinary phrases, this one: “a composer of deeply motivated music.” This positively riveted me; and so while the young man was gone to collect his check, I asked the fellow Institute member on my right what she thought “motivated music” might be. She had no idea, and asked the gentleman to her right; and so it went down to the end of our row and back to me, with no answers forthcoming, except some snickering witticisms, which I won’t go into.
Needless to say, this trivial incident produced a fat intellectual discussion during the postceremonial drink period; and several giants of the Institute, and the Academy, like Truman Capote, and Louis Kronenberg, put their heads together over the martini glasses to decide what motivates music or, for that matter, any art at all. The young composer himself rather waspishly said that his motivation was money — which is understandable from a man with a new check in his hand.
Bernstein considers the motive of money for a moment — a motive that drives an overwhelming majority of cultural production, or as Schopenhauer presciently argued, of worthless cultural production:
Money is a perfectly valid motivation for art, as much as we’d like not to think so; but since it’s also the chief motivation for selling shoes, or Buicks, or chewing gum, it doesn’t quite explain what motivates art in particular. The same might be said for the other low-down motivating forces, like success, fame, popularity, adulation, and the rest; they are all, undeniably, motivations for the artist, for all artists; but insofar as these ideals also motivate Senators, Beatles, and fan dancers, one cannot say that they are uniquely motivations for art — that useless, most unsenatorial endeavor called Art.
He notes that the answers he and his Institute colleagues arrived at as the true motive for making art were invariable clichés which, while true, still failed to explain the creative impulse:
Communication and self-expression were voted the two real motivations for the artist; every creator is one because he must express himself and, what’s more, must share that expression with mankind. These may be platitudes, and they may also be true, as far as they go. But whether or not true, they do not explain that devil with a pitchfork who goads an artist into doing dangerous, unpopular, unpredictable works.
Bernstein points to a counterexample to these false or incomplete motivators in the work of composer Carl Ruggles, honored at the ceremony that evening, whose music “never earned him a penny, or formed him a fan club” and was “rarely, if ever, played” in public. In answering the question of what motivates people like Ruggles, Bernstein argues, lies the enigma of the creative spirit:
Ah, there’s the mystery. And in these days of explaining mysteries, these days when [psychoanalyst Lawrence] Kubie can explain the creative process by simply invoking the word preconscious — when the duration of our planet can be estimated by the rate of expansion of the universe — please, God, leave us this one mystery, unsolved: why man creates. And in that artless and unmysterious world, I would also preferably cease to be.
While the poeticism of Bernstein’s point about the mystery of art is undeniably beautiful, it’s also rather misguided in its assumption that scientific knowledge destroys the mystery of life rather than intensifying it and making it all the more enchanting. One need only hear Richard Feynman’s famous “Ode to a Flower” monologue to appreciate the unfortunate misconception.
There aren’t too many mysteries left, you know; one of these days some superbrain is going to come up with a brilliant revelation of original cause; DNA, or whatever it is, is going to explain heredity; and XYZ will remove the last veil from the chemical wonder of sexual attraction. And then what will we be left with? Man and his mystery — the mindless, useless, glorious pursuit of artistic truth. And all, hopefully, without a shred of motivation.
Bernstein returns to the question of what motivates Ruggles’s unmarketable, sublime music or the “incredible record of courageous flops” of legendary theater producer and director Cheryl Crawford, who was present in the audience that day. He concludes:
That, thank Heaven, is still a glorious mystery; and it is a mystery that enshrouds every good artist I know, rich or poor, successful or not, old or young. They write, they paint, they perform, produce, whatever, because life to them is inconceivable without doing so. And it is for that mad compulsion, that unmotivated persistence, that divine drive — it is for that that we are honoring these seven artists tonight. I ask you now to join me in paying tribute to them, and through them to all artists everywhere. They may yet save the world.
Findings, which Bernstein assembled for his 64th birthday, is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, featuring his insights on everything from music to education to politics to identity, spanning the half century since he first began writing at the age of fourteen. Complement this particular meditation with Saul Bass’s superb vintage animated film Why Man Creates.
Published January 13, 2014