Getting to Must

by Robert Genn

Canadian painter Robert Genn writes and produces a twice-weekly online newsletter called “The Painter’s Keys.” Wise, insightful and well-composed, his releases provide enlightenment and a sense of camaraderie with fellow artists. The following article is a reprint from the November 23, 2007 edition of “The Painter’s Keys.”. You can subscribe to the newsletter, view past articles, and links at

Psychologist Abraham Maslow has written, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write – if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.” The question for many would-be creators is simply how to get to “must.”

Maslow spent a lifetime researching mental health and human potential. He emphasized the study of healthy minds and successful systems rather than the abnormal and the ill. He was particularly interested in the hierarchy of needs, meta-needs, self-actualizing persons, purposeful play, and peak experiences. Leader of the humanistic school of psychology, he referred to his ideas as a “third force”--beyond Freudian theory and behaviourism.

Maslow saw human beings’ needs arranged like a ladder. The most basic needs, at the bottom, were physical--air, water, food, etc. Then came safety needs--security, stability, comfort. Then psychological or social needs--belonging, love, acceptance. At the top were the self-actualizing needs--the need to fulfill oneself, to become all that one is capable of becoming. Maslow felt that unfulfilled needs lower on the ladder inhibited a person from climbing to the next step. For example, someone dying of thirst is not likely to write or paint. People who managed the higher needs are what he called self-actualizing people. These folks, he found, are able to focus on problems outside themselves, have a clear sense of what is true and what is phony, and are spontaneous, creative, and not bound too strictly by social conventions.

Here are a few of Maslow’s ideas for artists wishing to further evolve: Systematically study, understand and neutralize the effects of lower needs. Accept the world in all of its complexity, mystery and ambiguity. Take cues from the winners in this world, not the losers. Keep the company of the doers, not the talkers. Play your personal game on as many levels as you’re able. Fall in love with your processes, innovations, dreams and higher ideals. Be sensitive to and welcome the arrival of peak experiences. Have no guilt when you see yourself becoming compulsive and proactive. Allow yourself to be swept up in your personal “must.”

Best regards,

PS: “Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? A good question might be not why do people create, but why do people not create?” Abraham Maslow, 1908-1970

Esoterica: Peak experiences are profound moments of love, understanding, happiness or rapture, when a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world--more aware of truth, justice, harmony and goodness. Maslow found self-actualizing people have many such peak experiences. Acts of art can be structured so an individual sets himself up for a series of them. He feels good, becomes habituated and demands their repetition. Maslow was not a snob about his conclusions. “A first-rate soup,” he said, “is more creative than a second-rate painting.”