A discussion once again erupted this month, fuelled by rapid re-sharing of the headline, "Why cash and copyright are bad for creativity" and a post on The Conversation by Dan Hunter.

The premise put forth by Hunter, based on studies by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and Teresa Amabile, is summed up nicely here:

"...artists produce their worst work when they’re commissioned to produce it, ...

"The reason for this? Creativity is closely linked to motivation, and humans become creative when they’re internally motivated by curiosity or interest or desire. They get demotivated — and less creative - when you introduce money into the equation."

There's a common misconception at play here, one where artists who remain impoverished need to remain so to produce anything of worth - why, just look at Van Gogh! Never sold a painting in his life, and now they're worth millions!

You know what stunted my own creativity? The power going off. Hunger. Sleepless nights worrying about bills.

You can also be as creative as you want in your own mind, but it's tough to maintain a continual body of new art work when you're working 3 jobs to afford the rent in New York, Toronto or Vancouver.

I am being unfair to the researchers. Deci & Ryan's Self-Determination Theory website states,

"Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence,and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity."

Obviously autonomy is key. In any study where monetary rewards are given for creativity, one must assume a baseline where the artist is well-fed and has the basics of existence, or alternatively, plan to sort subjects by a variety of economic conditions and then see how cash rewards affect creativity.

This also assumes, a researcher has some way of measuring creativity itself. Would love to see that metric.

Hunter's post makes a muddled attempt to tie in copyright as a stand in for monetary reward. Hunter suggests, "This isn’t to suggest that artists shouldn’t be able to eat. It’s just that if you were designing a system to maximise creativity then you wouldn’t tie creative output to cash like we do with copyrights." (Yay, artists get to eat!) I was confused by this argument since copyright often makes not a whit of difference in the money-making prowess of art in the internet age. The ability to leverage copyright for monetary gain by the lone artist on Etsy is not the same as that of Disney.

Many people take the stance that artists have never made money, so, so what? That the figure of dusty, indebted Michelangelo toiling away and creating phenomenal beauty are linked and it ain't gonna change. Same as it ever was. But this convenient trope ignores the many upper middle class and wealthy artists throughout history that were in the privileged positions to spend years with their muse instead of labouring in a field. Edgar Degas spent years painting horse races, ballet and nude women. Benvenuto Cellini was on personally friendly terms with Renaissance Popes. Middle-class Da Vinci reportedly longed for even higher status and painted while wearing his finest robes.

I would also like to paint wearing fine robes. And the internet age is all about talent rising to the top, or at least it was supposed to be before we sectioned ourselves off into Twitter people and Tumblr people and Facebook people. It is easier than ever before in history to reach an interested audience, and find the interested people with money. Why are we putting up with notions that art must be made in the absence of money?

Creativity and what drives creativity are hard to measure. And the damage easy headlines about poverty aiding creativity are also hard to measure.