Maslow’s “Being Values” as Aesthetic Compass – A Thought Experiment

According to Wikipedia: “Abraham Harold Maslow (April 1, 1908 – June 8, 1970) was an American psychologist. He is noted for his conceptualization of a “hierarchy of human needs”, and is considered the founder of humanistic psychology.

Beyond the routine of needs fulfillment, Maslow envisioned moments of extraordinary experience, known as Peak experiences, which are profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world, more aware of truth, justice, harmony, goodness, and so on.

Self-actualizing people have many such peak experiences.   In studying accounts of peak experiences, Maslow identified a manner of thought he called “Being-cognition” (or “B-cognition”, which is holistic and accepting, as opposed to the evaluative “Deficiency-cognition” or “D-cognition”) and values he called “Being-values”.

He listed the B-values as:

  • WHOLENESS (unity; integration; tendency to one-ness; interconnectedness; simplicity; organization; structure; dichotomy-transcendence; order);
  • PERFECTION (necessity; just-right-ness; just-so-ness; inevitability; suitability; justice; completeness; “oughtness”);
  • COMPLETION (ending; finality; justice; “it’s finished”; fulfilment; finis and telos; destiny; fate);
  • JUSTICE (fairness; orderliness; lawfulness; “oughtness”);
  • ALIVENESS (process; non-deadness; spontaneity; self-regulation; full-functioning);
  • RICHNESS (differentiation, complexity; intricacy);
  • SIMPLICITY (honesty; nakedness; essentiality; abstract, essential, skeletal structure);
  • BEAUTY (rightness; form; aliveness; simplicity; richness; wholeness; perfection; completion; uniqueness; honesty);
  • GOODNESS (rightness; desirability; oughtness; justice; benevolence; honesty);
  • UNIQUENESS (idiosyncrasy; individuality; non-comparability; novelty);
  • EFFORTLESSNESS (ease; lack of strain, striving or difficulty; grace; perfect, beautiful functioning);
  • PLAYFULNESS (fun; joy; amusement; gaiety; humor; exuberance; effortlessness);
  • TRUTH (honesty; reality; nakedness; simplicity; richness; oughtness; beauty; pure, clean and unadulterated; completeness; essentiality).
  • SELF-SUFFICIENCY (autonomy; independence; not-needing-other-than-itself-in-order-to-be-itself; self-determining; environment-transcendence; separateness; living by its own laws).”

Hmmmm.  That’s interesting.  A very interesting list.  I wonder if you can apply those values to your creative endeavours.  Let’s say you wanted to make a wonderful music album, a painting, write a novel, or develop a web application.  Would B-values give you any guidelines to make your art into a peak experience?  Let’s consider each B-value in turn.

Wholeness: If I were writing and recording an album of music, I could achieve a sense of wholeness by having a structure to the album.  In classical music, this would be some recognised form, such as a symphony or concerto form.  In modern music, a concept album might fit the bill, as would a collection of music that takes the listener on some kind of journey, with a detectable beginning, middle and end.  Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as an album, deals with everyday life, for example.  Pink Floyd’s track “Echoes” from the album Meddle, also has a recognisable structure.  In painting, I might choose to employ some sort of colour unity by limiting my palette or choosing a recognised colour scheme (see: How To Choose Colours).  As a novelist, plots, sub-plots and story arcs for different characters is how I might achieve this B-value.  If I were developing a web application, the information architecture would hold the wholeness.

Perfection: As a musician, my album would achieve perfection if the music was played well, the rhyming scheme worked, the rhythm and instrumentation were spot on and the production values were high.  My mastering would achieve a certain aural polish.  As a painter, getting the proportions and perspective right, or the visual composition balanced might give me a sense of perfection, as might mixing the colours accurately (compared to real life) or making my geometric abstract shapes feel “just-right”.  A writer might concoct episodes or fictional relationships that happen at the most opportune moment in the narrative, or else have things happen that seem unlikely, but feel like they ought to have happened, given the context.  A web application developer may consider perfection to mean an optimal user interaction design and user experience, or a solid, bug-free piece of code that operates speedily and does not intrude on the task the user is trying to complete using the software application (leaving the “flow” intact).

Completion: In music, painting, writing and software design, even though knowing when the work is complete ought to be obvious, it’s actually quite illusive for the artist.  Completion is in the eye of the beholder, I think.  Clearly, when the album you play ends, or when you have drunk your fill of the sight of a painting, you have a sense of completion.  In writing, the reader knows the work is complete at the end of the dénouement.  When using a web application, you feel completion when the job your are trying to do with the application is finished.

Justice: When the work feels righteous, when the lyrics resonate with the listener, or the painting deals with some allegorical subject (perhaps) or when the story has a moral dimension, or if the application empowers the user to produce work equivalent to the best using that tool, then a sense of justice may be experienced.

Aliveness: A musical performance or instrumental solo can convey a sense of aliveness just from the touch of the player and the enthusiasm that is conveyed through the musician’s playing.  A good beat, or groove, or rhythm that makes you want to move also can make music sound alive.  A painting can achieve spontaneity through the deftness of the brush strokes, the freshness and immediacy of line and shape or by splashes of contrasting colour, for example.  A story can achieve a sense of aliveness through the descriptiveness of the prose or the use of precisely the right words, or by adopting a colloquial tone of voice, perhaps.  Software can convey aliveness by responding quickly and providing instant feedback to the user.

Richness: Complex arrangements, counterpoint or layered timbres, along with harmonic invention and lush overdubbing can achieve a sense of richness in music.  In painting, texture, variation of colour, effects of light and shade and detail can provide the same sense of richness, as can the choice of deep, intense colours.  In a novel, the intricacy of the plot, evocative descriptive language, or the inter-relationships between characters, or the number of simultaneous sub plots (or parallel plot threads that culminate in the chaos of a well-written farce, as in an episode of “Fawlty Towers”, for example) can give the writing some richness.  In application design, it can be the range of functionality or the number and variety of third party plug-ins or presets that can make the application feel rich.

Simplicity: When a song has a strong melody, a catchy tune, an unforgettable chorus or some catch phrase in the lyric, it has simplicity.  A painting can achieve simplicity through economy of line or through impressionistic brush strokes, or strong composition.  A limited colour or tonal range can achieve the same thing.  A story can achieve simplicity through language, clear narrative, the choice of simple words, or by having a linear flow or easy to follow story line.  A software application is simple if you can use it successfully without extensive training, reading the manual or months of fruitless experimentation.  A simple software application uses familiar user interface paradigms and methods.

Beauty: For me, music is beautiful when it uses engaging timbres and clear instrument tones.  I love a clear voice.  The melody can be beautiful.  Lyrics about love or instruments played quietly in a reverberant, ambient sound stage can be beautiful.  A fresh face, a clean line, bright colours, a scene from nature, or the human form can add beauty to a painting.  A story can be beautiful if it is written so imaginatively that you can see the scene in your mind’s eye.  The economical use of language or the precise selection of words can make a story beautiful, as can the subject matter.   In web design, the screen could look uncluttered and the spacing and use of white space can be beautifully balanced.  It can be pleasing to the eye through the use of subtle colours and soft, rounded, shaded graphical elements.  The actual way that the work-flow is embodied in the logic can also be beautiful.

Goodness: Songs about love or in major keys can convey goodness.  An honestly portrayed figure or a portrait that you just can’t take your eyes off, a story about right triumphing over wrong or a web application that does something useful and valuable for free are all ways in which a creative artefact can convey a sense of goodness.

Uniqueness: Somebody singing with a striking voice, or playing with a distinctive tone or touch can convey uniqueness, as can the structure of a song (Bohemian Rhapsody, for example).  A painting that clearly identifies the style of its artist or a story written about some unique period of history or place (Harry Potter) can all contribute to a work’s uniqueness.  An web application that does something that no other application does is also unique, even if imitated later.

Effortlessness: When musicians display great dexterity and facility, when a singer seems to sing the line naturally and without strain, when every brush stroke on the canvas looks perfectly, carefully, confidently and deliberately executed, when the story is a page turner and the language easy to read or when the application helps you to surprise yourself at the quality of work you create with it or the pleasure you derive from using the tool helps you to create things you would never have attempted before, then the value of effortlessness is present.

Playfulness: A piece of light-hearted music, with some wit and humour, a funny lyric, a painting that changes your perception, uses unexpected colours, which is light and airy or very colourful and a book that employs puns, jokes, funny incidents and witty dialogue all convey playfulness.  If the web application feels like it encourages you to play and explore, or if the design of the application has some wry humour to it (such as my in-development mobile phone application, the Illuminati Detector), then it is playful.  Computer games are very often playful.  Playing is serious business.

Truth: Bob Dylan had a certain knack for conveying deep truths.  Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance” is another truthful song.  A portrait can reveal a person’s idiosyncratic facial expression or the cracks and lines of age.  A book can allegorically deal with a subject matter that rings true (conspiracy theories can have this property too).  An application on the web can be pure and clean (such as the Google search page, for example).  Truth can be found in all sorts of art.

Self-Sufficiency: An album of music so outstanding that it stands out amongst its peers (Nirvana’s Nevermind springs to mind instantly) has a certain uncompromising independence about it.  Paintings by iconoclasts like Vincent Van Gogh or Claude Monet needed no others for comparison and stand peerless.  A book with its own point of view of set in a unique place or time (Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example) can be thought of as self-sufficient.  A software application that does everything you need it to do, which needs no other application (Photoshop might be an example) and which becomes ubiquitous also has the property of self-sufficiency.

I think that by interpreting Maslow’s B-Values with intelligence and inventiveness, we can create artistic works of higher emotional impact, leading to peak experiences for the viewer, listener, reader or user.  This may be an unintended application of Maslow’s ideas, or completely wrong, but I submit that this usage of B-Values as an aesthetic compass provides some useful and pleasing outcomes.

How would you interpret Maslow’s B-Values in your art?


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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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5 Responses to Maslow’s “Being Values” as Aesthetic Compass – A Thought Experiment

  1. Considering the story of the poor caterpillar who starts to count his leggs, I don’t think it is a good idea to AIM for a peak experience creation.
    My experience shows more that you cant help being anything else than creative,when you are “in tune” with your self and by that with the cosmos.
    “trying hard” to relax into our nature is a unfruitful paradox, who might only “work” once the zealot is exhausted enough from this trip to “let go!”.
    May I suggest “trust into existence”, not as new “must” but as a key!
    Nothing “special, only being whatever being just means.

  2. Dilip says:

    Lovely thoughts on ‘Being Values’. Please do read my post on Being values in my blog. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Pingback: 2010 in Review | Creative Ideas for Starving Artists

  4. Pingback: Another Take | Creative Ideas for Starving Artists

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