Creative luminaries have spoken over the years of how death and a desire to live on through their art is a driving force in their work.
Among them was the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who said he spread his work “so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.” Indeed, the German writer and Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse called fear of death “the root of all art.”
This drive is at the heart of what psychologists call “symbolic immortality,” referring to an individual’s creation of a lasting figurative relationship with life that shapes culture, as creative greats like Wolfgang Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, and Leo Tolstoy achieved.
Now, research published in the Journal of Creative Behavior last month finds that creative achievements may serve a positive function for the artist in easing existential anxieties and lessening the fear of death.
“I see symbolic immortality as a way to stay alive in one’s culture after one’s physical death,” study lead author Rotem Perach, a psychology Ph.D student at the University of Kent, told The Huffington Post.
In a review of 12 previous studies on the subject, the researchers established that creative achievement does seem to play a role in managing anxiety related to the awareness of death. And this is something that even non-artists can tap into, through everyday acts of creative expression.
“As a valuable contributor to something larger, more meaningful, and longer lasting than mere physical existence, one gains the protection from mortality concerns.”
The researchers explain this phenomenon through what’s known as “terror management theory,” a psychological theory proposing that the fear of death is a significant human motivator. The theory suggests that there are two main things we do in order to cope with the awareness of our own mortality. First, we subscribe to a belief system (such as a religion or set of moral principles) that provides us with a sense of meaning and order. Then we strive to cultivate high self-esteem by living up to the standards of value that our culture sets. Long-lasting creative achievements are one way to become valuable to the culture at large.
“As a valuable contributor to something larger, more meaningful, and longer lasting than mere physical existence, one gains the protection from mortality concerns offered by the culture,” the study’s authors write.
The researchers conducted their own experiment on a group of 108 students. They asked the students to fill out assessments of their own creative activities, achievements and goals. These included answering questions about whether they aspired to produce a great creative work or to make an important contribution to a field within the arts or sciences.
Then, the students were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements either about death anxiety (such as “I am very much afraid to die”) or fear of public speaking. Finally, they completed a task of filling in words that could either death-related or non-death-related, and the researchers analyzed how many times they chose death-centric words.
The students who were more creativity-oriented chose more death-related words, but for those who had already had a major creativity achievement or expressed a strong desire to make a creative impact in the future, their thinking was actually less death-oriented.
The researchers concluded that creative achievements have a positive existential value for those who hold creativity in high regard.
“Understanding the existential meanings of an enduring creative achievement may be particularly valuable for expert creative persons,” they wrote, “as they navigate motivational and creative challenges en route to eminence.”