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  Creativity (from Latin creare, ‘to make [from nothing]’), in the sense of producing something which expresses one\'s own original genius or talent, used to be regarded as the province of God or the gods alone. Only the Creator could create; human beings (themselves created in the divine image) could merely imitate, not initiate, creation. Thus, works of the imagination were a reflection or a by-product of the divine-human relationship, and any beauty or intellectual or emotional power they possessed came from that relationship. Indeed, in many societies the very impetus to creativity was sacred: artists worked either directly to serve the gods or in festivals and other social rituals with religious overtones. Even when the arts were secularized—as in the court painting of Mughal India, for example, or Japanese dance-drama—an element of religiosity remained, creators often regarding themselves, and behaving, as acolytes not of gods but of some kind of quasi-sacred mystery.

This respectful spirit is the one in which even creators as individually minded, ‘talented’, as (for instance) Homer or Pheidias went to work. When the Roman poet Horace wrote that his work would be a ‘tomb-monument more lasting than bronze’, the phrase was a straightforward metaphor with no overtones of arrogance or self-awareness. Horace was not claiming genius for himself, but comparing himself to the smith who crafts a tomb-monument or the client who commissions it; just as other people\'s monuments were bronze, so was his verse. The artists of antiquity—from Exekias to Omar Khayyám, from Vatsayan to Lady Murasaki—seldom or never intrude ideas of their own importance into their work. If the work is beautiful or significant (their silence seems to imply) those are the qualities innate in the material, in the subject or in the treatment, and not facets of their own creative powers. The only ancient artists who boast about their own excellence are people such as Aristophanes and Ovid—and the references are comic, made to put down opponents and raise a laugh. Japanese painters and sculptors, even those (the majority in ancient times) who worked anonymously, used to put a deliberate ‘mistake’ into each of their creations—a line slightly askew, a dip, a fold, a minute modulation of colour. This was not self-assertion; its purpose was to make the work, not the artist, stand out from its fellows as unique. In a similar way, when medieval European masons and woodcarvers ‘signed’ their work, by depicting themselves as gargoyles, or among the worshippers at Christ\'s manger, or among the crowds of souls clamouring for mercy at the Last Judgement, they were not so much declaring that the work they had made belonged to them as that they belonged to it; they were, in a sense, inserting themselves into the universal worship or supplication which the work both represented and encouraged.

This feeling, that artists (however individually interesting and talented) were part of a continuum of creation, persisted in Europe until the Renaissance, and for centuries longer in the East, until they began to take in and modify Western ideas. Renaissance practitioners and pundits of the arts talked of creativity as a rare, innate quality which set the possesser apart from (indeed, above) the brute instincts of ordinary people. Philosophers and critics (such as Vasari) agonized about the ‘artist\'s shaping hand’ as evinced in the work of almost anyone from Praxiteles to Giotto; the 16th-century poet Tasso put it more roundly, ‘There are two creators, God and the poet’. Attempts to determine what made works of the imagination ‘great’ (that is, challenging and satisfying to a degree matched by few others) led inevitably to the notion that the creators of such works could themselves be ‘great’ and unique individuals. Creators divided into two camps: those (such as the 16th-century Italian composer Palestrina or the Renaissance architect Brunelleschi) who regarded themselves chiefly as skilled craftworkers, servants of their patrons and of their art as creators had always been, and those (such as Michelangelo or Monteverdi) who felt and said that they stood apart from the common herd even of creative artists, and that they had to wrestle not merely with the materials of the art, but with their own creative spirit, to produce their work. Shakespeare and his contemporary creative artists had a lively sense of their own genius, and were not loath to express it so that a kind of artistic swagger, a creative swash-buckle, is intrinsic to the arts of Elizabethan England (and indeed to the behaviour of such people as Drake or Raleigh, who claimed, in so many words, that their very lives were works of art).

From the Renaissance to our own time, the tendency has increased to create a gulf between art and artisanship, between the ‘creative’ and the ‘practical’. People in professions which would once have been regarded as pure craft—architects and garden designers, for instance—are now routinely described as if they were artists, and of genius. For example, Gaudí and Mies van der Rohe are considered as closer to Picasso than to the anonymous masons who built Notre Dame or the Forbidden City. Almost every art form, from choreography to sculpture, from poetry to pop, is beset with hierarchies and categories of creative excellence, discussion of which sometimes replaces appreciation of created works themselves. Modern creative artists also have to come to terms with a vast weight of past ‘work of genius’ before they can begin. In short, although the change has made little difference to the work artists do, or to the rewards they receive, it has completely changed the way ‘creative’ people view themselves. Once, they were mirrored, defined, fulfilled, in the work they did; now, before you create, you must establish an attitude to your art, to its actuality, theory, past, present and marketplace—in fact, you must establish yourself. KMcL

See also aesthetics; culture; taste.



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