Creativity, Communication and Cultural Value, Keith Negus and Michael Pickering, (2004)

London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi: Sage

192 pages

Hardback: 0761970754 $89.95/£60.00

Paperback: 0761970762 $34.95/£18.99

As a student at university I had a dogmatic art history teacher who claimed that art could only be understood in terms of social theories and class struggle. One day I was alone with him and asked why he had chosen to be an art historian, since he professed to dislike art so much. He swore me to secrecy and then admitted that in fact he was deeply affected by paintings, especially those by Matisse.

Reading this book reminded me of this teacher, because what makes it a stimulating and frustrating read is that between the lines the authors seem to be arguing with themselves, with their heads telling them one thing and their hearts another. Trying to encompass all the main art forms, it relates creativity to society by discussing such aspects as the cultural industries and the concept of genius. While they dutifully wheel out theories by the likes of Adorno or Bourdieu, the authors appear to be more interested in going where those theories do not. Social theories of the arts are not enough, they argue, because they cannot account for the hold the arts have on so many people, both as consumers and practitioners. Just as an atheist might write a different account of the sociology of religion from a believer, so this book is written by those who believe in the magic that lies at centre of the arts.

For the authors creativity is a social activity. To be creative, one has to be highly skilled in a chosen medium and fully conversant with the socially constructed rules of a discipline. A creative act is an expression by an individual or group that is communicated to others. A highly skilled individual, or ‘genius’, can transform the rules for all subsequent artists through an exceptional creative act. The example given is that of the jazz musician Charlie Parker inventing new harmonic structures that ‘…charted a completely new direction in the history of jazz and popular music’.

Lying behind these precepts are a number of preconceptions that have not been acknowledged. These include Kuhn’s paradigm theory of the natural sciences as it has been applied to the arts (the idea that the arts are somehow progressing, as science is supposed to and that, at certain times, such as the invention of cubism, the existing rules are rearranged for all future artists). Another preconception, despite pleas to the contrary, is a view of the arts that is modern, western and moulded by the enlightenment and romanticism. Moreover, all of their examples of ‘geniuses’ are male.

The discussion of avant-gardism is perfunctory, considering how central this is to their theories of creativity. And one would expect an acknowledgement that the avant-garde tradition ground to a halt somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century, leaving western culture to go round and round in a constant spiral of revivals. It sometimes seems as if the more society expects and demands creativity, the less it happens.

One of the authors has a musical background and perhaps this has led to an emphasis on creativity as innovations in form. In fact, for music, as for other art forms, these kinds of formalist innovations eventually led to ever-decreasing audiences. Musical creativity appears to be taking place now not through innovations of form, but through interactions between different traditions and cultures of the world. A different interpretation of the development of music might show that it was forever thus. And the same applies to other art forms.

Although they recognize that they are discussing a phenomenon that is framed by the Enlightenment, the authors do not seem to be able to see beyond it. Perhaps this is expecting too much, but then they do drop in references to the theories of people such as Habermas and Jameson, which suggests they might know better. The book is probably over-ambitious in trying to encompass creativity in all the arts. The problem is less that in one volume it cannot do justice to each but more that a pick-and-mix approach glosses over important differences between each one in various contexts.

This book adds to an extensive literature on creativity. Theories about it have been formed in many disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, education and sociology. Interesting though this book is, it is surprising how little it refers to any of these other theories. Art teachers wanting to learn about bringing out the creative potential of their students will have to look elsewhere. No mention is made of key issues for art education, such as the distinction between creativity and problem solving. However, those with an interest in how creativity fits into visual culture and media studies should find it thought provoking, while probably finding plenty to argue with.

Reviewed by Nicholas Houghton