November 10th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Farmers' protest in Canberra over national water plan

EDITORIAL: Howard and Rudd - the Coke vs. Pepsi election?

RURAL CRISIS: Crocodile tears and hand-wringing over drought

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Why voters have turned on John Howard

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: China's aggressive trade strategy pays off

FOREIGN INVESTMENT: Risk for Australia in dependence on China

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Overdue steps to ensure open government

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Victoria's hospital fiasco / Shooting fish in a barrel / Misreading America

POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES: How family-friendly is the free market?

DRUGS POLICY: Illicit drugs and the federal election

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Exposing the abortion-breast cancer link

OPINION: A Rudd election win will be a disaster

OBITUARY: A Labor Party statesman remembered - Hon. Kim Edward Beazley Snr. AO (1917-2007)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Christian foster-parents face deregistration / Marital status and poverty - study

BOOKS: CREATORS: From Chaucer to Walt Disney, by Paul Johnson

Books promotion page

CREATORS: From Chaucer to Walt Disney, by Paul Johnson

by Bill James

News Weekly, November 10, 2007
Stimulating overview of the arts

CREATORS: From Chaucer to Walt Disney
by Paul Johnson
(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Phoenix)
Paperback: 320 pages
Rec. price: AUD$27.00

Any attempt to select and describe history's paragons of creativity in fewer than 300 pages is bound to raise a storm of objections. Surely Johnson is just asking for trouble!

Why, with the exception of the Japanese painter Hokusai Katsushika, are they all Europeans?

Why, apart from Jane Austen, are they all male?

Why is Imhotep (look him up) the only figure before Christ's birth - indeed, before the 14th century - to be dealt with at any length?

And why are they all exponents of aesthetic professions - literature (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Hugo, Twain, Eliot), music (Bach), art (Dürer, Turner, Picasso), architecture (Pugin), decorative glass (Tiffany), clothes design (Balenciaga, Dior) and film (Disney)?


Johnson attempts to meet this objection in his last chapter, Metaphors in a Laboratory, where he mentions the creative aspect of the work of scientists such as Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday and Thomas Edison, and engineers such as Thomas Telford. He also pays enthusiastic homage to the immense talent necessary to create the rich, beneficent intangible of humour.

But even Johnson's circumscribed aesthetic selection provokes challenges. What about Tolstoy or Dickens instead of Twain? Weren't Stravinsky and Cage as innovative as Bach? Didn't Le Corbusier, Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright have a greater impact than Pugin? How could he leave out Rembrandt from the artists - or for that matter, Andy Warhol?

Read the book and decide for yourself. Paul Johnson is pushing 80, but remains one of our most knowledgeable, informative and readable historians. I emphasise the fact that he is first and foremost a historian, despite his parallel career in journalism, in order to explain his narrative, biographical method and transparent style. Had the book consisted of an analytical study of the philosophy of aesthetics (or, Heaven forbid, a cultural theory analysis), it could have been repellent in the extreme.

Johnson's descriptive and comparative approach is accessible and endlessly intriguing. Take Balenciaga and Dior, for example. At the risk of being accused of gender-stereotyping, I suggest that male readers might be tempted to skip this chapter. They shouldn't. Johnson places these designers in the context of social history. He shows how the concept of high fashion (or haute couture) which, we might imagine, had existed in some form or other since time immemorial, was in fact invented by an Englishman in Paris in the mid-19th century, and died with the radical egalitarianism of the 1960s.

As his narrative and biographical account unfolds, Johnson raises a number of crucial issues to stimulate us. What about the relationship between creativity and intellect? Is it possible to be supremely creative and at the same time gloriously stupid, as Johnson suggests was the case with Victor Hugo?

Then there is the question of art versus morality, an issue familiar to us from Orwell's famous essay Benefit of Clergy, which deals with the repulsive genius Salvador Dali. Johnson uses the examples of the amoral egotist Picasso (of whom more later) and the hedonistic sponger Richard Wagner. He also uses the examples of Beethoven and Robert Louis Stevenson, by way of contrast, to illustrate the courage and character which creation can require. But the question lingers: can a creative work be at once aesthetically innovative, powerful, even transcendent, while violating all commonly accepted ethical norms? Can bad people produce good art?

How important is genetic inheritance to creativity? It seems that Johnson is not sure. He instances Shakespeare's unremarkable ancestry as "an apparent demonstration of the unimportance of heredity or genes in creative lives". On the other hand, he describes the extraordinary impact of the Bach families on German music during the 300 years 1550-1850. Their huge broods - 12 or 15 children were the norm, and Johann Sebastian himself had 20 - meant that The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists 80 Bachs as distinguished (as opposed to competent journeyman) musicians.

Nurturing creativity

Certainly a congenial and supportive home can nurture creativity, even when the family itself is not particularly brilliant. Jane Austen's parents and siblings, for example, were notable for their attachment to education, literature, sociability, amateur theatricals, and above all, laughter.

Other creative figures emerged from far more specifically focused backgrounds. Durer's father was a goldsmith, while Pugin's was an artist and draftsman. On the other hand, Christian Dior had to contend with a father who had made a fortune producing fertiliser, and wanted his son to take over the family business.

Some of the similarities which recur in these stories are precocity (T.B. Macaulay's History of England was one of the first books which Eliot read and enjoyed) and a seemingly infinite capacity for single-minded application and concentration. Never has the aphorism that "Genius is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration" been more convincingly displayed. Another obvious feature of creativity is a capacious, retentive and accurate memory.

While there is much that is contentious about Creators, perhaps its most controversial chapter is that on Picasso and Disney, because it raises political issues which are still alive.

Walt Disney has become an object of hatred and ridicule to the Left. One persistent urban myth claims his body was cryonically preserved (he was in fact cremated). Another myth, sometimes encountered on The Simpsons as part of its ongoing postmodern self-referential commentary on cartooning, asserts on the basis of tendentious to non-existent evidence that Disney was some sort of Nazi anti-Semite. The facts are that Disney held conservative, family values; resisted union attempts to force him to insert leftist messages in his films; and was anti-communist during the 1940s and '50s when the political complexion of Hollywood was overwhelmingly pro-Stalinist.

Picasso, on the other hand, is something of an icon for the Left, largely on the basis of his anti-fascist painting Guernica, which was inspired by an incident during the Spanish Civil War. However, he proved capable of getting on quite well with fascists when it suited him. He spent the years 1940-44 undisturbed in Nazi-occupied Paris, emerging from the war richer than when it started. He never criticised the Soviet-controlled Spanish Communist Party for its betrayal and destruction of the Spanish Left, and remained a member of the rabidly Stalinist French Communist Party for the rest of his life.

So, which of Picasso and Disney had the greater impact on our perception of the world? Johnson plumps for Disney, on the grounds that Picasso worked against nature, and for that reason will fade into obscurity, while Disney worked with it.

Johnson acknowledges God as the supreme Creator, and human beings as sub-creators because made in God's image. In keeping with his theology of creativity, Johnson sees nature, despite its flaws, as an emanation from God, and therefore to be respected by artists. "In the end, nature is the strongest force of all."

Dickens's Mr Squeers appears to have vaguely apprehended this: "She's a rum 'un, is Natur." Horace, some 1,800 years earlier, agreed, even attributing to nature the same gender: "Natura expellas furca, tamen usque recurret - Though you drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will still find her way back."

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