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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Perhaps the most significant interpretation of the con-
ception of “creativity in art” which has appeared in
the history of ideas, and certainly the one most fruitful
for the aesthetician, is that couched in terms of free-
dom. Philologists have attributed the more extensive
meanings of “make” and “grow” to the hypothetical
root of “create,” the Indo-European °kerdh- or the
Sanskrit °ker- or °kre-. (See J. Pokorny, 1, 577; Walde-
Hofmann, III, 288, Ernout and Meillet, III, 208, 260;
and S. M. Kuhn, II, 713ff.) The proliferation of mean-
ings of the word “create” in less hypothetical contexts
has been extraordinary: “causing to grow,” “ability to
produce,” “ability to make,” “ability to call into exist-
ence, to construct, to give rise to, to constitute, to
represent, to invest, to occasion, to form out of noth-
ing.” (See, for example, H. C. Wyld, The Universal
English Dictionary.
) A philosopher of art, in contrast
to the philologist and to the maker of dictionaries,
discovers that the identification of “creativity” with
freedom is not hypothetical and that it is with widely
received interpretations of freedom that he must deal.
He finds, moreover, that the conception of freedom
underlying speculation on art in all its phases—the
artist's creativity, the autonomous judgment of works
of fine art, and the productive imagination at work
in the experience of profoundly moving works of
art—is the theme of God's power and freedom to make
or to originate the universe. This primarily theological
and cosmological conception of creativity has influ-
enced both philosophy of art and aesthetics principally
through what has been called “the great analogy”
between the artist and God (Nahm, The Artist as Cre-
and “The Theological Background of the Theory
of the Artist as Creator”).

Two dominant conceptions of deity have persisted
within this analogy. These have provided conditions
for two basic conceptions of the artist and for two main
lines of speculation in the history of ideas concerning
“creativity in art.” The analogue to God the Creator
is the inspired genius who, it has been maintained, is
capable of producing works of art which cannot be
explained solely in terms of artifacts. In classical spec-
ulation on art, the inspired genius was said to be
entheos, “filled with god,” and because he utters divine
words, able to give “birth to beauty.” In modern times,
the genius is ordinarily regarded as a man endowed
with a marked productive or creative imagination.

The analogue to God the Maker is the artist as
imitator and technician, one who proceeds by “right
reason,” the ground for technē (τεχνη). Each concep-
tion of deity and of artist is presupposed by a contrast-
ing conception of freedom. The creative god and the
creative artist are free to originate; the artisan deity


and maker are free to discover what is already there,
to select, and to construct. These differing conceptions
of deity and artist have influenced the entire aesthetic
universe of discourse, with results happily suggested
by Friedrich Schiller. In The Aesthetic Education of
(Letter I), the poet writes of art that it is “a
daughter of freedom” and adds that “through beauty
... we arrive at freedom.” It is with the principal
implications of “creativity in art” as human freedom
in terms of choice and origination, of technē and fine
art which signifies more than technē that we shall be
concerned here. Owing to the scope of a problem
which touches the philosophy of art and aesthetics at
almost every point, we shall limit this discussion prin-
cipally to classical speculation on the subject, indicat-
ing in the conclusion by reference to various “heralds
of creativity” some of the directions taken by writers
on “creativity in art” in modern times.

In spite of the fact that for Greek philosophers art
as making or technē is principally examined in terms
of mimesis or imitation—and, indeed, it is for Plato's
cosmic architect as he constructs the world (Timaeus
28A-B)—the basic outline for the speculative tradition
concerning artistic creativity in the West is firmly
drawn by them. For Aristotle, mimesis in the strictest
sense is no longer adequate for the expression of his
theory of the artist and the work of art (Politics 1340a
13ff.). Even the conception of productive or creative
imagination, perhaps the most significant modern con-
tribution to the subject, is foreshadowed by Philostra-
tus. The notion of genius is clearly formulated in Pla-
tonic philosophy. A belief that the poet is free from
the requirements of technique is firmly rooted
in Greek speculation. The ground for creative freedom
is present at the end of the classical period in the
writings of Philo and Saint Augustine.

More specifically, we discover in ancient speculation
that the theory of art as technē or intelligible making
was developed within the context of Greek philosophy
by thinkers who maintained both that the process of
constructing a work of art is demonstrable and that
criticism of the product of the process is adequate. This
conception of art was argued at the same time that
some of these philosophers sought to “explain” various
aspects of the phenomena—principally those of crea-
tive productive activity—in terms of nonrational in-
spiration. For the most part, Greek theory tended to
explain the experience of works of art in terms of
responses to stimuli, without even hinting that the
perceiver entered into the relation with the work of
art in a productive and creative, rather than in a
reproductive and re-creative way. As we shall observe,
however, it clearly becomes increasingly difficult for
speculative minds to entertain dogmatically either the
theory that the work of art is a mere stimulus to imita
tion or that its experience is to be explained in terms
of a catharsis of feelings.

Plato and Aristotle, the two principal speculative
philosophers in classical Greece who systematically
examined “creativity in art” in terms of freedom, both
take art to be a basic and significant human activity,
and they do so for a variety of reasons which are not
directly relevant here. Their views diverge sharply as
regards the nature and value of mimetic art. This is
in part owing to the fact that for Plato the Idea of
Beauty transcends the work of art, whereas for Aris-
totle the universal is in the thing. Still, as we shall
argue, the transcendence for Plato is not for its own
sake but for the establishment of a ground for a theory
of technique intended to produce “absolutely and
eternally beautiful” mathematical objects, whereas
Aristotle is evidently confident that his assumption—art
is “the rational state of capacity to make”—is adequate
to the task of accounting for poetry, sculpture, music,
and similar productions. It is technē which is significant
in both philosophies, insofar as they treat “creativity
in art,” and the divergences are the clearer if we attend
first to the different sources upon which Plato and
Aristotle drew.

Plato is indebted to Pythagorean number-theory, to
the Heraclitean conception of eternal process, to the
Sophist doctrine of subjectivity, and to the opinions
of Socrates concerning tragic and comic poets. He
owed an important debt to earlier Greek cosmological
theories, as we shall observe in an illustration drawn
from the fragments of Empedocles' philosophy. Aris-
totle's indebtedness to Plato in speculation upon phi-
losophy of art is enormous, as is evident whether we
concentrate attention upon the agreements or the dis-
agreements in theory of these two superb speculative
minds. Still, Aristotle draws primarily upon nonmathe-
matical sources, although he clearly values Pythago-
rean speculation on art (Metaphysics Book XIII). He
abandons Plato's search for absolutely beautiful forms
and places art in the area of the variable and contin-
gent (Nicomachean Ethics VI. 4). The scientific tradi-
tion upon which Aristotle draws is largely that of the
biologists and members of the medical schools, more
particularly the cult of Asclepius at Epidaurus. The
influence of this tradition is evident in his conception
of the beautiful object (Poetics 1450b 34; Metaphysics
XIII). It also conditions his interpretation of the expe-
rience of tragedy (Poetics 1449b 26, 1453b 1) and some
kinds of music (Politics 1342a 6).

We may best begin a brief examination of Platonic
and Aristotelian theories of artistic creativity by turn-
ing to an anticipation of the “great analogy” between
the artist and God in Plato's cosmology and philosophy
of art. For Plato, the cosmos is made by a Demiurgos,
a world-artisan, who uses solid geometrical bodies for


the task (Figure 1). The Demiurge models the universe
after the Ideas and creates neither the pattern nor the
“material” from which the cosmos is constructed.
Empedocles had used a similar illustration: Love and
Strife, the forces of nature which direct the cyclical
processes in the cosmos, are compared to painters, men
“well taught by wisdom in their art” (τέχνης) (Nahm
[1964], p. 112, frag. 121).

It is to Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, rather than
to Empedocles, that we turn for one of the principal
sources of Plato's conception of “creativity in art.” The
experience of beautiful forms induces pleasure unmixed
with pain as a depleted body undergoes repletion and
so returns to a state of harmony (Philebus 31B, 42D).
The conception of harmony is central to the Pythago-
rean account of what the artist may do to introduce
intelligibility by definition into music. As regards
“creativity in art,” two specific contributions in Py-
thagorean philosophy are to be noted. In the first place,
Pythagoras measured the length of vibrating taut cords
and discovered that the concordant intervals of the
scale can be expressed in terms of the ratio 6:8::9:12.
Secondly, in a brilliant act of imagination, the concep-
tion of this “harmony” was extended to the cosmos,
and the image of a universe in which the planets and
stars move in a circle and produce harmonious sounds
(Aristotle, Physics 290b 15) has served since to light
the imaginations of innumerable creative artists. Among
these are Hindemith, Holst, Blake, and Yeats, and the
notable instance among scientists, Johannes Kepler
(Spitzer, pp. 14-17ff.).

A no less important but somewhat disregarded aspect


of Pythagorean philosophy, which is an integral part
of a most significant tradition in the history of art,
radically affected Plato's mature conception of “crea-
tivity in art.” Like Pythagoras' reduction of “woodland
notes wild” to mathematical ratio, the writers within
this tradition have tried to make of painting and sculp-
ture arts wholly intelligible in mathematical terms. The
core of the tradition is the “canon of proportions,”
which has its antecedents in Egyptian theory of sculp-
ture and its descendants in the formulations for art by
artists such as Dürer, Leonardo, and Le Corbusier. (See
W. M. Conway, pp. 165, 179; Leonardo da Vinci,
Trattato..., Secs. 309, 313, 342, 366; C. E.
Jeanneret-Grist [Le Corbusier], Modulor 2.) Plato ar-
gues in Timaeus 44D that God copied the figure of
the universe, which was round and produced a spheri-
cal body, our head, “the most divine and sovereign”
body. But, as we shall see he also advocated the reten-
tion of the Egyptian practice of using fixed and un-
changeable patterns in their art. (See M. C. Nahm,
Aesthetic Experience..., Chs. III and IV.) In this he
was defending the Polycleitean canon of proportions
in which it is stated that “Beauty... arises... in
the commensurability of the parts, such as that of the
finger to the finger... and... of everything to every-
thing else....” (See Galen, De Placitis Hippocratis et
ed. Müller, p. 45; P. Schuhl, Platon et l'art
..., pp. 6ff.; E. Panofsky, “The History of the Theory
of Proportions...,” in The Meaning of Art, pp.
55-108.) But he was defending the Egyptian tradition
and the Polycleitean Canon in the face of the actual
practice of artists who had acquired a sound knowledge
of perspective. (For Egyptian practices, see C. R.
Williams, The Decoration of the Tomb of Per-nēb, pp.
7ff., and E. MacKay, “Proportion Squares....”)

It is therefore not only to understand more com-
pletely Plato's theory of art but also to learn something
concerning the actual processes believed to be ade-
quate for “creativity in art” that we turn to a fragment
of Pythagorean speculation. It is attributed to Eurytos,
a student of the renowned Philolaus. Aristotle is the
principal source of our information (Metaphysics 1092b
10; cf. Theophrastus, Metaphysics 11, 6a 19), and the
obscurity of the reference suggests his own puzzlement
as regards Eurytos' meaning. Aristotle says that Eurytos
“determined which number belongs to which thing—
for example, this number to man, and this to horse—by
using pebbles to imitate the shape of natural objects,
as those do who arrange numbers in the form of geo-
metrical figures, the triangle and the square.” Aristotle
remarks that it has not been determined whether the
Pythagoreans use numbers as the causes of substances
and of Being as though the numbers are boundaries,
e.g. as points are the boundaries of spatial magni
tudes” or because “harmony is a ratio of numbers, and
so too is man and everything else....”

Some of Aristotle's difficulty would appear to arise
because his is a critical examination of the Pythagorean
metaphysic of visible numbers (Metaphysics Book
XIII), an important issue but not the immediately
relevant one. The context of Eurytos' speculation is
not the making of a living man or of a substance in
Aristotle's interpretation of this passage. What the
Pythagorean meant Aristotle does in fact suggest in
the phrase “to imitate the shape of natural objects.”
The passage is meaningfully interpreted in terms of
the relation of mathematics to art and it is of interest
that in an earlier passage in Metaphysics (1078b 11ff.)
Aristotle himself sets us on the right track. The main
species of beauty, he writes, are orderly arrangement,
proportion, and definiteness and he adds that as orderly
arrangement and definiteness are causes of many things
the mathematical sciences must to some extent treat
of “the cause in the sense of the Beautiful.” Eurytos,
in relating mathematics to art, proceeds by “limiting”
man by the number of pebbles required to define him.
As the Pythagoreans defined numbers as “triangular,”
“oblong,” and “square” in terms of the shape of the
space enclosed by pebbles as “terms,” so Eurytos is
limiting or defining man by the number of pebbles
needed to define him in contrast to a plant. Burnet
quotes Alexander of Aphrodisias to the effect that 250
is the number which defines man, 360 the number
which defines plant (Burnet, pp. 52ff., 90). Within the
context of the theory of art, the point, as Alexander
observes, is that he proceeded “... to fix some of the
counters in the outline... of the man he had imaged
by the number of counters equal in number to the units
which he said defined the man.” (He uses σκῑαγραφία ,
i.e., “drawing.”)

The Pythagorean theorist took the delineation or
form to define the essence of man. Thus, his theory
is integral to the ateleological theory of art as a mathe-
matical form. Its source for the Greeks was Egypt and
one of the principal speculative heirs was Plato. What
Eurytos asserted concerning outline or delineation has
an antecedent in Pliny's writing on the history of art.
Pliny tells us (Pliny, Ch. XXXV) that either Philokles
of Egypt or Cleanthes of Corinth invented painting,
and proceeds to speculate on the possibility that the
art originated “with the outlining of a man's shadow”
(omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta). We also
learn (ibid., XXXV. 151) that Boutades, a potter of
Sikyon, discovered with the help of his daughter how
to model portraits in clay. It is of less consequence
to determine whether or not this is sound history than
to notice how persistently in the history of ideas on
“creativity in art” the “outline,” “form,” or “delinea-


tion” has been taken to be the essential and permanent
factor to be sought in the production of works of art.
It is clear that a complex of reasons dictates this line
of speculation. Boutades' daughter clearly wanted a
permanent reminder of her loved one. Eurytos pre-
sumably searched for precision and accuracy. Plato,
in Philebus, likewise wants accuracy and it is on this
ground that he prefers building as an art to music
(Philebus 56A ff.). What artists believed they could get
by mathematical methods is suggested in the tale told
of two brothers, Theodoros and Telekles. Each, one
in Ephesus, the other in Samos, made one half a figure.
When the two halves were brought together, so the
story runs, they fitted perfectly into a single statue
(Diodorus Siculus, I. 98).

There is no evidence that Eurytos believed that what
the pebbles could define was beautiful; there is every
evidence that Polycleitus' Canon is intended to enable
the artist to produce beauty. Finally, there is no doubt
that Plato believed that mathematical measure was the
instrument most useful for the achievement of beauty,
providing a technique for the attainment of perfected

In line with the strong influence of Pythagorean
philosophy which affected his speculation and in view
of his own defence of the Doryphorus, Plato upheld
what he believed to be the Egyptian practice of fixing
and exhibiting patterns in their temples which “no
painter or artist is allowed to innovate upon... or
to leave the traditional forms and invent new ones.”
“To this day,” he added, “no alteration is allowed in
these arts, or in music at all.... ” And, as a final fillip,
he writes, “their ancient paintings and sculptures are
not a whit better or worse than the work of today,
but are made with just the same skill” (Laws 656D-E;
cf. 799A).

Plato is not content, however, merely to defend what
he interprets to be an Egyptian theory of painting and
sculpture. He directs an argument against contem-
porary innovations in these arts and in doing so pro-
vides at once grounds from which attacks have been
launched against his entire philosophy, points of de-
parture for theories of Greek culture, and bases for
detailed studies of the development of Greek art. These
arguments, all pertinent to Greek and, more particu-
larly, Platonic interpretations of “creativity in art”
center on the interpretation of Plato's dialogue, Sophist
234-36. In this dialogue, Plato divides imitative art
into the art of making “likenesses” and that of “fantas-
tic art or the art of making appearances.” This theory
is applied to massive sculpture and mimetic painting.
Plato asserts that the maker of “fantastic art” is, in
the nature of the case, forced to deceive: if the true
proportions of the upper part of a statue were given,
they “would appear to be out of proportion with the
lower, which is nearer.” It is strange to learn that
sculptors or painters who employ perspective “give up
the truth of their images (εἔδωλα) and make only
the proportions which appear to be beautiful, disre-
garding the real ones.”

Two points should be noted. Plato is in search of
a beauty which is not relative to context or person
(Hippias Major 291D). The practicing artists of Greece,
on the other hand—although they had turned to
Egypt for the canon of proportions and had borrowed
from that country the results of “the technically diffi-
cult achievement of extracting life-size solid images
of men and animals out of quarried blocks of stone,”
a technique evolved “two thousand years before the
classical era... ” (Carpenter, pp. 164ff.)—unlike the
Egyptians, had been bound neither by ritual nor the
power of magic. To put the matter simply, they were
not forced to follow a formula and so were able to
attend to the essential problems of sculpture and
painting, more particularly in the achievement of per-
spective and dynamic power.

Two stories illustrate the issue of Sophist 234ff. In
the first, it is said that Phidias entered a contest to
make a statue of Athena (Overbeck, No. 772). Two
statues were to be made. Both were to be set on high
columns. Alkamenes made one, Phidias the other.
Phidias made his Athena as would one who knew optics
and geometry and “knowing that things that are high
will appear very small.” His Athena was made with
her mouth open, nostrils distended, and the rest in
proportion to the height of the columns. As a result,
the sculptor was in danger of being stoned by the
outraged populace. But when both statues were raised
on their columns, Phidias was seen to have produced
a statue admirable for the excellence of its sculptural
technique, whereas Alkamenes, whose statue had ear-
lier been admired, was subjected to ridicule.

The second story concerns Socrates' visit to the
sculptor Cleiton—probably Polycleitus—and indicates
also how little likely it is for a sculptor to be bound
by categorical formulae. Socrates asks the artist (Xeno-
phon, Memorabilia III. 10. 6) how he produces the
illusion of life in his statues and then proceeds to
answer his own question. The sculptor, he says, faith-
fully represents the form of living things “by accurately
representing the different parts of the body as they
are affected by the pose... the limbs compressed or
outstretched, the muscles taut and loose.” The impli-
cation is that close observation of the variety of poses
possible for the sitter is the basic requirement, rather
than adherence to a strict canon of proportions. A work
of sculpture is produced by its maker taking into ac-
count time, place, and pose. What is also needed, we


learn, is a capacity to represent in his figures “the
activities of the soul.” This is the proper method of

The story of the contest in which Phidias partici-
pated and the account of Socrates' visit to Cleiton
suggest how alien to sculptural practice were Plato's
desires, as expressed in his Sophist. Plato's reasons for
what he wrote are basically philosophical. Still, it is
illuminating to glance briefly at several of the alterna-
tive possibilities which have been put forward to ex-
plain his attitude. We have mentioned Plato's adher-
ence to the canon of proportions, which is coupled
with his distaste for the innovations by Lysippos and
Euphranor, who distorted hair and neck of sculptured
figures (Schuhl, pp. 6ff.). Mary Swindler has argued (p.
336) that Plato was one of the first writers “to criticize
'humbug' in painting” and that his belief that painting
must be an exact copy of the original led him to attack
Agatharchos and Apollodorus, “who had failed to fol-
low in the old, plastic fashion” and had abandoned the
older way of Polygnotus and Apelles for chiaroscuro
and perspective. A not unrelated point of view is
expressed by the philosopher-historian, R. G. Colling-
wood, who argues that Plato was inveighing against
the decadent “amusement-art” which had emerged
with the disappearance of the great artistic tradition
(pp. 97ff.). A radically different interpretation is put
forward by Arnold Hauser, who asserts (I, 99) that in
the passage in the Sophist Plato offers an instance—
consonant with the entire theory of Ideas—of a con-
stant effort to champion the “cultural ideals of the
nobility” (ibid., p. 110). Of the theory of Ideas, the
sociologist writes that it is “the classical philosophic
expression of conservatism, the pattern for all subse-
quent reactionary idealism” (ibid., pp. 110-11), a view
seconded by an anthropologist, V. Gordon Childe (pp.
208ff.), who believes that the origin of the theory is
to be found in the influence upon the individual of
a serf or slave society.

The most that can be granted the sociologist and
the anthropologist is that Athenian society was a con-
ditioning factor in the development of Plato's thought.
Nevertheless, the attention that has been paid to Plato's
regard for the canon of proportions and Egyptian art
is more relevant. Of more importance is Swindler's
suggestion that Plato was attacking “humbug,” a sug-
gestion which verges on the basic problem of Sophist
234 as this affects an interpretation of Plato's notion
of “creativity in art,” a notion which turns on the
distinction between the original inventor (φυτου̂ργος)
and the artisan (δημιουργοσ). These authors, however,
all but ignore the philosophical problems of art pre-
sented to Plato by Heraclitus, the Sophists, and
Socrates. It is not a reactionary society or an “archaiz
ing” theory of art which must be understood, so much
as Plato's effort to establish a theory of ideas or univer-
sals as an objective ground for truth and existence.
What Plato implies concerning perspective and imita-
tion is most fully understood in the light of his objec-
tions of Heraclitus' philosophy of constant change, in
which the emphasis rests on the relations of contraries
and on the consequences of the Sophists' doctrine that
man is the measure of all things. Heraclitus' discovery
of subjectivity finds its most vivid expression in the
remark, “In the same rivers we step and we do not
step. We are and we are not” (Nahm [1964], p. 73,
frag. 81).

Its implications for the philosophy of art are best
expressed (ibid., p. 74, frag. 99) in the judgment that
“The fairest ape is ugly compared with anything of
another kind and the fairest pot is ugly compared with
any maiden.” Few statements in the history of the
philosophy of art express more cogently the implica-
tions of this Heraclitean remark for the doctrine, de
gustibus non est disputandum,
than those of the anon-
ymous Sophist who wrote The Argument on Both Sides,
just as few have ever asserted so baldly the opinion
that the judgment of the fair and the ugly is not only
subjective but unconditionally free as well: “Some say
that the fair is one thing and the ugly another,” writes
the Sophist (Diels, II. 407ff.), “as the name differs....
If anyone bade all men to bring together into a single
place the things that each thought were ugly, and then
bade them take from this gathering the things each
considered fair, nothing would have been left, and all
would have taken every last thing....”

The completely unconditioned creativity and free-
dom of judgment which the Sophists attributed to each
subject are converted in Plato's philosophy of art into
the complete and unconditioned freedom of the imita-
tive artist to make everything. Plato believes that there
is a class of “extraordinarily ingenious persons,” prac-
titioners of “shallow versatility” who not only can
construct all manufactured articles but are able also
to produce “everything that grows out of the ground
... all living things, himself among others; and, in
addition to this, heaven and earth and the gods and
all heavenly bodies, and all beings of the nether world”
(Republic 596C). In his interpretation of the imitative
arts, Plato goes beyond Heraclitus and the Sophists.
In the world of becoming, things “play double”; in
the world of art, the mimetic artist produces a copy
of a copy, an object twice removed from reality (ibid.,
596-97). The imitative artist knows neither truth nor
falsity (Laws 719B-C). What he practices is not in fact
an art: his technique is likened to a mirroring of the
world and since he copies what the artisan makes, his
art has its essence in another.


It is evident that Plato believes that such creative
freedom as the Sophist had evidently judged to be
possible for the subject is for the imitative artist the
worst form of bondage. Such a life is one spent in
search of “images of beauty,” a beauty “clogged with
the pollutions of mortality, and all the colors and
vanities of human life” (Symposium 211E-212A). For
Plato, sound art and genuine classification are attain-
able but the imitative artist cannot achieve them.
However, neither mimetic art nor craft is the sole
product of technē which is possible. Plato's search is
for that art which is master of its own subject matter
and has its own technique. Almost by definition, the
search cannot reach its goal by means of mimetic art,
for this has its subject matter in the product of another
art. Plato seeks the answer to the question by way of
the Idea of beauty. In doing so he informs us concern-
ing human creativity, insofar as creativity is to be
achieved in terms of intelligibility.

It was remarked earlier that Plato's speculation on
beauty transcends art, whereas Aristotle's does not do
so. It should be noted, however, that the arduous ascent
to the Idea of beauty in Plato's philosophy presupposes
experience of works of art and, more significantly, that
the transcendence is directed to the reestablishment
of the theory of technē on grounds of beauty. In order
to achieve this, Plato introduces the nonrational theory
of inspiration. The transcendent experience achieved
in inspiration establishes the absolute and eternal
beauty of mathematical forms. The point is significant
for many reasons, not the least of which is this; for
Plato, in examining “creativity in art,” the transcend-
ence is not for its own sake. It tends to become so,
and in Greek thought the tendency is the more notable
because the explanation of the poet in terms of nonra-
tional experience pervades even the most rational
metaphysical theories (See Delatte). An example is
found in the fragments of Democritus' philosophy
(Diels, II. 145-46, frags. 17 and 18). The Atomist,
builder with Leucippus of the greatest mechanist phi-
losophy of ancient times, believed that without mad-
ness there is no poetry and that what the poet produces
by divine inspiration and enthusiasm is “most beauti-
ful.” Plato's master, the rationalist Socrates, said of
poets that they sing, not by art, but “by power divine”
and do not understand fully what they make (Ion 534).
Plato himself draws the sharp distinction between the
inspired man and the interpreter of his words (Timaeus
71E, 72), and in the Laws (719B-C) makes a radical
statement concerning the poet and the judge of the
poetry, expressing a view which has exerted consid-
erable influence upon the theory of criticism. When
the poet “sits on the tripod of his muse,” he writes,
“he is not in his right mind,—like a fountain, he allows
to flow out freely whatever comes in.... Neither can
he tell whether there is more truth in one thing that
he has said than in another...” (Figure 2).

The state of inspiration in Plato's philosophy is the
end of an ascent to the world of Ideas, the suprasensible
world of universals. “The true order of going... is
to use the beauties of earth as steps along which” a
man “mounts upwards... for the sake of that other
beauty.” He who searches for beauty proceeds from
all fair forms to fair actions to fair notions until he
arrives at absolute beauty and knows what its essence
is (Symposium 211-12). Until beauty is reached, the
procedure is rational, but the experience of beauty
itself is nonrational, “a vision” and “a communion.”
What is revealed in this inspired state is “a single
science which is the science of beauty everywhere”
(Taylor, pp. 230-31).

Plato's Socrates had maintained that there is no
invention in the poet until he is inspired and possessed
(Ion 534C). Plato writes (Phaedrus 245) that only he


who is inspired may enter the temple; the man who
believes he will enter by the help of art, “he and his
poetry will not be admitted.” The importance of this
for an understanding of Plato's theory of “creativity
in art” is evident in his suggestion (Symposium 206ff.)
that men who have experienced the “vision” of beauty
are “creative souls.” They achieve immortality. Their
souls are pregnant with ideas. When inspired, they
practice their creative arts, the processes by means of
which passage from nonbeing to being is brought
about. By implication the experience creates creativity.

Creativity here means freedom, most obviously
freedom from the pollution of mortality. This freedom
is, however, not the sole creative result of the “com-
munion” with beauty. By its means, Plato relates the
particular beauties of the ascent in Symposium to the
“absolutely and eternally beautiful” mathematical
forms of Philebus. It has been argued, on the contrary,
that there is no relation between these two dialogues
(see R. Hackforth, p. 99n.). The argument in Sympo-
shows that a man may proceed by an arduous
ascent from the experience of objects which have their
essence in another to the experience of the Idea of
beauty which has its essence in itself and, unlike
mimetic objects, has no external relations (Symposium
209-10; cf. Timaeus 52C, Republic 438D, Parmenides

This conception of the Idea of beauty leads Plato
to employ inspiration as an epistemological theory
different from that grounded on rational knowledge.
In the latter, we know by means of external relations;
subject and object are separate. In the inspired state,
the self is related to the object by becoming one with
it. From the point of view of “creativity in art,” this
way of knowing beauty is in sharp contrast to that by
which the mimetic artist “knows,” for what the latter
“knows” has its essence in what is twice removed and
therefore a double set of external relations is involved.
In systematic terms, however, the identification of the
self with the Idea is of vital importance.

As has already been suggested, this transcendence
of the world of images is not only of value in itself
but is valuable for the establishment of the grounds
for a technique which will produce objects and events
which are not mimetic, and are not relatively, but
absolutely beautiful. The Idea of beauty provides the
needed connotation in which mathematical objects are
no longer merely spheres and straight lines but are
beautiful. Plato tells us in Phaedrus (250E) that the
beauty which shone bright in the world of forms is
apprehended in this world below through sight, “the
clearest of our senses” and that coming to earth we
find beauty here, too, for it is “the privilege of beauty,
that being the loveliest she is also the most palpable
to sight.” The “vision” of absolute beauty is “com-
munion” with the supreme value, beauty, and is the
presupposition of the experience of the mathematical
forms in Philebus as beautiful forms. Plato holds that
they, like the Idea of beauty, are not relatively beauti-
ful, nor are they imitative of men or animals (Philebus

As we turn to Aristotle, we come to a philosophy
of art in which there is no transcendent beauty and
one in which, for many, there is no theory of “creativ-
ity.” It is certainly clear that creativity in the sense
of origination, i.e., out of nothing, would violate a basic
Aristotelian doctrine, repeated by Lucretius, ex nihilo
nihil fit.
For Aristotle there is no need for such tran-
scendence as Plato describes for the experience of the
Idea of beauty, because the universal is in the thing.
One may accumulate considerable evidence, in fact,
that there is no place in Aristotle's theory of art for
“creativity”: he (or his follower, Theophrastus) reduces
“genius” to suffering by poets and philosophers from
black bile (Problems XXXI). Works of art are to be
explained in terms of man's “rational state of capacity
to make”; art belongs to speculation concerning what
is probable; the process of making a work of art in-
volves the imposition of a form upon matter; this
operation is physically possible because men have
hands with retractable thumbs, the hand being an
instrument for making instruments. Moreover, the
Poetics and the Rhetoric give the impression that
Aristotle proceeds on the assumption that works of art
are intelligible and that criticism is an adequate cor-
relative to art. Aristotle proceeds from the genus, imi-
tation, to its differentiae. The work of art—the tragedy
or music—is a stimulus for various responses, all ex-
plicable in natural terms.

Still, despite this evidence, the matter of “creativity
in art” is not so simply disposed of. Two passages in
Aristotle's writings merit attention. In the Nicoma-
chean Ethics
(VI. 1140a 11), we are told that “All art
is concerned with the realm of coming into being, i.e.,
with contriving and considering how something which
is capable both of being and non-being may come into
existence.” In the Poetics (IV. 1449a 11) we are told
that “Tragedy advanced by slow degrees” from the
dithyramb, “and each new element that showed itself
was in turn developed. Having passed through many
changes it found its natural form, and there stopped.”
In the latter passage, Aristotle is writing of tragedy
as the actualization of the potentiality, the dithyramb,
precisely as “potentially... a statue of Hermes is in
the block of wood” (Metaphysics 1048a 25b 1). But
clearly, while this is in agreement with the theory of
potentiality and actuality, of form and matter, what
Aristotle writes in both passages is not concerned


merely with such natural processes as the development
of the oak from the acorn. The freedom of the artist
intervenes in the case of artistic making, and this fact
suggests an interpretation of Aristotle's writings on art
in terms of something other than an analysis in terms
of technē. There are passages in the Poetics and in
the Rhetoric which are not wholly explicable in terms
other than “creativity” and “novelty.” It is of interest
in this regard that the texts led Sir Arthur Grant (Aris-
totle's Ethics,
Book VI. 4.4) to translate genesis as

The issue is, however, not only a textual one. In part,
it turns on the adequacy or inadequacy of Aristotle's
theory of freedom to account for the facts he adduces.
It is clear that Aristotle's artist is free—to discover,
to select, and to make—and that the conception differs
radically from the Platonic image of the mimetic artist
as a mirror, reflecting everything and anything. For
Aristotle, the origin of art is in the maker. He who
errs willingly and voluntarily is to be preferred to the
maker who errs involuntarily.

One might add other instances all of which underline
the basic fact that the artist discovers the potentialities
of the material and actualizes them in the work of art,
and selects and makes an object or event separate from
himself as the maker. Still it is more important to note
that Aristotle raises issues which suggest not mere
discovery or selection, but rather, that making pro-
duces what is new and that criticism is not adequate
to explain certain results of technical processes.

It is evident, for example, that in its approach to
the problem of ugliness as the artist copes with it,
Aristotle's theory is an enormous advance over Plato's.
(For Plato, see Philebus 48 A ff.) Both the Poetics and
the Rhetoric imply that the power of the artist pro-
duces what is new, i.e., what is pleasant in the imitation
from what is painful or unpleasant in the object imi-
tated. “For,” Aristotle writes, “it is not the object itself
which here gives delight”; also, we may be pleased
“even if the object imitated is not itself pleasant”
(Rhetoric I. 1. 1371b 1; cf. Poetics 1446b 5). So far as
the adequacy or inadequacy of technē to account for
all aspects of works of art and so permit the critic to
analyze these in wholly rational terms, we need cite
here but two instances. Making may proceed “under
the guidance of true reason” but this argument can
account fully neither for the divergence of tragic ex-
cellence from technical skill nor for the production of
metaphor. As for the first, we are told (Poetics XIII.
1453a 26) that Euripides is the most tragic of the poets,
even if his execution, i.e., his technical skill, is inferior
in every other respect. As for the second, “The greatest
thing by far is to have command of metaphor,” but
metaphor alone cannot be imparted by another. It is
“the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors
implies an eye for resemblances” (ibid., XX. 1459a 5).
It is not implied that Euripides errs voluntarily, and
it is argued that metaphor is not teachable and its
making not demonstrable. “Creativity in art” does
enter the Aristotelian theory in both instances, as well
as in the argument concerning the artistic transfor-
mation of ugliness into what is aesthetically acceptable.

It is important to point out that whatever the impli-
cations may be concerning artistic creativity in Aris-
totle's own philosophy of art, these tend to disappear
in the primarily critical and analytical interests of those
who found in his philosophy the principal source for
their own speculation. Jacques Maritain is the authority
for the statement that the Schoolmen wrote no phi-
losophies of art, and one may indicate the post-
Aristotelian tendency to limit the scope of artistic
creativity by following his interpretation of what Saint
Thomas Aquinas argued in this field. We shall then turn
to the tradition of artistic creativity which derives from
Platonism and “the great analogy” of the artist to God.

Thomas defined the beautiful as id quod visum placet
(Summa theologica, i.q.5, a.4 ad 1). “For beauty, three
things are required, integrity or perfection, for what-
soever things are imperfect, by that very fact are ugly;
and due proportion or consonance; and again efful-
gence; so bright colored objects are said to be beauti-
ful” (ibid., i.q.39, a.8). Beauty is the “splendor of form
shining on the proportioned parts of matter” (Opus
de pulchro et bono,
Thomas Aquinas or Albertus
Magnus). God is beautiful and imparts beauty to all
things (De divinis Nominibus, Ch. IV, lessons 5 and
6, Commentary of Thomas). The basis of the teach-
ing, however, is that Art makes a work of art and,
according to Maritain, the artist must content himself
with good workmanship. In discussing abstract art,
Maritain concludes that “to order contemporary art
to exist as abstract art, discarding every condition
determining its existence in the human subject” is to
have it arrogate to itself the absolute self-sufficiency
of God (Art and Scholasticism, p. 90).

In contrast, there are heirs to Greek rationalist the-
ories of technique in which “creativity in art” is more
than implicit, as one discovers in such a work as
Leonardo da Vinci's Trattato della pittura, which has
roots in classical medieval metaphysics and its elabora-
tion in Renaissance theory and practice. But for the
tradition of the genius, of artistic origination, of the
ugly, and, finally for the effort to reconcile technē and
inspiration in terms of the structure of the work of
art in relation to imagination, we must turn to various
interpretations of Platonism in conjunction with ideas
derived from the theology of the Hebraic-Christian


One of the extraordinary contributions to the modern
conception of “creativity in art” was made by the
systematic philosopher, Plotinus (See Nesca Robb). It
was, however, not a systematic philosopher but a great
critic, Longinus (d. 273), who in On the Sublime influ-
enced the eighteenth century as powerfully as did Plato
in his Ion and Symposium, while another nonphiloso-
pher, Philostratus (Life of Apollonius, VI, XIX) pro-
duced a brilliant and illuminating statement concerning
imagination. Longinus abandons the theory that the
work of art is simply a stimulus for a response and
makes evident as well the fact that some aspect of
creativity in the philosophy of art must be attributed
to the man who experiences the product of art.

Briefly, Plotinus rethinks the conception of mimesis.
Not only is the One, from which all emanates, creative
(Enneads I.6.9), but the World Soul, a derivative prin-
ciple, is free and autonomous (ibid., III.8.2). These
explanatory principles are, however, the grounds for
Plotinus' theory that the arts, which produce by imita-
tion of natural objects, are not merely reproductive.
The arts do go back to the Ideas but “much of their
work is all their own.” They are “holders of beauty
and add where nature is lacking.” In consequence,
Phidias did not make Zeus from a model among things
of sense but rather “by apprehending what form Zeus
must take if he chose to become manifest to sight”
(ibid., V.8.1).

Plotinus does retain, however, the notion of art as
imitation. In contrast, his contemporary, Philostratus,
asserts that it is not by imitation but by imagination
that Phidias and Praxiteles work. According to Philo-
stratus, there was no need for these men to mount to
heaven and make a copy of the forms of the gods they
reproduced in their art. It is imagination, “baffled by
nothing,” autonomous, and “marching undismayed to
the goal it has itself laid down,” to which Philostratus
turns in order to explain what artists create. Similarly,
Longinus in one of the great critical writings in the
West, remarks that imagination, affected by the expe-
rience of great or sublime works, “oversteps the bounds
of space.” The man affected by sublimity, “the echo
of a great soul,” is made creative—he feels as though
he himself had produced what stirs him.

To present a summary notion of the main line of
systematic speculation concerning “creativity in art,”
it is of value to turn to the problem of ugliness. As
we have observed, Aristotle's conception of the power
of art includes the point that technē and mimesis may
transform what is ugly into what is pleasing in art.
What occurs to the conception of ugliness once it is
involved in the complications of theologia super-
and, more particularly, in “the great analogy”
of the artist to God, is of value for an understanding
of the emergence of the theory of a genius and his
originality in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Plotinus suggests (Enneads 3.2.4) that we should not
complain that the colors in a painting are not every-
where beautiful. Contrast is necessary. This echoes the
beginning of the Fourth Book of Plato's Republic. But
Plotinus also argues that ugliness is nonexistent. Saint
Augustine, similarly, maintains that ugliness is defi-
ciency of the form of beauty (Contra epistolam
... XX. XLIII, 49). For Augustine, God is
responsible neither for evil nor ugliness. His freedom
to create is unconditioned. The contrast to Plato's
conception of a cosmic artisan is radical. Plato's
Demiurgos (see above) constructs the cosmos after the
model of eternal Ideas which he does not create, and
out of what Paul Shorey calls the “vaguely visioned
preexistent chaos,” which in later speculation is identi-
fied with matter (Timaeus 28B ff.). Augustine, in con-
trast, maintains that God creates the world out of
nothing (Figure 3). He creates matter (Confessions XII,
Ch. viii). The Ideas (ratione) exist “... in the very mind
of the Creator” (De diversis quaestionibus LXXXIII).

The Platonic and the Hebraic-Christian conceptions
of the making and creation of the world provide the
ground for “the great analogy” of the artist to God.
For the Platonists, God's freedom is conditioned by
matter and Ideas. For the followers of Genesis, God's
freedom is unconditioned. Moreover, in the demiurgic
tradition man is a microcosm of the macrocosm and
is a maker (Figure 4). In the Hebraic-Christian tradi-
tion, man is made in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27),
and endowed with free will and the power to create.
Harry Wolfson, discussing the contrasting views of
Plato and Philo in an article, “Philo on Free Will”
(pp. 138-40) makes the central point that both Plato
and Philo believe that the laws of nature were im-
planted by God in the universe as an act of good will.
For Plato, the laws once implanted could never be
upset, whereas Philo believed that “God may change
the order of natural events when it serves some good
purpose.” God is a miracle-worker for Philo and He
endowed men with similar powers of freedom to upset
the laws of nature.

If we return to Augustine's philosophy, we find that
in it the artist's freedom is not equal to God's. Still,
man is creative under the condition that the artist does
not make the material with which he works ( Confes-
XI). It requires only that the analogy be drawn
between the absolutely creative God and the wholly
creative artist, and that this be conjoined with the
ancient conception of the inspired genius in order for
the full potentialities of productive imagination to be
brought to bear on speculation concerning artistic
freedom. The consequences for theories of criticism


and taste become no less important for the conception
of “creativity in art” than do those which concern the
artist and the work of fine art.

What occurred to ancient speculation on “creativity
in art,” once it was conjoined to the theological doc-
trine of “the great analogy” and subsequently was
established as autonomous in the philosophy of art and
aesthetics, can only be sketched here. We need, how-
ever, merely quote from the writings of some of the
many “heralds” of the modern conceptions of genius,
of the critic, and of taste to suggest something of the
modern temper. First, let us turn to George Putten-
ham's restatement in The Arte of English Poesie (p. 3)
for poetry of Augustine's remarks concerning creativity
in terms of man and God. Puttenham writes that the
poet resembles God “who without any trauell to his
diuene imagination, made all the world of nought, nor
also by any paterne or mould as the Platonists with
their Ideas do phantastically suppose.” Second, Edward
Young in Conjectures on Original Composition (p. 49),
argues that the inspired genius is one who “differs from
a good understanding as a magician from a good archi-
tect”; the former “raises his structure by means invis-
ible,” the latter “by the skillful use of common tools.”
Third, Joseph Addison in The Spectator (No. 421) holds
that this “talent of imagination... has something in
it like a creation...,” a view echoed by Coleridge's
note that poetry is “a dim analogue to creation.”
Henry Home, in Elements of Criticism (p. 524), asserts
that imagination is “a sort of creative power” which


can “fabricate ideas... of more surprising events, than
in fact ever existed.” Finally, as regards criticism,
Daniel Webb reproduces Plato's image of the poet in
Laws (719). Webb writes that “... the best critic,
considered merely as such, is but a dependent, a sort
of planet to his original; he does no more than receive
and reflect that light of which the poet is a fountain
...” (Remarks..., p. 63).

Addison and Home—as well as many others includ-
ing Alexander Pope, William Duff, Alexander Gerard,
Francis Hutcheson, and Shaftesbury—contributed to
Kant's conception of aesthetics, but the reconciliation
of the main elements which enter on the conception
of “creativity in art” and which appear in the Critique
of Judgment
results from Kant's own systematization.
Freedom is the core of creativity and taste in this most
powerful of eighteenth-century works. The judgment
of taste is the only free judgment and Kant contrasts
it on this basis to judgments of morality and of pleasure.
Taste is free. It is not, however, productive or creative.
Productivity is the function of the genius who makes
fine art. The genius employs imagination—no value is
placed in Kant's aesthetic theory on imitation—and this
productive faculty of cognition is “very powerful in
creating another nature, as it were, out of the material
that actual nature gives it” (Kant, Sec. 49). Kant calls
the genius' originality “its first property.” It is a natural
talent; genius cannot be taught, nor can the genius
teach another. Yet, in a brilliant interpretation of the
function of the original genius, Kant argues that the
work of fine or free art produced by a genius awakens
another genius “to a feeling of his own originality”
and “stirs him to exercise his art in freedom from the
constraint of rules.” Kant insists that productivity is
not capricious. Genius cannot throw off the constraint
of all rules. Imagination itself must be brought under
the laws of the Understanding (the source of the cate-
gories, such as causality, relation, necessity, etc.).

Kant's interpretation of creativity encounters two
primary obstacles. He follows David Hume in dismis-
sing criticism and proceeds to argue the point on
grounds that art is conceptual, mediated, and authori-
tative. The “taste” that is the core of Kant's aesthetic
theory is immediate judgment and direct experience.
The second obstacle is presented by the fact that some
artistic representations “cannot be completely com-
passed and made intelligible by language.” Clearly, fine
art, the product of genius, is “ineffable” in some degree
and, therefore, beyond intelligibility.

In part, one of the most radical results of Kantian
speculation is the emergence over a century later of
a theory of sheer creativity in art. This is the product
of Benedetto Croce's speculation on language and art,
most fully expressed in his Aesthetic as Science of
and elaborated in R. G. Collingwood's The
Principles of Art.
For Croce, criticism is nonaesthetic
classification. It does not express the work of art, which
is an image or intuition without external relations.
Technique as the means of “externalizing” is likewise
denied relevance to aesthetic: the work of art, the
intuition, the image is completely expressed without
such “externalization” as is involved in artistic
“making.” Moreover, the artist in creating, is inspired.
He need have recourse neither to means nor ends.
What the artist does is to express. The creativity of
the artist is an act of complete imagination. Art is “free
inspiration.” What is imagined is an individual, neither
to be compared nor contrasted to other individuals.

In Croce's theory of art as expression, the suggestion
made by Kant that taste is free but not productive is
denied. Genius and taste are identical in creativity
(Croce, ibid., pp. 120ff., and J. E. Spingarn, p. 42). It
is clearly on this issue that the theory of sheer creativity
in Expressionism encounters a serious problem. If the
man of taste may re-create the expression the genius
creates, some externalized object of art must serve as
the starting point for the experience which, for Croce,
ends in the establishment for the man of taste of the
same state of mind as that expressed by the artist.

Nietzsche offered the soundest beginning to a recon-
ciliation of creativity in art and in criticism. “Valuing
is creating...” Thus Spake Zarathustra I. XI). There
is criticism which is concerned solely with the accurate
description of the facts of works of art—the symbols,
media, forms, and the feelings they are presumably
intended to evoke. But there is also criticism which
is “creative,” not only in the sense that some critics
have produced works of criticism which are also works
of fine art but have performed as well the highest
function of criticism: to create and to apply the aes-
thetic values of the tragic, the comic, the sublime, the
beautiful, and the ugly.


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[See also Analogy; Art and Play; Beauty; Creation in
Religion; Expressionism;
Genius; God; Mimesis; Platonism;
Pythagorean Harmony of the Universe.]