Being “Creative”

The Dynamics of Creation

by Anthony Storr
Atheneum, 248 pp., $7.95

Psychoanalysts writing on creativity have commonly tried to answer two different questions, not always distinguishing between them. The first concerns the function that creative work fulfills for a given person, or type of person, and here the concepts and materials of psychoanalysis and psychopathology have undoubtedly been useful. The other question is how it comes about that creative work, especially in the arts, is one of the human possibilities, a characteristic activity of the species.

In handling this latter problem the psychotherapist has had no advantage over the psychologist, the ethologist, or perhaps even the philosopher. Dr. Storr rightly rejects the Freudian theory of art as sublimation, which puts it on a par with neurotic symptoms. Art certainly derives from primitive roots, as all our activities must, but it is not a distorted and disguised development that loses its force when its psychological history is disclosed. Dr. Storr prefers a biological justification of art, in essentials keeping close to the nineteenth-century view of Karl Groos (without, however, mentioning him), though he supplements this view with references to the unconscious. But like Groos he fails to show explicitly how developed art (as distinct from primitive cave paintings) can at all contribute to “biological success” defined in any simple Darwinian terms.

It seems just as plausible to argue the converse: that biological success, a good margin between us and extinction, is a condition of creative work. The Eskimos had sufficient margin to do some admirable carving, but China and the Mediterranean regions had greater margins, and could develop art further; and though favorable physical conditions are not the whole story (otherwise Oceania might have been a still greater center of art) there is little supporting evidence for the case that art contributes to biological survival.

“Biologically adaptive” is often the latter day puritan’s synonym for “godly.” Nowadays, when we give almost as much anxious attention to leisure as to work, it might seem enough that people find intense satisfaction in creating and enjoying works of art. But in this respect, masturbatory fantasies might do equally well, and Dr. Storr is incisive in dismissing them and the pornography that feeds them. However elaborate these fantasies become, they come back to the repetitive simplicities of sexuality:

The distaste or contempt with which various peoples throughout the world regard masturbation is not necessarily based upon a puritanical condemnation of sexual pleasure, but rather upon a half-formulated recognition that it is a childish way of short-circuiting and discharging impulses which could be integrated in a creative way if they were not so dissipated.

What has to be explained about the arts is our satisfaction not only in the achieved harmony of a particular work, the momentary point of rest, but also in the unending development that makes us ready, as artist or audience, for the next step, the advance in complexity or subtlety, or even accurate simplification, which only the preceding step makes possible. Dr. Storr recognizes the fact, but his theoretical account…

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