Daniel J. Boorstin tells history of human creativity in 'Creators'

October 04, 1992|By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt | Christopher Lehmann-Haupt,New York Times News Service

THE CREATORS.

Daniel J. Boorstin.

Random House.

811 pages. $30. As is often the case with the huge and entertaining histories written by Daniel J. Boorstin, the former librarian of Congress, the organization of his latest work, "The Creators," tells you as much about his approach as its contents do.

Intended to do for the arts what his previous book, "The Discoverers," did for human knowledge, "The Creators" begins by considering the source of human creativity in the births of the world's religions.

This leads Mr. Boorstin to conclude that the concept of human beings as potential creators arose out of "the idea of an original Creation by a single all-powerful Creator" that came to the West through Moses, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets.

By contrast, he argues, such other religions as Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism did not depend strongly on creation myths, nor did they picture humans in the image of their creators.

Such a premise lends a decidedly Western cast to Mr. Boorstin's history, and it is no surprise that there are only two chapters on Oriental art and that pre-Columbian art and the arts of sub-Saharan Africa, for two examples, never come into the picture.

The remaining 700 pages of the volume are divided into sections called "Creator Man," "Re-Creating the World" and "Creating the Self." They take us, predictably enough, from Stonehenge to Picasso, or from monolithic artifacts of religious worship to the fragmented view of reality that led to Cubism.

That the history of human creativity in the West has been a steadily inward-turning process is hardly a revelation, but as an overview it lends useful perspective to Mr. Boorstin's story.

He is always preoccupied with origins. He calls special attention, for instance, to the historical moment in ancient Greece when the spectator stepped outside the shared communal experience Dionysian ritual and made it possible for drama to begin.

Centuries later in his text, he explores the birth of Gregorian chant to show on the one hand where choral music and ultimately opera originated, and on the other hand where instrumental music and eventually the symphonic orchestra came from. Such developments often did not occur spontaneously.

The early Christian Church opposed the artistic rendering of holy images, an attitude that culminated in the eighth-century

movement in the Eastern church known as iconoclasm. Had it prevailed, what might the effect have been on the Italian Renaissance?

Another potential hindrance was Plato's opposition to linear perspective; he held that honest art should represent forms in their true relative size, regardless of how far away from the observer they might be. He particularly admired Egyptian art.

Given the broad sweep of his text, Mr. Boorstin brings into particularly sharp focus certain revolutionary developments that are not always so apparent through hindsight.

It becomes clearer, for instance, why the French Impressionists' decision to move out of doors and paint objects in changing light was such a radical departure from what had gone before.

Or why Wordsworth and Coleridge changed the course of poetry by writing about ordinary people and everyday events in their 1798 sampler of new poems called "Lyrical Ballads."

Or how remarkably late in the history of literature it happened that James Boswell produced in his portrait of Samuel Johnson the first true biography.

Of course, the breathtaking sweep of his narrative produces a sense of inevitability that sometimes distorts what the individual creators were trying to achieve. Mr. Boorstin tries to offset this by making the individual artists the measures of his history and concentrating on their lives.

This, too, has its disadvantages. A lot gets left out: there are no Roman comic playwrights, no medieval passion plays, no books by Thomas Mann, no poets after T.S. Eliot, no American writers after Ezra Pound.

And the transitions from the general to the particular sometimes produce clunky prose: "By creating in words patterns of experience, man found some escape from his brief and changeful years."

Still, that "The Creators" is finally a vast collection of biographies is what gives it much of its considerable appeal.

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