THIS little book contains some pithy observations and some statements calculated to shock students into seriousness, but at its most important point it is intellectually thin. Mr. Butler is at his best when he is being pragmatic—he can tell you the most fruitful way to listen to a tutor or a critic and at this level one can concur in much that he says, but his attempts to provide a theoretical premise are not convincing.

Although the word “creative” is central to what he discusses he nowhere attempts to define it, leaving it to emerge by implication as something akin to “egregious.” For instance, he avoids the possibility that creative development might be available to everyone and prefers to believe that ninety per cent of present art students could be eliminated and sent back to Squaresville without a significant cultural loss (the money now spent on them to be used for the provision of elaborate facilities for the ten per cent who survive the purge: shades of the Summerson Committee).

This is not the only position into which Mr. Butler has been seduced. Whilst he realizes that in some way creativity is related to the autonomy of the individual, he asserts this in negative fashion by referring to individuals “out of balance with their environment,” as if he were really commending anomie, and goes on to suggest that artists are emotionally abnormal, like “arrested adolescents”—implying that the rest of society is composed of well-adjusted, “contented animals”—a distortion which is necessary, I suppose, if you are going to weed out ninety per cent of present art students without feeling guilty about it: where is the harm, if they are contented animals?

Now in spite of the melancholia, black bile and so forth related to artists since classical times, the whole question of the necessary alienation of the artist is problematic; its logical extreme is psychosis; it scarcely exists before the 18th Century; it is really a distortion of Rousseau adopted by the Romantics, boosted by misinterpretations of Freud, popularized by Edmund Wilson, catalogued by Mario Pratz and dismissed by Lionel Trilling.

The trouble is that it is not a harmless fallacy. The idea that artists are unbalanced (where others impliedly are not) creates a cordon sanitaire around them and makes them so much less effectual: a performer with fool’s license who can be watched, even with interest, but never taken seriously. On the other hand it reinforces ivory tower attitudes among artists themselves.

The truth is other than Mr. Butler would have it, I suspect. We are all in tension with society. We all suffer psychological pain, and the more neurotic conflict there is in us the more our mental energy is sapped. Painters are neurotic, haunted things to the same extent as historians or bus drivers and their work is often flawed because of it—but they are artists by virtue of their love affair with their medium (so are bus drivers, and I hope whoever writes books on creative bus driving will make this point more readily than Mr. Butler).

Six years of research into creativity, at the University of California Institute of Personality Assessment, support the view that people assessed as creative are not necessarily unconventional or non-conformist but are simply independent. The author’s cavalier neglect to refer to this major investigation of his very topic is a sad comment on the standards that exist in art education in England today.

Of course, the artist can live in a fantasy of alienation and this has become mandatory in too many art schools, where quasi-bohemian attitudes and cult narcissism linger on. That, however, is simply an eddy in the sluggish social current of the century and not a vital element of creativity. Artists are those who make central to their existence the playing of a game. A game to be sure in which they elaborate their own rules, and in which their shadow on the wall can hit back; but a game nevertheless, the scope of which will depend on the medium involved and the workaday service they have to contribute to the community as, say, decorator, mystic, entertainer, social mirror or public conscience.

Mr. Butler however rejects the play factor early on, without any clear reason: “Notwithstanding the essential normality of play in the human child it seems to me … that the urgency of creative desire springs from those out of balance with their environment.”

Yet there is evidence, not only from the great apes, that painting particularly attracts us from its very nature quite besides any neurotic spur. Desmond Morris’ principle of self-rewarding activity and Rhoda Kellogg’s work give us less reason than ever to suspend the idea of Homo Ludens. M.I.T. has even institutionalized the play theory in its Creative Laboratory, where “Inter-galactic Traders Inc.” designs fabulous items for the mythical planet Arcturus.

Which is not to say that some artists may not carry heavy burdens, for of course their game may lead to tensions, especially with their social environment. But these are burdens willed in some way after the event. As Jung says, “it is not Goethe who creates Faust but Faust who creates Goethe.”

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,” but that is not why they are great wits. Dryden and the Augustans took for granted that this was understood. But the Romantics, it seems, changed all that. On the other hand Romanticism gave us Blake’s idea of the poetic genius in everyone: the idea that all that human beings do is capable of being informed by the poetic faculty. Mr. Butler’s failure to note that we can improve creativity by removing pathological anxiety is a serious omission; but the disservice he does to art education by making it exclusive is little short of a crime, hatched, one might hope, in the last ivory tower in Europe.