Explore, Experiment, Discover


A few years ago, I read the book Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. There really aren’t enough words to describe what that book did to my thinking about modern history. It was scandalous, salacious, shocking, sensational, and, most importantly, sentiment-shifting. The fact that people regularly put themselves at the mercy of intellectuals who, though possessing a clearly high level of intelligence, are really quite nasty, immoral, and dislikeable people says a lot about the modern world. I think the book From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe did a great job of supplementing that lesson with the arrogance of the artistic and specifically the architectural community. But, alas! Not all were satisfied. “Ad hominem!” the critics shouted, as if a man’s character has nothing to do with whether we might want to trust our society to his masterful instruction. So Paul Johnson set out to write a new book which would detail, not the failings and shortcomings of bad men, but the achievements and prolific accomplishments of great men. This book he called Creators.

I wasn’t sure if I would like Creators as much as Intellectuals. It didn’t seem to be as much of a paradigm shifting book, and, of course, it lacked the prurient hook of famous men behaving badly. However, as it turned out, I enjoyed Creators much more than Intellectuals. It is true that this book isn’t going to change your outlook on life. However, the inspiration it presents in a series of unconventional mini-bios of great creators is much more personally edifying than hearing about Victor Gollancz and his unfortunate obsession with his…um…member.

So, beginning with Chaucer and continuing on through Dürer, Shakespeare, Bach, Turner, Austen, and Twain to name a few, Johnson investigates just what it is in each of these Creators’ lives that make them so prolific and so enduring. Along the way, there were a number of people I hadn’t heard of: Hokusai, who practically invented the art of Japanese landscape painting, A.W.N. Pugin and Viollet-le-Duc who led the neo-Gothic architectural movement in England and France respectively, Balenciaga who was a famous dressmaker throughout the 20th century.

One thing that I found fascinating is that in most chapters, Johnson takes two great creators, oftentimes contemporaries, and compares their legacies, showing how their unique abilities, characters, and circumstances shaped their work. In this, I’m not certain if he was intending to imitate Plutarch, but the effect if of a modern Lives giving us a list of things to imitate and avoid. The only person Johnson rips apart in this book is Picasso whom he compares to Walt Disney. Disney, Johnson concludes, is a more enduring and influential artist because Disney wished to take the nature he saw around him and transform it into art, whereas Picasso wanted to move away from nature and portray only what he saw inside his head (a trait shared by most modern artists who are unknown outside of university art departments).

In conclusion Creators is a great series of mini-biographies for those interested in the prolific composers, artists, writers, and architects. Even if you’re not interested in all the specific topics the book presents, you will enjoy the personal touches and you’ll learn a good deal of fun information on the way. I, for example, didn’t think I would enjoy the chapter on Dior and Balenciaga, as I have about zero interest in fashion and dressmaking. However, I found myself fascinated and sucked into the fashion world of Paris nonetheless and hearing Johnson and learning what a conniving and horrible person Coco Chanel was. Creators has something to fit every taste and it creates a good counterpoint to Intellectuals, much the same way Chesterton’s Heretics is a perfect balance to his Orthodoxy.

4/5 stars