Images: Are Images Creative?

Leo Segedin   |   March 9, 2016 |   Print this essay


We take for granted the practical applications of words. We also recognize that images have practical applications. We know that they are used to illustrate mathematical and scientific concepts, plan industrial constructions, make cartoons, graphs, etc. Also, they are a fundamental part of contemporary entertainment and advertizing media. But, most often, they have been identified with the ‘impractical’, ‘creative’ arts because, historically, paintings have been a primary means of artistic expression. During the last several years, however, the making of any kind of image, impractical or not, has come to be synonymous with ‘creativity’. For example, the January, 2016 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine describes 35,000 year old cave paintings recently discovered in Indonesia as the first signs of human creativity only on the basis that they are images. A few years ago, such images might have been called ‘The Origins of Art’, or’, even more objectively, ‘The Beginning of Cave Painting’.

The idea that image making is a creative process, however, is a recent cultural development. 2,000 years ago, such an idea would have been inconceivable. At that time, there was no connection between image making, Art, and creativity. Over the years, such ideas have had different histories and have played different roles in society. Image making originally was a craft, its techniques following traditional rules. Image making as ‘Art’ only goes back to the 18th century. Creativity originally was a divine activity, possible only by God who could make something out of nothing. It was not identified with human image making until the Renaissance. The word ‘creativity’ itself was applied to the visual arts in the 18th century only after ‘fine art’ became separated from the crafts, but, as with Plato, the idea that the general public should be creative would have been discouraged as destructive to the status quo. The idea did not become acceptable and popular in the U.S. until after WW2. It is now a fundamental approach, not only in art, but also in the sciences, advertising, entertainment and even industry. The first scientific studies of creativity as a psychological process were in 1950. Time magazine recently published the results of a poll that said that 94% of Americans valued creativity above intelligence, compassion, humor, ambition or beauty. We assume that by creativity, Time meant a personality characteristic, that people wanted to be creative, but the word ‘creativity’ can also mean the process of making something original and the product of such a process. When applied to image making, the word is so vague that, according to some psychologists, while image making itself is an objective, technical process, there are perhaps one hundred definitions of creativity.

Both words and images can describe the perceptual world. We know and take for granted their descriptive values because such descriptions can be verified by the perceptions of others. But images project subjective experiences more powerfully than words and although words can describe our responses to such experiences, images can’t. Although we respond to images more intently than to words, their meanings are far more ambiguous. In that they cannot say what they mean, if the intention of their maker is unknown, they can mean whatever is projected into them. As a result, societies have used them for very different functions. This paper is a consideration of some of these functions and their social context.


We have no knowledge of the function of images in Paleolithic caves. We do know that during Classical times, the image maker was an artisan, often a slave, who had no more status than shoemakers, stonemasons and alchemists. The notion that an image they made could be original or the product of a particular kind of personality would have been inconceivable to the ancient Greeks. Although there is some literature on the odd behavior of Classical image makers, their personality was not considered relevant to their work. Art meant skill, not only in painting and sculpture, but also, in such activities as diverse as medicine and horse breaking. Painters, such as Apelles and Zeuxis may have been famous for their representational skills, but not their creativity. Apelles designed the image of Alexander that appeared on Macedonian coins, but so did many other anonymous image makers. Classical image makers functioned in the same way as the furniture makers at Smythe’s.

During the medieval period in Europe, painters and sculptors were still workers who performed practical functions, but they had joined with cloth makers, shoemakers, apothecaries and masons to form guilds that were able to gain control of the production, standards, and marketing of the particular crafts. Guilds established values. An image maker was generally an anonymous, skilled craftsman; what we would now call a ‘work of art’ was only the product of skilled work. A ‘masterpiece’ was a work he produced to prove to the guild that he was qualified to belong. Although it may have been admired for its craftsmanship, an art object had no special significance other than its usefulness. A craftsman still worked with his hands, but he was now a respected member of his community.

Paintings and sculptures in medieval churches and cathedrals were directed toward a general, illiterate public. They communicated religious dogma and were intended to provoke spiritual experiences during worship. They idolized saints, angels, even God. Sometimes, they were even accused of substituting for them in religious rituals. They were treated as a channel to the divine. They were made of valuable materials – gold, silver, lapis lazuli – to indicate reverence for the subject of the image. Images were considered to be more powerful and arousing and easier to remember than words in bolstering religious faith. By destroying such images, the religion was symbolically destroyed. Christian missionaries destroyed African images; Catholics destroyed pagan, Roman images; Protestants destroyed religious images in Catholic churches.

Although, during the Renaissance, image making was still a craft, still supported by guilds, but, in this more commercial environment, images glorified wealthy, powerful money makers. Bankers and merchants joined popes and bishops as patrons of these arts. These patrons were learned; they supported poets, philosophers, mathematicians and scholars. As a result of their increasing curiosity about the physical world, image making became a process of independent inquiry about nature. However, such thinking involved only the discovery of what already existed, not the creation of something new. Although painters still worked with their hands, they were admitted to this elite, intellectual group because they demonstrated that painting involved theoretical knowledge. Painters became artists who had to know mathematics, science, poetry, history and philosophy.

During this period, the painter’s status rose from craftsman to gentleman. No longer anonymous, his name attached to an image gave it an identity and value and owning them was a sign of high status. Patrons competed to hire them to produce paintings for their palaces, churches and other public buildings. Everyone today knows the names of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Giorgio Vasari, toward the end of the Renaissance, was the first writer to reflect the increasing status of the artist by commenting on the artist’s personality. To distinguish him from the craftsman, artists became identified as special, unique personalities. They were now described as geniuses, but, like poets, they were considered to be alienated, eccentric, depressed and frustrated. Artists were inspired, but inspiration ‘became a form of madness, a madness directly expressed in the artists’ unhappy and eccentric lives.’ This perception became the Romantic myth of the suffering, Bohemian artist in the 19th century.

By the end of the 16th century, painting was no longer primarily a matter of natural discovery: creativity was no longer limited to the work of God. Humans could be creative too. Leonardo claimed that that he employs "shapes that do not exist in nature" and Michelangelo, that the artist realizes his vision rather than imitating nature. Also, Paolo Veronese claimed that that ‘painters avail themselves of the same liberties as do poets and madmen’. But they were still not referred to as being ‘creative’. The first to apply the word "creativity" to the arts was the 17th–century Polish poet,ÊMaciej Kazimierz SarbiewskiÊÑ and he applied it only to poetry. Painting was not included because poets were assumed to be more spiritual than painters. Poets worked with their heads; painters worked with their hands. They wrote with immaterial words, while painters worked with material paint. Thus the making of painting, in spite of its philosophical pretentions, was still considered a craft requiring manual labor.


By the end of the 18th century, artists had lost most of their political patronage. Although painted images maintained their status as significant objects, they no longer served high, political functions. Artists were now independent. They were high status people who produced these significant images, but they had few patrons to pay for them. As a result, over the next several years, in order to maintain their status, images were determined to be valuable for their own sake, primarily as the products of these famous artists. Artists became identified by their personal styles. Everything about his style, even the brushstrokes he used to apply his paint, became a sign of his identity. Although the term, creativity, was not used to describe their product, the grounds for such definitions were set for it.

Artists and especially British art collectors and writers now rationalized image making’s continued existence by giving it philosophical, economic and social values. Because images no longer had recognizable, practical functions, a vast literature justifying its independent existence developed. Scholarly books and journals theorized about what their intrinsic values might be. A cultural category for such images, called ' Fine Art,’ in which imagesÊhad such values, developed. These images, called ‘works of art’, were made out of special, art materials – especially oil paint and canvas. They were identified by their supposedly ineffable, aesthetic qualities, which were to be contemplated rather than utilized. Their uselessness distinguished them from social function, applied or commercial art, entertainment and the popular arts. By the 19th century, not only was art making a creative process; it alone was. We still talk about the ‘art of war’ or the art of love or medicine with the sense that there is an aura of superiority involved in such activities. When we say that any product was ‘a work of art’ or that any performer was an ’artist’, we now mean that what we are dealing with is superior to functional craft. The perception of the qualities of such works of art required good taste. It was a sign of sophistication and required special education, available only to the ‘cultured’, upper classes.

For all practical purposes, Art soon functioned as an elitist, social institution. Its participants were artists, dealers, collectors, teachers and critics who performed their specific functions in studios, galleries, art schools, publications and museums. Because of its presumed intellectual and social values, it became a subject in universities where words describing the meanings of works of art sometimes became more important that the works themselves. The ancient philosophy called ‘aesthetics’, now applied to painting, explained responses to art images. This resulted in unique, ambiguous vocabularies about taste, beauty and pleasure which were often unintelligible to the uninitiated. Art critics and historians wrote about the artist’s style, his biography, psychology and philosophy. By the end of the 19th century, advanced degrees were being given in art history and aesthetics.

Paintings became objects with cultural significance and economic value created only by its reputation in this category. The name and fame of the artist made it valuable. Anything made, even owned by such artists had value. Authenticity became criteria. ‘Originality’ meant that it was by an identifiable, usually dead ‘old master’, not that it necessarily had any particular artistic quality. Any image proved to be by such artists had become extremely valuable, indistinguishable copies, far less so. As a demand for such objects grew, forging became a lucrative business. Art historians, like Bernard Berenson, became rich and famous by authenticating attributions of masterpieces for wealthy American collectors. Millions of dollars were at stake. When the painting, ‘Man in a Golden Helmet’, attributed to Rembrandt, was de–attributed in 1985, its value fell from $8 million to $377 thousand. Also, since the number of paintings attributed to Rembrandt has ranged from 48 to 988, it is obvious that the issue of ‘originality’ is of more than academic interest. Rather than quality determining identity; identity determined quality. Rembrandt’s ‘unique,’ artistic qualities disappeared from the painting when it was de–attributed.

The way of evaluating art objects had changed accordingly. Images had become precious objects. Traditionally, until the Renaissance, the price of a an art object was assessed by its size, the number of figures and the preciousness of the materials employed, but, as it became an indications of the personal taste and status of the nouveau riche, their demand increased and their prices skyrocketed. As commodities, the demand for them among the extremely wealthy became insatiable. As a result, they also became important as major, economic investments. Auction houses and art dealers determined their prices. In the 1950s, some art critics had wondered if Pollock’s paintings would be the first to sell for $1,000,000. In 2006, the movie mogul, David Geffen, bought his ‘No.5, 1948’ for $140,000,000. A few years later, Picasso’s, Les Femmes d’Alger, was bought by the former prime minister of Qatar for $179.3 million. Since then, a Rothko went for $186 million and a Cezanne for between $250 and $300 million. And last year, a Gauguin sold for $300 million. The asking price at an auction of a recent print from an edition of 50 identified as by a living artist, Damien Hirst, of elements from a Mickey Mouse cartoon was $130,000, graffiti printed on paper by Keith Haring, $90,000.

The world's most famous paintings, especially old master works done before 1803, are generally owned or held atÊmuseums, for viewing by patrons. The museums very rarely sell them, and as such, they are quite literally priceless. Guinness World Records lists the "Mona Lisa" as having the highest insurance value for a painting in history. On permanent display at The Louvre museum in Paris, the "Mona Lisa" was assessed at $100 million on December 14, 1962. Taking inflation into account, the 1962 value would be around $782 million in 2015.’ Today, the value of the "Mona Lisa" is said to be more than $1 billion, although many experts contend that this work of art is invaluable.’

But although historical painting had high cultural status, painters in universities did not. Artists there still had the status of craftsmen. Art skills were taught in universities as supplements to architecture and engineering. After World War II, however, artists went to university art schools on the GI Bill and when they graduated, the most available means of employment was teaching in the universities. In that academic environment, their status rose, reflecting both the theoretical, speculative attitudes of the university and the cultural values of the outside artworld. Today most professional artists have university degrees. The first MFAs were given in the 1950s. We can almost say that American art after the 1960s was a product of university art departments.


By the 19th century, the artist may have been independent, but he had lost his primary source of income. Without dependable patronage, he was free to express himself and criticize society, but unless he had other income, he had to sell his product in order to survive. Thus, his works also became a commodity and image making became a commercial enterprise. Art dealers and galleries sold their products; art critics, writing reviews in newspapers and magazines, popularized them. In doing so, they also evaluated them and thus, along with auction houses, determined their economic value. Artists competed in the art market for buyers and the buyer’s taste became a consideration. Should the artist satisfy his own goals or the taste of a potential customer?

By the end of the 19th century, in a commercial environment in which sales were iffy and psychology, a dominant intellectual interest, artists began to question the underlying significance of what they were producing. They turned inward. As the artist’s concerns went from representing nature to his inner, irrational world, his work became increasingly creative and, as a result, increasingly distorted natural appearances. Painting went from Impressionism to Expressionism to Surrealism. Traditional criteria based on appearances, disappeared. Artists soon were asking, ‘Does a painting really require any particular subject matter? Does emotional expression need any subject matter at all? By the middle of the 20th century, they were asking, what was a painting anyway? Does it need paint and canvas? Does it need to be rectangular or hang on a wall? Artists established their identities by introducing and exploring such ideas and the art media publicized what they did. Generally speaking, these artists initially did not produce for a market, but a market soon developed for their work.

As a result of the end of World War II, a sense of starting over contributed to this self exploration. This was evident, not only in the artworld, but especially in the American educational system. Since old ways were considered restrictive; new ways had to be employed to enable children to realize their full potentialities. Creativity became the mantra of educational theory. Art, which had been previously been identified with upper class, Fine Art, had been peripheral in elementary school curricula. Now it became good for everybody. ‘The uniqueness of the individual, the search for new truth, the freedom from restraints that have characterized art in the pastÉwas emphasized in art education. Exploration of materials replaced drawing skills as a procedure. The process of creating replaced the product. Children were encouraged to express themselves and use their imagination, rather than develop art skills. As a result, everything they made was rewarded. No judgments were made. Image making became catharsis, useful for psychological analysis and as therapy. Although such an approach had many positive outcomes, one result is that today, everyone is considered potentially creative; everything is potentially art; anyone can be an artist. Another result is what was seen in the artworld in the last half of the 20th century.

In the 1960s, a reaction to the assumed preciousness of ‘works of fine art’ in museums set in. For a short time, a time of economic affluence, the artworld turned on itself and attacked the values of its own presumptions, primarily its dependence on museums and galleries. By the 1980s, Art had become intellectualized. Questions about the nature of art became more important than any particular product. Making art became a philosophical enterprise rather than a product of studio skill. The appearance and aesthetic aspect of art objects was irrelevant. Art was about itself, rather than about nature, society or the mind of the artist. The art object soon disappeared entirely. Art became the words that were said about it. It became ‘idea’, or even ‘art as idea as idea’. Robert Irwin exhibited an empty room, cigarette butts were exhibited on the floor of a gallery. The body of the artist was manipulated and mutilated, once even to the death of the artist. Chris Burden was photographed biting himself, shooting himself; Vito Acconci masturbated in a gallery. Such actions existed only as they were recorded. Images became photographic documentation of such events, usually blown to monumental size and exhibited in museums. The quality of the photograph was irrelevant; their subject was all that mattered. If creativity is originality and imagination, then this is creativity gone amok. Without the publicity and a bull market to pay for it, it would not have existed. When the money disappeared, so did this art.

During the last several years, painting has returned, but no longer plays the dominant role it once played in the artworld. Without such 20th century notions as ‘progress’ or ‘breakthroughs’, it has no dominant direction, style or underlying concept. As such, it no longer participates in art history. But although images are still considered expressions of the artist, a painting remains a commodity to be seen in galleries and museums. If an artist has access to this world, he can compete with other artists for gallery representation, critical reviews and collectors’ taste. There are close to 1.4 million creative artists in this country today, over 200 art galleries in Chicago and 500 galleries in New York. A recent report puts the number of art dealers and galleries in the US at about 6,500. They have combined annual revenue of approximately $8 Billion.


Even the idea that a painting is the creation of an individual artist can be challenged. Although we assume creative artists work in private and a painting, the product of their individual craft, the personal creativity of successful artists is often exaggerated. Many famous artists had their assistants. Rubens had his bottega, his shop where assistants painted the trees and skies while he painted the luscious nudes. More recently, Warhol had his ‘factory’. Jeff Koons has 150 assistants. He has said that if he worked himself, he could produce only one a year. In June 2013, the world’s wealthiest living artist, Damien Hirst, or rather his company, revealed that the artist had produced 1,365 spot paintings. Of these, only a handful were painted by Hirst himself, with the artist having told British newspaper The Guardian: “I couldn’t be fucking arsed to do it”. Thus works by such artists are not creative in that they are mass produced by others. A collector does not buy a particular work because he appreciates its unique, artistic qualities: he buys a Warhol, a Koons or a Hirst.

But, generally speaking, what makes an image an artwork today is still its place in the artworld. It is not an observable property of the image itself. The intension of the artist and the perception of the museum curator who exhibits it determine its identification. Any object or act, designed or selected by the artist and museum curator, whatever its history, original function or meaning, whatever its quality, placed in art museum or gallery, becomes a ’work of art’ and attains its significance as art. Whether it is creative or not is a matter of perception.


The use of terms like original, creative and expressive has had many dire effects on our conception of art. At best, such terms are, or should be, descriptive. Like “rational” and “logical”, they should be seen as processes describing ways of working. They do not establish the value of the results of such processes and should be used judgmentally only in appropriate contexts. Their indiscriminate use has destroyed our sense of quality. Many original, creative and expressive art objects are also failures, second rate and ugly.

Thus, the questions of whether an image is creative, whether it is the product of a creative process or whether the artist who made it is creative, is problematic and cannot be answered with any kind of objectivity. Because they are social and historical constructs rather than observable phenomena, their reality depends on their definition and our definitions are the relics of past, often dated, inconsistent or contradictory social contexts. Such contexts no longer exist, but their language does. There will always be such questions; the answers keep art professors busy.

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