Used too often when 'talented' or 'clever' is meant

I was appalled the other day to hear someone described as a creative burglar. Meaning, I assume, that he was particularly imaginative and clever at what he did.

Now that is a contradiction in terms, not unlike describing someone as lovingly evil, or viciously good. Or even as a life-enhancing destroyer. The word ''creative,'' after all, has a precise meaning - regardless of how incorrectly we may apply it.

We talk of creative advertising, banking, and merchandising. And we describe fashion models, commercial artists, sign painters, public relations experts, journalists, and even disc jockeys as creative individuals.

Anything and everything, in other words, that demands a little imagination, or calls for a bit of inventiveness, is now thought of as creative. The fact of the matter is that ''creative'' is defined by the dictionary as ''having the power to create.'' And ''create,'' as ''to originate, to bring into being from nothing, to cause to exist.''

A creative person, in other words, can replace nothing with something, give life to inanimate things, and instill order into chaos. He is life-oriented and truth-seeking, and concerns himself with making contact with life's rhythms and laws in order to reveal and redirect them. A creative person is an agent for life - he does not deny or destroy it. And neither does he divert it into channels to distort its values for power or monetary gain.

I would venture an educated guess that at this moment more individuals of extraordinary artistic talent are directing it toward selling commercial products than toward the creation of art. And that very few of them, or those who buy the products their artwork advertises, are aware that the work they do, while clever in many ways, is not creative in the true sense of the word.

How talent is used is not the issue here. That must be left up to the individual. What is at issue is our confusion about the true nature of creativity, and our failure to appreciate the rare qualities beyond talent that go into genuine creativity: qualities such as patience, integrity, the continual sharpening of sensibilities, vision, character, and dedication.

Once this is clarified, I'm certain we will stop using such terms as creative advertising and creative marketing when what we really mean is advertising and marketing that is brilliant or clever - or remarkably imaginative.

And, most important, I'm certain we will limit our use of the word ''creative ,'' and apply it only to those who truly deserve it. Boiling things down

The Milton Avery retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York is the most comprehensive showing of Avery's art ever assembled, consisting of 86 paintings and 40 works on paper. It includes his lesser-known figurative work of the 1930s , his simplified and lyrically colored compositions of the 1940s and '50s, and the more starkly abstracted figures and landscapes of the very late '50s and '60 s.

It is a remarkable collection and a heartwarming record of one man's lifelong effort to transform everyday experience into art. And it is also, one should add , a tribute to his wife, Sally, who devoted her life as well to his art, by supporting the family for many years.

Probably the most remarkable thing about Avery as an artist was his uncanny ability to boil things down to their essentials, then to reanimate them to full intensity through color. The results were dramatic: The simpler and more skeletal the forms, the more haunting and provocative the colors. It all seems so easy and childlike, and altogether too easy to be art. And yet, in some ways, this is the most difficult kind of art to create.It is difficult because this is an art of displacement. For every detail of the subject removed - be it a tree, a row of houses, the details of a face, or the feathers on a bird - the artist must ''substitute'' a purely painterly element. If, for instance, he decides to simplify a seascape to nothing but two horizontal bands of color (the sky and the sand), those bands must be painted with such exquisite color and placement that they themselves convey the full impact of the original perception - only this time transmuting them into art.

To do this, Avery had to become increasingly subtle and inventive with color, as well as increasingly alert to what the simplest lines and shapes could do in counterpoint to color. Indeed, this process of increasing subtlety, imagination, and simplification describes the evolutionary progress of his life's work. His late paintings are extraordinary distillations of such things as sea and sand, dark forests, waves, gulls, people reading on the beach, and beach umbrellas into the most elementary of forms and the most exquisite and sophisticated of color relationships.

After its closing at the Whitney Museum on Dec. 5, this excellent show will travel to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh (Jan. 15-March 6); the Fort Worth Art Museum (March 22-May 8); the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, N.Y. (May 23 -July 10); the Denver Art Museum (July 25-Sept. 5); and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Sept. 18-Oct. 30). A romantic individualist

Romanticism in art is once again out of fashion. Many of us prefer today to think of ourselves as tough-minded and realistic, and so view anything the least bit lyrically romantic in painting as on a par with South Sea Island movies and sentimental valentines.

That's too bad, because this attitude prevents us from enjoying some intriguing and excellent art being painted today - art that ranges from the bittersweet romanticism of Andrew Wyeth to the more fanciful romanticism of our better ''naive'' painters.

Darrel Austin is a romantic painter, and has been one for many decades. From the late 1930s to roughly 1950, when romanticism was still admired in the United States, Austin enjoyed an excellent reputation for his highly fanciful paintings of jungle beasts, young ladies standing or lounging about in moonstruck landscapes, magnificent bulls, and any number of other dramatically imaginative creatures and events. These were richly and sensuously painted, and resembled nothing seen before - or, I might add, since.

A choice selection or these works is on view at New York's Perls Galleries. Included are early Expressionistic paintings of the 1930s, several 1940s paintings of his most romantically elegant and mysterious ladies and animals, and a broad selection of works painted since then. Of particular interest are a magnificent painting of a nude done in 1938, two oils painted this year, and several of his truly elegant drawings.

This is a difficult show to review, because Austin's work since 1950 has stood so very much on its own, and has been so at odds with everything else going on in American art. A few of his very early oils are superb by any standards, and should be snapped up by a museum. And his more fanciful later works are, to say the least, the very best of their kind.

And yet that doesn't say enough. Austin is a minor treasure we should pay more attention to - if for no other reason than that he found his creative voice while still a relatively young man, then stuck to it regardless of art-world fashion or commercial hype.

This delightful show will remain open to the public at Perls Galleries through Oct. 16.

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