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March 27, 2006

Enough Rope: the Creativity Paradox

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The "bottom line" to this post is nothing new. But how I got to it might interest some of you, especially if you've had to do "creative" work at one time or another.

Countless years ago when I was a commercial art student, our instructor always gave us assignments that included various restrictions. One time it might be the size ("two columns wide and seven column-inches deep"), another time color ("assume a two-color press run") or something or other else.

After months of this, the class became restless. We began to badger Mr. Wellman to cast aside those pesky restrictions, to let us cut loose and be creative.

And one day he did.

We could do whatever we wanted for the next assignment. The only restriction was that the due-date was two weeks away.

As you might expect, I soon found myself paralyzed. I found it very hard to come up with a subject and then had trouble deciding on how to do the art work.

I met the deadline, though I've forgotten what I produced. I do recall that I wasn't pleased with what I had done: it wasn't very good.

I might have done better if I'd had a fantastically great idea bubbling within me that would have burst forth when Wellman finally turned us loose. But I didn't, and that was a good thing indeed. Because what I got out of the assignment was a vital object lesson: The path to real creativity is usually shaped by constraints -- without restrictions there likely will be no path at all.

Best of all was that this revelation hit me -- strongly -- then and not later. I didn't try to rationalize my way out of it. I knew that I produced a piece of junk and I knew why.

This experience would not have happened to an Engineering student. They know from the start that everything they create is subject to various constraints, including economic ones in most cases.

Liberal Arts students -- especially those in so-called "creative" fields such as writing, musical composition and art -- might think they are able avoid constraints or else simply do what they do without really being conscious that they are being constrained.

An example of the latter might be painting in oils as opposed to watercolors. Most artists recognize that watercolor is a difficult medium whose constraints must be fought at every stroke of the brush. Oils, on the other hand, are much easier to use, their most obvious restriction being variability in drying time of different colors. Most experienced painters treat the properties of their medium as background factors rather than the constraints they are, and are mostly conscious of constraints exogenous to the tools of their trade.

When I became a computer programmer I found myself developing an "engineering mentality." Constraints were everywhere and I found that I had to use a good deal of imagination -- and, yes, creativity -- at times to get the results I needed.

Does this ring true to you, or do you think I'm missing something about creativity and restrictions?



posted by Donald at March 27, 2006


Well, a lot of people have the urge to be creative, but when push comes to shove, don't have that much to say, so to speak. The vision is thinner when confronted directly. I am speaking of myself, of course. The constraints force you to think, think, think. Maybe that's it?

Posted by: MD on March 27, 2006 7:58 PM

My favorite piece of 20th century music is just variations upon a work, which itself was variations upon a single short theme.

Quite often a "constraint" is something that is itself good--we simply forget that once it becomes tiresome. But if we define creativity as the greatest good, then it is necessary that every theme, even the Ode to Joy, be followed by a new theme, even Twinkle Twinkle little star.

Most arts probably are loaded with cliches that, in engineering, would be called best practices.

Posted by: onetwothree on March 27, 2006 8:01 PM

I came to the same realization when my college buddy and I were trying to write some pop songs, just for fun. He was writing lyrics, and I was writing music. The only problem was, he found it much easer to write in iambic pentameter, and I found it easier to write in Baroque-style counterpoint. Needless to say, this did not produce any catchy tunes, but it was an interesting lesson.

Posted by: JW on March 27, 2006 9:38 PM

ahah wetbacks.

Posted by: Descartes on March 27, 2006 10:07 PM

My undergrad education was in theatre (more or less) at Northwestern University. (Class of 1961) We had two theatre stages: one was in Annie May Swift Hall and was created when a fire ate a hole in the building. It was a cramped space, you had to go outside to get around the back, there were no flies, etc. etc. The sets and staging on it were often brilliant.

There was also a big standard theatre with everything anyone could ask for -- state of the art lighting, huge fly gallery, deep backstage, etc. Everyone hated to design for it. As you say, where does one start?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 27, 2006 11:14 PM

Some people have trouble with the constraints of English composition. :)

In the roleplaying game industry the designer has to be concerned with a number of questions. What makes for a good game? What makes for a good adventure? How do you get people interested in your design? How do you keep them interested? It's not an art just any one can practice, and there are a lot of game designers who think they are being limited because they have to concern themselves with an audience.

And let us not forget the price any artist pays for ignorance. Oils may be easier to work with than watercolors, but that ease means nothing when you know nothing of the pecularities of the medium.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 28, 2006 5:37 AM

Would Shakespeare have written such sonnets if the sonnet form were undefined? One might also argue that the constraints of the sacred imposed on Renaissance artists made their art more sure and intense than the "anything goes" pap of Picasso, Pollock and Warhol.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on March 28, 2006 8:40 AM

I think a lot of artists put constraints on themselves, consciously or not, for the very reason you suggest. Whether it be genre restrictions or adopting personas or a sudden change in styles, all of these are constraints or an attempt to define or narrow the realm in which they are to work.

Posted by: the patriarchy on March 28, 2006 10:19 AM

I may well be wrong, but can it be that it's a fairly recent development (Romantics at the earliest) that the demands of form came to be thought of as 'constraints'? Everybody knows that Junior may act like he wants to run amok, but he 'really' wants limits. That would be because while its easier to be untethered, he, eventually, comes to recognize in some way the advantages of being channeled into productive behavior. For artists, if you are untalented, form stops you dead in your tracks. If you are talented, it frees you. It's generative. I just wonder if writers and artists before the 19th century would have thought to regard form as burdensome -- as something they were pushing against rather than tools that allowed them to do their job.

Posted by: Sluggo on March 28, 2006 10:56 AM

Well, Michelangelo certainly worked with "contraints"---he had to please a client, so the "theme" of the work, and the building he was designing for, were picked for him. Plus, he was under time pressure because he wanted to get paid. He wasn't always working from a totally "blank canvas", so to speak. Seemed to work for him!

But, I certainly have met people who seem to be able to create "from scratch", too---if you expand "creativity" to include entrepreneurial activities. The people who invented "the clapper", or who came up with the "geek squad" at Best Buy, or who invented the PC...inventing something where nothing was before. They are remarkable. It's like when people say...start your own business! My feeling is...doing what?

Posted by: annette on March 28, 2006 11:27 AM

Hehe, Donald, that's why I went to the Interior Design school, and not the Fine Arts. Well, after that same "restrictions" realization downed at me in my first Engineering Institute.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 28, 2006 11:31 AM

Agreed here. Every time I see a supposedly creative person complaining about say, poetic forms or meter, or other such restrictions, my immediate reaction to think they have discredited themselves.

What really ought to be said is not, "I have so many ideas but I can't do any of them with these restrictions" is, "I didn't have any ideas until you told me what I couldn't do."

Posted by: . on March 28, 2006 11:33 AM

I guess if you can teach most intelligent people a fair amount of math, I suppose you could get them to write a sitcom or paint a landscape. Actually, I've occasionally wondered if it isn't the formal constraints that kill creativity, but rather the "will other people like it in the way we conventionally think they should" constraints. Why not write a sonnet about constitutional law? It might suck, but I'd certainly be willing to read it out of curiousity.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 28, 2006 1:42 PM

I've tried to write a couple about organic chemistry. Not as easy as it, um, sounds?

Posted by: Derek Lowe on March 28, 2006 2:13 PM

You can think of the psychological processes that generate a creative work as similar to those that involve answering a question. The standard model in linguistics is to think of a question as meaning a list of possible answers; the respondent's job is to single out which answer is correct. For example, "What's the name of the current Pres of the US?" means the list names: "Joe, Tom, Harry, Frank,..." ad infinitum. The more specific the question, the fewer options you have to consider. If you just asked "What?", then all the respondent knows is that the answer must be a noun -- pretty damn hard to search through all nouns.

For your art project, it's like you're answering the question, "What oil painting depicting a religious scene would you like to submit?" This means an infinite set of possible "answer" paintings, and you've got to sort through them to see which one you think is best.

Now, in art there's no single correct answer like "The current Pres' name is George," but you still have to single out the few good answers from the morass of garbage. It's like the "hill-climbing" view of natural selection in evo bio -- you only make moves that lead uphill rather than downhill, until you reach a peak.

But you have to start in some direction -- if you tried to walk in all directions at once, you'd get nowhere. True geniuses could probably try walking in a bunch of different directions and keep track of the various peaks they hit, but you can't walk in every direction -- even Bach needs to be put on an initial path and see where it goes.

Posted by: Agnostic on March 28, 2006 2:44 PM

It rings true to me. Constraints and standard forms rock. If nothing else, artists are constrained by their materials and format, even if they created the format themselves. But once one format gets boring you can often try a different one. As for me, I just wrote my first hymn. :-)

Posted by: Glen Raphael on March 28, 2006 4:36 PM

Rings true to me as well. Communist era Poland, for example, produced a lot of great, thoughtful movies. Much of that ended immediately after 1989.

Posted by: hugh on March 28, 2006 7:19 PM

I find certain of the underlying assumptions in this and similar threads suspect at best. Would theater be better today without the innovations of Chekhov or Miller, let alone Yeats or Ionesco? Do the poems of Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, or (dare I suggest) Allen Ginsberg fail because they do not use the sonnet form? Should all painters continue to adhere to the same constraints that were prevalent in Italy during the Renaissance?

At the heart of the matter is whether the constraints are external or self-selected and whether they enhance or impede the creativity of the artist (or scientist or engineer for that matter.) In his original example, DP is a commercial art student chafing under the constraints inherent in commercial art itself and is given an object lesson by his instructor. Commercial art, by definition, needs to serve certain functions and faces real word constraints such as the means of production available. Yet even here innovation takes place. Anyone ever seen a pop up ad window while web surfing?

It may be true that second and third-rate talents who seek to elevate their status by attempting innovation for its own sake are destined to fail, just as they will fail to produce masterpieces within a given set of traditional restraints. And it may also be true that a true genius can express something new within the most restrictive set of constraints. To find fault with innovation in favor of constraint per se, however, is merely the sign of creeping fuddy-duddyism.

Posted by: Chris White on March 29, 2006 9:23 AM

*hugh, your example is of a different sort, not so much about constraints/lack of creativity as about relative ease to say something AGAINST compared to FOR. Thought-through positive program versus rantings of "damn you all".

It is always easier to be a rejectivistof some sort(by whatever righteous reasons) than to come up with coherent proposition of positive change.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 29, 2006 9:26 AM

Aaack! creeping fuddy-duddy-ism! Beware!

While not all creativity arises from constraints, 'social' or 'artistic' innovation is only meaningful with a knowledge of prior practice. Context (spectator expectations, etc.) carries probably well over 50% of the information content in art. Allen Ginsberg approached without a knowledge of the history of poetry is Allen Ginsburg greatly diminished. This doesn't rule out innovation, but a failure to keep the role of context in mind has reduced a great deal of serious art in the past century to 'inside baseball', because only the obsessive insider understands enough context to make any sense of the message.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 29, 2006 6:38 PM

Just as economics is all about alternatives, engineering is all about constraints. Take away the alternatives and economics has nothing to say. Take away the constraints and an engineer has nothing to build.

Is art different? I dunno. Maybe a really great artist can thrive without constraints - I can at least imagine how it might be possible.

Posted by: Mike on March 29, 2006 7:32 PM

Would be a lot easier when constrains are read as contexts. Most of the time, they are.

look fr studioLDA

Posted by: look on April 5, 2006 12:23 PM

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