A few years ago, we put our daughter through a Montessori school. This type of schooling promotes the idea that an individual should exercise their freedom and autonomy, but within certain boundaries that are necessary for maintaining order. As you may understand from my other posts, I am a person who believes in the power of autonomy. That one should pursue their interests and passions while having an understanding of any implications on others.
Like schooling, creativity is typically best experienced when there are constraints. A creative deadline, a unique way of only being able to create, or even limited resources to be able to create with. The Zen practitioners in Japan follow this concept closely. There’s an idea of “hitofude ryuu” which is short for a one brush stroke style. This technique involves a single brush stroke to create a compelling piece of art and is associated with calligraphy and ink wash painting. It takes a high level of skill, dedication, and concentration to work with such constraints. There is no room for error or correction once the brush touches the paper. The artist must be completely immersed in the moment to express beauty and simplicity.
Constraints enhance creativity by forcing creators to think outside the box and find new solutions to overcome their limitations. Constraints focus your efforts rather than get lost in the endless sea of possibilities. Take Michelangelo for example, one of the most famous artists known to Western man. He had many constraints he had to work through. The first being material constraints. He was only able to create with the materials known to him at the time which included marble, bronze, and fresco. Each of these materials have their own unique constraints when creating that require a high level of skill, dedication, and concentration.
How about his commissions? He was often hired by wealthy patrons of the Catholic Church such as Pope Julius II and had to work within the constraints of these commissions. When he would be tasked with painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he was given specific themes and subject matter to depict such as the Book of Genesis.
Time became a huge factor for him. It is said that Michelangelo estimated creating the series of frescoes depicting these scenes from the Book of Genesis would take him three years to cover the 12,000 square foot ceiling. As he worked standing on a scaffolding for long hours every day, there came a new constraint of the physical and mental strain from the project that took a toll on his health.
Needless to say, he completed it within four years. Oddly enough, this was a new medium for Michelangelo as he was mostly known to be a sculptor. But when he was given the creative freedom to choose the subject matter of the frescoes from the Book of Genesis, he would choose three of the most compelling scenes including the creation of Adam and Eve, the fall of man, and the flood.
Why didn’t Michelangelo have help through such a large project? One theory is that Michelangelo was a perfectionist who wanted full creative control of the project. He would put a constraint on himself as he felt that working alone would allow him to bring his vision and artistic ideas to life without the interference of others.
Another theory is that during the Renaissance, it was common that artists were busy focused on establishing their own reputations as individuals rather than working as part of a team. While it is mainstream for the four Italian Renaissance artists to be seen working together as a team as personified teenage mutant ninja turtles throwing manhole covers at their foes, Michelangelo would be 33 years old, Raphael himself 25 years old, Leonardo in the prime age of 56 years old, and Donatello would have already been dead.
The key idea is that true freedom does not come from being completely unrestrained, but from the ability to create and impose limits on oneself. I’m a believer that people could achieve greatness and self-mastery by embracing these limitations and constraints rather than rejecting them.
Many constraints and limitations are imposed on us that we don’t actually agree with in the first place. Rather, we find some of these to be rather oppressive and limit our individual freedom. There comes a fine balance of getting to true freedom. This requires us to break free from the societal constraints and creating one’s own values and meaning in life through our own constraints.
Limitations and constraints are necessary for personal growth, so long as we are the ones doing it to ourselves. It takes discipline, regulation, restraint, and courage to do so.