#3 Constraints are Creativity

I didn’t invent positive constraints. No way. Humans have been exploiting them for personal growth since the dawn of history. Religions, for example, use limits to bond their communities, distinguish themselves from others and show the strength of their faith in god or gods. Roman Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy (No Marriage) and many lay Christians promise No Sex before Marriage. Only in 1966 did Pope Paul VI relax rules on fasting to allow Catholics to eat meat on Fridays, causing a panic among the world’s commercial fishing concerns.

The 2000 US National Alcohol Survey found that a person’s religion is still significant when predicting heavy versus moderate drinking, and is strongly associated with total abstention from alcohol. But the most obvious religious positive constraints are “No Work” Sabbath days, Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians – same limit, same effect, different days.

But this is not just about religious abstention: all creativity is bounded by positive constraints. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end; music is metered in time and audible pitch; games have scoring systems; paintings are framed. Writing about his work as a composer, Igor Stravinsky once said:

“my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles … The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

It might sound counter-intuitive, but limits, whether arbitrary or necessary, create creativity. Without the frame, without limits, art loses its meaning, becomes indistinguishable from real life or is simply unsatisfying, like French cinema or an unmade bed (joke). The skill is to push against boundaries without breaking them.

Take the game of golf, for example: all you have to do is get the little white ball from the tee into the tiny hole 400 yards away. Now, the easiest way of doing that – spoiler alert – is to lean down, pick up the ball, walk 400 yards and put it in the hole. Hole in one every time. That, however, would not only be astonishingly boring, but would also take away the skill of the game. The skill of golf lies in the limiting rule that to get the little white ball from the tee into the tiny hole 400 years away you must use a metal stick. And the difference between a pointless task at the end of short walk and the limit-inspired skill of Tiger Woods? An audience of millions and about $640 million in the bank.

It’s not just fun and games either. Architects develop their skill by creating buildings that exist not purely in the limitless world of the imagination, but in the real world, hedged in on all sides by limits: budget, material, geometric and geographic constraints. What limits do you work with? The curriculum for a teacher, bricks for a builder, a word count for a journalist, a hundred metres for an athlete, recipes for a chef, maths for an engineer – all are necessary limits without which our work is meaningless. You can think of these as gaps to bridge, obstacles to overcome or constraints to transcend – the point is that it’s only when problems get difficult that solutions get interesting. And sometimes we need to make things difficult for ourselves before we can reach our potential.

Prolific art duo Gilbert & George have eaten breakfast and dinner at the same café and the same Kurdish restaurant every day for the last thirty years of their collaboration. They don’t even have a kitchen in their house. “We cannot do any work at all,” says Gilbert, “if there is even a minuscule spot of mess.” By limiting their eating habits and banning any cooking, they set themselves free to work without distraction. Gilbert & George also deliberately limit their source of artistic inspiration: everything they do comes out of London’s East End. As George says: “Nothing happens in the world that doesn’t happen in the East End.” Through this constraint, they can create very specific work as a cipher for the general. Artists must act as their own reducing valves – otherwise where would you begin? Without their positive constraints, Gilbert & George are nothing; with them, their work is worth up to a million pounds a time. Not bad for No Kitchen.

Further Reading

Michalak, Laurence, Karen Trocki, and Jason Bond. ‘Religion and Alcohol in the U.S. National Alcohol Survey: How Important Is Religion for Abstention and Drinking?’ Drug and Alcohol Dependence 87, no. 2–3 (March 2007): 268–80. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2006.07.013.

Moscati, Arden, and Briana Mezuk. ‘Losing Faith and Finding Religion: Religiosity over the Life Course and Substance Use and Abuse’. Drug & Alcohol Dependence 136 (1 March 2014): 127–34. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2013.12.018.

Stravinsky, Igor. Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons. (tr. Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl) Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1947 p65

Praagh, Anna Van. ‘Gilbert and George: “Margaret Thatcher Did a Lot for Art”’, 7 May 2009. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/5743120/Gilbert-and-George-Margaret-Thatcher-did-a-lot-for-art.html.

This post is an extract from the book You Are What You Don’t by David Charles. Please share, please credit!

Published by


David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.