Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Creative freedom

Since it's the 4th of July, I thought I'd wax philosophic on the role of freedom in creativity.

Question? What is freedom? My dictionary gives me two definitions:

  • The power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints
  • Immunity from an obligation or duty

Note that both definitions are negative. "Without... restraints. "Immunity from..." Those make sense when applied to specific restraints, obligations or duties, for sure. In the case of, for example, a legal relationship, freedom would mean that you don't have restraints imposed by the law on what you can say or do. If I am "freed" from a contract, it is no longer my duty to act within its bounds.

But we use the word in all kinds of vague, poetic, patriotic and aspirational ways. We want to be free. We live in the land of the free. We want freedom of expression, thought, religion, etc. But, again, when pressed... I think most people would equate these freedoms as expressions of double-negatives.

  • Freedom of religion = no negative effects from exercising a particular religion, or none at all.
  • Freedom of speech = not being punished for saying something unpopular
  • Freedom of assembly = not having your ass kicked by riot police while holding a meeting

See? Those are all double negatives. And positive, aspirational statements expressed chiefly as double negatives are generally less specific, less helpful and less directional than positive statements that can be actually applied to one's creative endeavors.

Do I want freedom of creativity? Sure. I guess. I don't want bad things (double negative) to interfere with my creativity. I'd prefer that the state (or other authorities) not put unreasonable restrictions on what I can think, do and create. But, again... once you have that "I don't want bad stuff" double negative in there... what does it mean for the process? How does it apply?

I believe that freedom of creation cannot exist -- and certainly cannot thrive -- without limits (negative forces) on your creativity that you understand, accept and embrace. And that by consciously balancing those restrictive forces, you actually become more ably creative.

I've said before that creativity, in general, involves breaking apart non-creative, natural or ordinary elements and putting them back together differently. Good writing takes familiar words, concepts, situations and characters and assembles them in surprising ways in order to provide a new, interesting vision to readers. In doing so, that creative act inflicts violent destruction on the old ways of thought or lack-of-thought that readers held. It destroys the previous space.

Same for the visual arts. A purely narrative photograph, intended to show a product or scene for informative purposes, may not be very creative. By applying various filters through whatever media is used, artists, however, change the scene in order to give us clues as to their vision. In doing so, they destroy the "pure reportage" angle and add elements from other pallettes.

We don't think of this as violence or destruction, because many times the result is something we find pleasing, interesting or informative. Which is great. But the foundation of those good feelings is an act which, though largely unnoticed, broke apart previous models.

The audience isn't really supposed to notice, except in the most extreme cases of shock art or genre-busting projects. The break/build sequence is like water in a cave drawing lime into pillars over time. Where before there were separate sets of rock, air and water... now there is a brilliant new structure, built upon the destruction of the singular elements.

What does this have to do with freedom? Well, if creativity is destructive in some sense, and freedom is the power to act without restraint, than perfect creative freedom would be the  ability to artistically destroy... well... everything. Which is clearly not particularly artistic.

For example, as a writer, I am free to use words in whatever order I choose. If I assemble them in new, interesting and meaningful ways -- such as in a good poem -- I have destroyed/created in a manner as to allow my readers to enjoy the process. If I just destroy, however, I may end up with a sequence of words which makes no damned sense to anyone.

Perfect freedom = no restraints = chaos.

What, then, is a good balance of freedom vs. restraint for the creative process? I think that you learn the most by accepting the most restraints. That if you create within the confines of very specific requirements, you will eventually learn to create with much more freedom. I've said before (especially as it regards marketing), that before engaging in "out-of-the-box thinking," you have to really, really understand the box. Because it's there for a reason. And to understand the box, you need to completely accept its limitations and restrictions. You have to become un-free.

Why? Because freedom without restriction is license, and not art. It is chaos. Which can be fun and has a place on the 4th of July, for sure. We celebrate with fireworks and booze the fact of our independence, our freedom from another country. The rules and laws of our freedoms (and responsibilities) are complex and, often, odd. But today, we simply celebrate the fact of freedom; maybe symbolically, maybe immaturely. That's OK. Celebration is not meant to be particularly balanced.

But creativity must be. And my guess is that the guys in charge of the most professional and amazing fireworks displays -- the guys creating sky art -- are not drinking too much before they handle their explosives. And that the gorgeous displays of light and fire we'll all watch tonight as part of our feelings of freedom are very, very controlled in their creation.

So as we "creative types" celebrate the fact that we live in a great country that allows us to act, speak and create without many negative, artificial constraints... let us also celebrate the restraints we can and must apply to our own works in order to better serve our audiences, and create more fantastic displays of glory.

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