October 22, 2010

“Creativity Comes from Limits”

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:44 pm by Doug Brockway

I was pleased and surprised while listening to an interview of Jon Stewart of The Daily Show aired today on NPR’s Fresh Air.  While describing the day for the Daily Show staff, the creative process, Stewart said:

we have a very kind of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.

I’m a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself, but when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it and feel confident enough to kind of come back to that.”

I have long thought the same thing.  Its surprising how much resistance you can get from people who, for instance, design computer programs.  The less than insightful of them will complain of the constraints of standards and processes imposed by others.  I used to occasionally hear that from young artists (but the one’s I know are older now).

My reply has usually been to ask if Mozart or Beethoven was creative?  One might not like their music but few would argue that these were un-creative people.  Look at their symphonies as an example.  All symphonies have four movements:  Sonata, Rondo, Minuet and Trio, Sonata (OK, OK… not Beethoven’s 9th… The exception proves the rule).  Each of these types of music has a specific mathematical form.  You could follow it in a dull fashion (think Salieri) or with incredible imagination, as did Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms, etc.  By not having to invent the structure they were able to focus on the creativity of the theme, the pace, the counterpoint, the music.

Its easy to think of examples of creativity that have to do with throwing off the shackles of convention, form, process.  Always doing what we did before would prevent much of jazz music or contemporary art.  But limits, themselves, do not restrict creativity.  Quite often, most times, they’re the best thing for it.