The importance, and trap, of artistic freedom

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.
Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.
The more constraints one imposes,
the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.

Artistic freedom is important, and tricky. From it comes both great and enduring artwork as well as works that are easy to deride. Artists themselves will mostly poo-poo any kind of limitations, crying foul, claiming the great scapegoat of censorship. Their peers who willingly work within certain limiting factors (i.e. a commissioned work) are often branded as sell-outs.

The importance of artistic freedom
From the Herva blog, a post titled Artistic freedom and the trap of success:

    Most of my adult life I’ve been trying to figure out where my creative output “fit.” This is bull kaka. At least for me it is. If I wanted to be a craftsman, worker for hire, to create towards someone else’s need this would be fine. But I don’t. I want to express my vision, to create out of my soul and to make exist things that I would like to see/hear/read. So why bother trying to fit in anywhere?

    . . . Forget “fitting in.” AND, just as importantly, forget success. For now, I just want to create with as few constraints as I am mentally and physically able. I want to make music with my heart and my hands, to paint or write (or whatever) with my insides (intelligence, spirit, guts, soul) guiding my choices. Will anyone pay for it? I have no idea. Will anyone other than me think it’s good? No clue. But I have to allow myself not to care or worry about that right now. Every creator I’m a fan of creates things oozing in singularity, works that rise out of the sludge due to their originality, clarity, and vision. I don’t see the words acceptance or money in that last sentence at all. Do I hope that in doing this some “success” will come eventually? Sure. But in the making of it, in the actual creation, I want freedom.

Allowing artists this kind of freedom is important, it’s important in relationship to the cultural implications of art. Artists are observers. Their paintings and sculptures are responses to their environments: Built environs, social environs, relationships and so on. These responses create a cultural and historical record in a way no textbook will ever be able to.

Further, art should challenge us from time to time — as a culture and as individuals. For this to happen, an artist needs the freedom to venture outside of our expectations, outside of our comfort zones (and often their own). Paintings aren’t just for looking pretty and coordinating with the new couch. Remember the dangers of sentimental creativity.

The trap of artistic freedom
Artistic freedom is also tricky. It’s easy to abuse the responsibility inherent in that freedom, to adopt an anything goes mentality and create to simply push the limits, sensationalize. Attempt to gain attention, fame. To go after success and money (which is valid to a point). The trouble is the only guidelines for artistic freedom are vague, unwritten social cues. They’re not something a person can put down in black and white.

But they are still there.

Such freedom can also distract an artist; artists need some focus with their freedom. At the same time they need, for instance, the ability to explore a wide range of media and push those media to their limits, an artist needs to develop their craft. Whether they like to admit it or not, craft is an inherent part of every artwork. To become proficient — and (in theory anyway) gain respect and a voice — in a craft takes discipline. Discipline is, in essence, a set of rules, whether imposed by self or others.

Rules that will at first guide will then grow with the potential to be broken.

Says Sarah Jane of the Faith and Foolishness blog, “The artistic process feels at times like a many-layered friend, whose complexities I have come to understand through long acquaintance, and who occasionally still manages to surprise me. I have great trust in this faithful and mysterious companion.”

Process will be different for every individual artist. Some will work better with more structure, such as Stravinsky. Others will create their best work with a lot of freedom, like Herva. Finding a balance, personally, is always more difficult than picking one or the other, but it must be done.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to The importance, and trap, of artistic freedom

  1. herva says:

    Great post man, I’m with you, and I appreciate the thoughtful way you’ve approached it.

    The trick for me is timing, right now I feel shackled by the external constraints I’ve put on my work. Shackled to the extent I don’t want to create at all (out of over thinking and frustration.) I feel strongly that for me the only option (at this time) is to create as fluidly and openly as possible, beholden only to myself (and God) or I’ll dry up and quit. The other big x-factor is motive, if you want to gain respect and a voice and “get somewhere” there are definite issues of craft and discipline that must be achieved. After digging into myself I have to admit at my core what I want to do is create, just to make things exist that didn’t a moment before. Letting the desire to “make it” dominate my thinking has robbed me of that joy. So I’m giving myself mental/emotional permission to cast off the analytical thought-helmet for awhile and just “do.”

    • pcNielsen says:

      Glad it resonated with you. I wasn’t sure the post felt done, but had worked on it “enough.”

      And I completely understand the need to cast off the thought-helmet; if I’m not at a similar point now, I feel like I’m approaching one. Making is as important as concept, and in the end it feeds concept AND craft.

  2. Pingback: On musical form, is one way better than another? « The Aesthetic Elevator

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: