Sooooo I've taken to reading. I still haven't finished Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century. Luckily, it's still good.
In Charles Renfro's Essay "Undesigning the New Art School," the following quote stood out to me:
"Creativity is a form of reaction. Artists are more likely to find creative expression and programmatic accommodation by reacting to fixed space that contains provocative or insurmountable obstructions"He's talking about architecture, but this is a concept that applies more broadly to art-making, and hit a nerve for me in particular. I've been told on more than a few occasions to consider the limits in my work--where things come from; why certain things are allowed into the process, but not others; how things are tested. Because I don't generally have a concrete answer for these questions beyond, "It's mostly intuitive," it's been suggested that I start applying obstructions or limits--rules to the way I work. I haven't really been able to think about that proposition up until now, but reading this passage today made me consider it from a different perspective than I had been (which essentially boiled down to a nose-wrinkling dislike of the notion of rules in general--why should there be limits?! Fuck rules! Down with the bureaucratic agenda! Etc...).
I think a lot about imposed limits; specifically, socially imposed limits as they relate to the construction of our performed identities. My train of thought is complicated, because the idea of imposed limits/ boundaries generally conjures oppressive connotations, which tends to trigger the angry sound that dwells in the recesses of my brain. Beyond that, there is a sneaky security involved in rules--they provide a cozy framework that can easily lead to complacency/ repression. I'm embracing the notion now though that limits can also provide a foundation from which to build. Fixed spaces containing insurmountable obstructions can indeed provoke creative reaction (and frequently do).
This fact was driven home when I finally yielded to a related suggestion that I watch The Five Obstructions. It.Was.Amazing!
The premise is this: Lars von Trier has his personal idol, Jørgen Leth, remake his film "The Perfect Human" five times, according to his instructions. He gives him limitations to work with. Cruel ones, designed to challenge him, to make him suffer through the process in order to break through his distanced stance, in order to close the gap between 'perfect' and 'human'. It's incredible to watch. At one point, Leth doesn't follow von Trier's rules to his liking, so he "punishes" him by having him do a version with no constraints whatsoever. Leth considers this "diabolical," and says, "I'd rather have something to hang onto." It's a really sharp illustration of Renfro's point--that artists are more likely to find creative expression through the struggle against seemingly insurmountable obstructions. Leth manages to create something gorgeous every time, not in spite of, but rather, because of, the obstructions set by von Trier.
In short, I get it now. But the question remains, how the hell am I supposed to set limits for myself? That seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? It's more natural to react against limits set by someone else--an external entity that knows your weaknesses. I can't look at myself and analyze the weak points in my work with the clarity Lars von Trier applies to Jørgen Leth's. Although, interestingly, the final obstruction, in which von Trier himself takes over the production, results in von Trier revealing more about his own vulnerability as the aggressor--the entire project was ultimately more about his need to expose/ identify with/ humanize his idol than it was about Leth's inability to access his own humanity. So what would it mean to be both obstructor and obstructed? Is it possible to be both?