Self-discipline, creativity work together to spark new ideas for society

Monday, December 1, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:22 p.m. CST, Monday, December 1, 2008

There is something that sounds inherently good about limits expanding, choices increasing, options abounding, but people have been pointing out the downside of certain kinds of freedom for centuries.

Many critics have spoken in terms of art. Leonardo da Vinci is often quoted as saying, “Art breathes from containment and suffocates from freedom.” If an artist has limitations to work within, he or she is forced to be much more creative when trying to produce something original.

Baroque artist Lorenzo Bernini, for example, used the same materials predecessors had for centuries to produce sculptures with unprecedented painting-like texture, something critics had previously said was impossible. Though his work might not seem innovative at first glance, producing it required more creativity than painting like Jackson Pollock. The latter did produce work that looked entirely new, but he did so by exercising his artistic “freedom” to put cigarette butts into his paintings instead of technical effort.

In a 1974 interview, W.H. Auden echoed this sentiment when speaking about how poetry should be written; he said: “If one plays a game, one needs rules; otherwise there is no fun.” Auden professed to understand the “hedonistic” compulsion to write with no form but believed that such a method actually stifled creativity, despite freeing the poet from chains of tradition. As a former English professor explained, a poet is much freer to explore emotional ideas if the structural scaffolding is provided.

The Dogme 95 movement was created in 1995 to counter the drawbacks of freedom in film. As technological possibilities have abounded, filmmakers have been able to depict whatever they want with relative ease. Though this is exciting and even democratizing, those capabilities have lessened the creative struggle; a filmmaker needs new software not new ideas.

In their manifesto, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, the Copenhagen filmmakers who started Dogme 95, state that “the movie had been cosmeticized to death … By using new technology, anyone at any time can wash the last grains of truth away in the deadly embrace of sensation.”

To combat this tendency, they set out 10 strict rules that they refer to as the “Vow of Chastity.”  These rules force them to be creative within a dogmatic set of constraints contrary to modern ideas of filmmaking. For example, the first rule states that shooting must be done on location; no props or sets are allowed. Rule seven requires that there be no geographic or temporal illusions, that the film must take place “here and now.”

Since 1995, the most pressing burden of freedom has come with the Internet. We have unparalleled free access to information and news, which at first sounds great, and we might imagine that the advent of the Internet could produce the world’s most cosmopolitan and informed generation yet. But the real danger is quite the opposite; it is just as likely that the Internet will leave us a race of dilettantes with no attention span, that we will become a population with a lurking desire to collapse in on ourselves because our accessibility to the outside world is just too much.

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, the author discussed the findings of an Associated Press-funded research project which suggest that this is a legitimate danger; this is unsurprising these days, when bloggers can publicize whatever "news" they wish, whether or not it's fit to print.

The AP hired a company called Context to do a thorough review of worldwide young adult news consumption and this was the conclusion presented in the final report: “The abundance of news and ubiquity of choice do not necessarily translate into a better news environment for consumers … they appeared debilitated by information overload. … The more overwhelmed or unsatisfied they were, the less effort they were willing to put in.”

Perhaps with art or information, the only feasible answer is to be personally self-disciplined so as not to get swept up in the fleeting flam abounding in theaters and galleries and on Web sites. Consumers must make the effort to seek out and support those poets or visual artists or journalists who try to be traditionally thorough in a world where such is decreasingly rewarded. Only then might enough structure remain for us to have some fun and breathe and hold on to some truth while being pounded by waves of deadly, seductive sensation.

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield and the Guardian in London. She plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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durie o December 6, 2008 | 3:29 p.m.

I agree that there is truly an art to working in the confines of a structure, but there is something to be said when a person creates a new genre or style. Where would we be without the impressionists? A novel approach isn't always the work of untalented simpletons.

Also i think that your article undercuts the role of a person's passion and affinity for a specific style or subject. How is it that a wealth of information would not help us find something we can get excited about? People pick and choose what they are interested in. Just because it is easy to find a superficial level of information doesn't mean that we won't be dig deeper and learn more.

'Dilettantes?' Come now. You paint the picture that people are nothing more than attention-deficit cretins looking for little more than flashing lights, big noises, and bright colors.

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