Limitation and Resistance: Why Freedom Is Overrated in Creativity


"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction"

Isaac Newton

Freedom is overrated

Freedom is often regarded as the necessary and vital oxygen for creativity. The romantic myth of the wayward artist, living on the fringes of society (usually in some dingy garret), refusing to be bound by any of its conventions is a powerful and enduring one. However, closer inspection reveals the truth that boundless freedom and latitude is a very poor stimulator indeed of ideas.

The screenwriting expert Robert McKee actively teaches against freedom, insisting that:

“Limitation is vital the first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world… The constraint that setting imposes on story design doesn’t inhibit creativity; it inspires it.”

The insistence of artistic freedom is a (sometimes necessary) smokescreen. It is very often a defence against the imposition of the whims and prejudices of others. But the truth of the matter is that the creative mind actively needs resistance for it to operate successfully and productively.

Indeed, without any of the resistance that boundaries and specifics provide, the creative mind is likely to find itself wandering down many an irrelevant or unfruitful avenue or line of enquiry. Or worse, we are likely to find ourselves staring at a blank canvas with absolutely no idea where to begin. Imagine being handed a sheet of paper and a pencil with the invitation to “draw whatever you want”. The chances are that you’ll stare blankly for quite a while, wondering where on earth to begin.

As a painter, free to painter absolutely whatever he wanted (and indeed as one who’s creative output is marked by a range of dramatically different styles) the contemporary artist Gerhard Richter writes evocatively of the sheer terror and impossibility of the blank canvas, yet also the compulsion to fill it, to start something. For him, the Something that is to take the place of the emptiness of the canvas was not something that could be evolved from the Nothing.

Perhaps then the most helpful advice to anyone seeking to pursue a creative life of whatever kind, is not to urge them to ‘self-expression’, or any such indulgent nonsense, but to find a specific obstacle, challenge or problem, and then set out to master and overcome it.

In the world of the written word, the professor of screenwriting Richard Krevolin has defined the essence of story as involving “An engaging character who overcomes tremendous obstacles to reach a desired goal.” In other words, there is no plot, no story without some kind of problem or challenge (internal or external) that must be overcome.

Resistance immediately gives us the starting points and raw material for new narratives, solutions, and perspectives. Or as the choreographer Twyla Tharp has argued, “there can be no freedom without deprivation.”

The resistance of the past

The past gives us an important source of resistance. It gives us something to push against. For creators of any and all kinds, the past and its accomplishments are inescapable. None of us live and work in a social and cultural vacuum – the world we inhabit, the ideas and objects it contains are all the product of previous generations and behaviours. Nothing is created suis generis.

For those in the business of creating new ideas, it is the past that is their most powerful competition. Every author who puts pen to paper or finger to keyboard must - whether they consciously recognise this or not - compete with the literary canon that precedes him for originality, significance, and authority.

In the same way, every playwright who seeks to bring something new to the world competes with Shakespeare, who himself, had to compete with the legacy and influence of Chaucer. Indeed Harold Bloom in The Western Canon, his examination of why some writers endure, argues that the threat of “competition and contamination” is growing fiercer with the inexorable passage of time.

The past then provides us with a potent and varied competition that cannot be evaded. However, if all we do is stand in awe of the past, and simply appreciate or replicate its habits and achievements, then creativity and originality is necessarily, stillborn. So as Bloom has argued: “The burden of influence has to be borne, if significant originality is to be achieved and re-achieved.”

The past, then cannot simply be surrendered to, if we seek to produce anything original and of value, and the resultant struggle provides creators with an important source of resistance, as they push back and wrestle with the influence of the past. Critically, it involves struggle and friction. As Bloom reminds us: “Tradition is not merely a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration.”

Ideas as we’ve seen represent new combinations of existing elements. And the past - with all its accomplishments, successes, traditions, assumptions, practices, skills, knowledge, habits and beliefs - provides not only stiff competition, but something to push against and in doing so provides important resources and raw material for the production of new ideas.

This pushing back against, working with, reinterpretation and reinventing the past is essential to the production of new ideas. Triumphing in the struggle with the past, seeking to negotiate the past rather than be subsumed by it, and reinvent its accomplishments through the injection of something new is a crucial and timeless source of purpose in the creation and production of ideas. 

The resistance of media

There is an oft-quoted passage from Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love: “A beginning is an artifice, and what recommends the one over the other is how much sense it makes of what follows.” These words serve to remind us that the artistic world is full of self-created resistances.

Just as the past provides specific ideas and achievements whose influence must be grappled with, so too does it provide different genres and forms - sonata form, haiku, the Western movie, rhyming couplets, the detective novel - and varying media - oil, watercolour, marble, wood - with which to work. All these represent choices of inherited form or media. As the musicologist Karol Berger reminds us:

"We do not invent media, but inherit them. This is particularly clear in the case of language… in a sense, this is true also of our visual media. This is not to deny that someone did in fact invent photography or moving pictures, but rather to point out that these inventions were based upon, and extended, the fundamental practice of making images of the visual world on flat surfaces, a practice that we inherit just as we inherit language. No matter how inventive, creative, and revolutionary we are, most of the fundamental features of the media we use are not of our own making."

And crucially, these media provide constraint and resistance, and thus creative purpose. The artist’s very choice of genre, form and material represents a choice from all the possible constraints and resistances.

As the textile artist William Morris said, “You can't have art without resistance in the materials.” In turn the very choice of writing a novel of whatever kind, is to choose to explore, as Ian McEwan put it, “the possibility of inhabiting other minds.”

The poet who chooses to work within the tradition of Haiku, compels him or herself to devise a three line poem, whose lines have five, then seven, and then five syllables. The painter commits him or herself to working on a flat surface, in two dimensions. The writer of a detective novel obliges themselves to invent a crime (most often though not exclusively a murder), a victim, and an investigating protagonist of some sort. Through the very choice of medium with which they work each and every creator imposes on themselves limitations and resistances.

All creative and artistic endeavour is, as I have argued about overcoming the resistance and constraint of form and medium to produce something fresh, interesting and even valuable. Thus the potter must master clay, the architect steel and physics. Each must overcome their medium and find new possibilities in its limitations. Ideas and creativity come from making it hard, or at least just hard enough fto make things interesting. Making it hard provides a source of purpose, direction, energy, and shape. It is not about making it easy. Making it easy makes it impossible. Easy is the enemy of ideas.

The author Georges Perec was very much interested in formal innovation and provides a vivid example of the artist creating his own resistances. His novel La disparition (1969) is written without a single use of the letter ‘e’. Necessarily, his choice not to use the letter “e” forces certain decisions and as to the language he employs, and in turn that inevitably constrains what he can express in his novel. In his "Postscript" to La disparition, Perec explains - obviously without the letter ‘e’ - why he has eschewed the letter ‘e’, and in doing so articulates the artistic spirit of creating resistance in the pursuit of creativity:

"My ambition, as Author, my point, I would go so far as to say my fixation, my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, an artifact that would, or just possibly might, act as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, on fiction-writing today."

This is of course an extreme example of self-conscious, formal innovation. But creating resistance need not be an exercise in formal (or even indulgent) tricksiness. Indeed it is not simply a question of skill and technique. McKee argues us that all fictional worlds represent self-imposed constraint, and are ultimately, very small. Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment he reminds us, while played out against the backdrop of a Russia in turmoil, is really only the story of a few characters and their familiess.

Found and commissioned resistance

As Sennett has observed, resistance can be found. The resistance that ignites the purpose of ideas need not be deliberately invented and created , and many of us find it, sometimes accidentally, outside ourselves. And indeed the world is full of problems and challenges waiting to be solved.

Resistance is not always the product of the creative individual’s own efforts and imagination then. Encountering challenges or finding problems that need solving – or indeed being given them by other people – can provide our creativity with the necessary purpose. Indeed for centuries most art was the result of commission and patronage, artists did not have to invent their own problems but had them provided by patrons, and encoded in commissioning contracts.

The notion of the artist as a free individual allowing his genius to roam wild is a modern notion. Indeed commissions would frequently specify the precise subject matter, form, size, materials, location and purpose of the finished piece of work.

For example, if one examines the origins of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, the contract da Vinci signed in 1483 with the Confraternity of the Conception of the Virgin in Milan for an altar painting listed a detailed set of very specific requirements, including that the Virgin should be in the centre of the composition, her mantle “shall be of gold brocade and ultramarine blue… her skirt shall be of gold brocade over crimson, in oil, varnished with a fine lacquer.” Mountains and rocks should be painted in the background, “worked in oil, in a colourful manner.”

If one looks to the extraordinary flowering of art that characterised Renaissance Italy, the commissions that drove this explosion of creativity were far removed from our modern and romanticised notions of art and the artist, and driven by the agendas of self-promotion, and reputation-building. In his study Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300–1600, Richard Goldthwaite concluded that, for affluent patrons in Italy, commissions “expressed their sense of what constituted noble status; their spending habits arose from what is perhaps the universal desire of the rich to utilize wealth to set themselves off from ordinary people.”

In their study of patronage patterns and how the arts functioned in Renaissance Italy, Jonathan Nelson and Richard Zeckhauser demonstrate how much of commissioned art arose from the desire to have an effect on an audience - for people to see these works of art, appreciate them for their aesthetic merit, and recognize them as having been made-to-order for a certain individual or group. They also show how the audience was supposed to recognize the challenges the patron faced not only in creating the work (notably the cost) but also in securing the artist, materials and location.

Commissions provide the creator with a pre-fabricated purpose to work within. As Berger in his examination of the nature and purpose of art A Theory of Art notes, the question of what art was ‘for’ was not one that troubled people’s minds for many centuries. Art existed to serves the needs and agenda of the institutions of power - church, state, guilds, corporations, and families. Nobody had to ask what art was ‘for.’

While the contemporary artistic scene is of course no longer dominated by patronage and commission as it once was, commissions of all kinds do of course still take place. Private and public art still gets made to order. Looking outside the confines of the artistic world, industrial designers are asked to by clients to solve commercial challenges such as creating a new mobile phone handset and pretty much all architecture comes into being through commission.

Hans Zimmer is one of Hollywood’s most well-known composers and has built a career out of writing music commissioned for films such as Thelma and Louise, Black Rain, Gladiator, The Thin Red Line, The Last Samurai and Pirates of the Caribbean. His working process is closely linked to the composers of the pre-modern era, in that the goals of his music are imposed from outside - by the nature of the film he is being asked to score and the vision of the director - rather than being the product of a wholly autonomous process. Of course, within those constraints, he has sought to exercise his own originality, individuality, and autonomy, but his purpose has been handed to him by someone else. As Zimmer commented in an interview, his role is to serve the film, just as the director seeks to serve the film.

The contest to design the World Trade Center Site Memorial provides another vivid contemporary example of working with the specificity of resistance that commissions provide. The Memorial Mission Statement defined the overall purpose of the memorial thus:

  • Remember and honor the thousands of innocent men, women, and children murdered by terrorists in the horrific attacks of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001

  • Respect this place made sacred through tragic loss

  • Recognize the endurance of those who survived, the courage of those who risked their lives to save others, and the compassion of all who supported us in our darkest hours

  • May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance

From the outset therefore, the range of architectural possibilities is narrowed to a specific set of objectives. But the competition guidelines went further, providing more specific sources of resistance. Entrants were required to conform to nine Guiding Principles:

  1. Embody the goals and spirit of the mission statement;

  2. Convey the magnitude of personal and physical loss at this location;

  3. Acknowledge all those who aided in rescue, recovery and healing;

  4. Respect and enhance the sacred quality of the overall site and the space designated for the memorial;

  5. Encourage reflection and contemplation;

  6. Evoke the historical significance and worldwide impact of September 11, 2001;

  7. Create an original and powerful statement of enduring and universal symbolism;

  8. Inspire and engage people to learn more about the events and impact of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993;

  9. Evolve over time

Entrants were also given five physical Program Elements: Recognize each individual who was a victim of the attacks; provide an area for quiet visitation and contemplation; provide an area for families and loved ones of victims; provide separate accessible space to serve as a final resting-place for the unidentified remains from the World Trade Center site; and make visible the footprints of the original World Trade Center towers.

Just as in the commissions of the pre-modern era, all of these very specific principles, guidelines and requirements provided entrants with a very real and immediate set of constraints within which to work. Their creativity was set in motion and given purpose by the need to solve a specific problem.

The obvious difference between ideas that are borne of the autonomous will of the originator and commissioned ideas, is that whether they result in a piece of public art, an architectural project, or a thirty-second television commercial, commissioned ideas are about solving someone else’s problems. Or rather, about making someone else’s problem our problem, and opportunity and challenge.

How do you build a bridge between two plateaux 2.46 kilometres apart from each other, without detracting from an area renowned for its natural beauty? This was the challenging brief given to Sir Norman Foster, architect of the Millau Viaduct project in southern France. The specificity of challenge the brief gave this enterprise a very specific kind of purpose. Not only did it obviously have to function in terms of enabling traffic to cross quickly and easily across the gorge, but it would have to achieve this in a way that was sympathetic to the surrounding environment. No mean feat, given the scale of engineering challenge.

In response to this brief, Foster deliberately set out with the purpose of designing something beautiful, and harmonious with nature - looking at it, Foster said, “should provoke an emotion”. His idea – his new combination – was to apply an architectural sensibility to what could have been treated simply an engineering task. The resultant bridge is a monumental structure - as tall as the Eiffel Tower in parts - marching across a stunning landscape, yet it does so with a simplicity, delicacy and minimalism that belies its enormous strength. Norman Foster said at the viaduct’s dedication: “In our civilization infrastructure is fundamental. Public spaces, avenues, bridges over rivers – these are what bring men together and condition our quality of life. But there are also needs which one cannot measure, which are more spiritual.”

Examples such as this one go to show us that untrammelled freedom is not the prerequisite condition for the development of ideas. Autonomy is not the only condition in which creativity can be exercised. Far from it.

It seems sometimes that those whose creativity is applied in commerce - fields such as design and advertising for example - look at their more autonomous compatriots such as artists and writers and envy their freedom and apparent purity of purpose. Larry Shiner however, in charting the shift away from patronage to the new market system, cautions us not to exaggerate the freedom and independence of the contemporary artist. He notes that the lack of a specific advance order or commission can give the impression that the artist is completely free to pursue their own interests and inclinations. Yet if he or she wishes to earn a living from their work, they cannot divorce themselves from their audience. Whether they choose to satisfy an audience’s expectations and work within a range that it will accept, or choose to lead an audience in a new direction, they are never wholly independent.

More fundamentally, all of us who choose to apply ourselves to the creation of ideas must work with constraint and resistance. Art, as da Vinci said, “lives on constraint and dies of freedom.” I cannot help but that think that if that definition is good enough for da Vinci it might just possibly be good enough for the rest of us mortals.

Of course, not all constraint and resistance is created equally though. The examples of the World Trade Center Site Memorial and the Millau Viaduct project should demonstrate that the more interesting the problem is, and the more imaginatively the resistance framed, the more interesting and successful the resultant creative solution and idea is likely to be.

Advertising agencies hum with the challenge of solving other people’s problems. In the small world of advertising, it is the role of the creative brief to provide writers and art-directors with a clear, concise yet inspiring encapsulation of what the creative problem is that must be solved. Adrian Holmes, the former worldwide chairman of the advertising agency Lowe used to say that “great ideas need great problems.” When it comes to briefs for advertising, the mark of a good brief is one that is focused, yet allows for a variety of potential solutions to be explored.

Creativity and ideas as it should be clear by now are not the result of boundless freedom. As David Puttnam, the director of films such as Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire , Local Hero, The Killing Fields and The Mission reminds us:

"The ultimate freedom for creative people is to allow them to work within specific and agreed bounds, bounds which they understand and appreciate. When I say understand, I mean they understand the reason for their existence."

The resistance Of indifference

In her fantasy novel The Snow Queen, Joan Vinge writes: “Indifference is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hate don't stand a chance against it.” Wisdom really can be found in the most unlikely of places. All our ideas and all those engaged in their creation and production must battle – consciously or unconsciously - against the forces and agents of indifference. Indifference is the most corrosive and corrupting of human conditions. As Elie Wiesel, the writer, academic, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor wrote in his memoir:

"We need above all, to be shaken out of our indifference — the greatest source of danger in the world…For, remember, the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. The opposite of faith is not arrogance but indifference; the opposite of art is not ugliness but indifference. And the opposite of peace is indifference to both peace and war — indifference to hunger and persecution, to imprisonment and humiliation, indifference to torture and persecution."

Our battle - indeed the big battle - is not merely against indifference towards our own creation, our own idea, but indifference to the very project of being human. Because indifference equates to the very absence of response. It is as Wiesel said in a speech addressing Congress in 1999, “Not a beginning; it is an end.” Indifference is the ultimate ‘unresponse’, it is the enemy because it alienates us not merely from others, but from ourselves, from our very humanity.

Arthur Koestler in his book The Act of Creation warned memorably of the dangers of habit, and its potential to reduce us to indifference:

"Habits are the indispensable core of stability and ordered behavior, they also have a tendency to become mechanized and to reduce man to the status of a conditioned automaton. The creative act, by connecting previously unrelated dimensions of experience, enables [man] to attain to a higher level of mental evolution. It is an act of liberation - the defeat of habit by originality."

If they go unchallenged, habit, familiarity, convention are powerful agents for the condition of indifference. If as humans we are to move forward and flourish then creativity and ideas are our weapons against indifference and its fellow travellers. Ideas battle against the ‘unresponse’ of indifference, towards ourselves, towards others, towards life (with all its glory and blight) . In doing so they help us see more clearly, restore fully our powers of perception and experience, enable us to see differently, and past or through our inherited or assumed realities, and offer up alternatives.

The writer Philip Pullman, for example, makes us think differently, freshly about what he describes as: “Something large and important that affects every single human being: the business of growing up, of innocence and experience, of cruelty and love.” Growing up happens to everybody, it’s a commonplace inevitability. All of us grown ups have made that transition, and our shelves are full of books that address that very subject. Yet in transplanting us to an alternative universe, and in the company of speaking bears and witches, Pullman makes us feel anew the pain and beauty that comes with the inevitable loss of innocence. He pulls us out of habit and indifference. As if The Catcher in the Rye had never been written, let alone read.

Similarly, the painter Lucian Freud also battles against the habit that breeds indifference, and has spoken of wanting to go beyond merely dealing with like-nesses and paint people “not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.”

Ideas are our weapons in the battle against indifference. They push back against the dulling, corrosive effects of habit. They are our tools for new beginnings, they ensure that new possibilities, new ways of thinking, feeling, behaving and being are being opened up. They must resist the end of things. It is no surprise to discover that the task of art, as Picasso once said, was “the washing of daily dust off our souls.”

Resistance, purpose, and change

Newton's third law - of reciprocal actions - tells us that there are no isolated forces. All forces are the result of interactions. Thus for every external force that acts on an object, there is a force of equal magnitude but opposite direction which acts back on the object which exerted that initial external force.

In this way, the jet aircraft is propelled by burning gases expanding and blasting out through the back of the engine. As the jets of gas shoot backward, the engine and the aircraft are thrust forward.

A system cannot set itself in motion with purely internal forces - to achieve force and acceleration, it must interact with an object external to itself.

The same dynamic is true of purpose and creativity. Purpose does not just appear without any form of interaction. It cannot set itself in motion purely from within, but must too, interact with something other than itself.

Finding and embracing resistance gives us the impetus to move our individual and collective expertise and capabilities forward, to expand the scope of human possibilities, unfold new insights, open up new opportunities of experience, and constantly move forward the boundaries of our expectations.


Karol Berger, A Theory of Art

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

Winston Fletcher, Tantrums & Talent: How to Get the Best from Creative People

Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation

Richard Krevolin, How To Adapt Anything Into A Screenplay

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition Guidelines, 2003

Jonathan K. Nelson & Richard J. Zeckhauser, The Patron's Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art

Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962 - 1993

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman

Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Joan D. Vinge, The Snow Queen

Elie Wiesel, Night