Igor Stravinsky Agrees: Standards Enable Creativity

There is a stereotype of the creative person who chafes at standards related to how their work is performed, to the point of eschewing any sort of process-driven continuous improvement approach. This creative person can be a designer, a marketing professional, a sales person, a machinist, or a doctor. “Work is art,” they tell us, “be gone with your talk of process.” So it is a surprise to find the exactly opposite sentiment stated quite strongly by one of the grand master musical composers of the past century, Igor Stravinsky, who wrote in Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons:

A mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy. The effects it produces may accidentally amuse but are not capable of being repeated. I cannot conceive of a fantasy that is repeated, for it can be repeated only to its detriment…The creator’s function is to sift the elements he receives from her [the imagination], for human activity must impose limits on itself. The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free…If everything is permissable to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile…I have no use for theoretic freedom. Let me have something finite, definite–matter that can lend itself to my operation only insofar as it is commensurate with my possibilities. And such matter presents itself to me together with its limitations. I must in turn impose mine upon it. So here we are, whether we like it or not, in the realm of necessity. And yet which of us has ever heard talk of art as other than a realm of freedom? This sort of heresy is uniformally widespread because it is imagined that art is outside the bounds of ordinary activity. Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible.

My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: 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 oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.

The sentence, “The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free” is a classic contradiction of the type that powers lean thinking, such as “less is more” or “giving away authority gives you more power” and “plan slowly and thoroughly in order to implement quickly.”

The following Stravinsky sentence nicely echoes Taiichi Ohno’s statement that “where there are not standards there can be no improvement”:

“[…]in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible.”

I remember learning in a university class on classical music titled “The Art of Listening” that when Stravinsky’s piece The Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris in 1913 it caused a riot. Both its complex rhythmic structures and innovative choreography were ahead of its time. I think that any brave manager who attempts to perform the standardization of knowledge work / creative work as described by Stravinsky, “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” will also face a riot.

When we say that an artist’s work or thought is “ahead of their time” are we saying that they are advanced, or that their audience is stuck in the past? Perhaps it takes a true artist to incorporate new ideas in their work, to embrace standards as part of their creative process.

4 Comments

  1. Clay

    July 12, 2010 - 3:16 pm

    May be apocryphal, but Robert Frost supposedly disliked free verse poetry, saying it was “like tennis without the net.”

  2. Dan Markovitz

    July 12, 2010 - 6:14 pm

    Great post, Jon. I’ve read (though I can’t remember where right now) of painters who have said the same thing. Writers work within the constrains and rules of grammar and syntax, and on a larger scale, the rules of narrative structure. (Of course, the post-modernists have thrown out those rules, but their pieces work (if you like their stuff) because they stand in opposition to them.)

  3. John Santomer

    July 13, 2010 - 6:18 am

    Dear Jon,
    I suppose what Igor Stravinsky was pointing out is that even in standards (viewed by any creator as an obstacle) – when it gives way to new ideas and comes up with much leaner “works of art” is an innovation ahead of its time. (The public is still used to the old standards…) Obstacles may be viewed also as something positive when this delimiter is used as a measure of maintaining quality. If and when this delimiter is surpassed without diminishing the quality or lean measures but instead improves it- then it breaks the record of the previous standards and can be seen as a kaizen improvement. Hmmm, I hope that makes sense…

  4. Marty Yuzwa

    July 30, 2010 - 12:17 pm

    This is exactly what advocates of SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking) state. Creative solutions are most often exhibited in a “Closed World” where we don’t bring anything more into the problem space then already exists. Here’s my favorite website discussing these principles: http://www.start2think.com