The Infinite Source of Art

In Light on Adobe Walls, Willa Cather says, “Every artist knows there is no such thing as ‘freedom’ in art. The first thing an artist does when he begins a new work is to lay down the barriers and limitations; he decides upon a certain composition, a certain key, a certain relation of creatures or objects to each other.” I would go on to say that laying down limits is not only the first thing an artist does, but is everything the artist does. Creating art is a process of putting limits on infinite possibility. Like the God of Genesis, the artist imposes forms upon the void. He says, “Let there be light,” and then he places limits between light and dark, between waters above and waters below, between heaven and earth, between plant and animal, between man and woman.

First, the artist chooses a medium. Every medium has inherent limits. For example, visual artists do not create sounds. They are limited to optical expression. They work with shades of color and shapes of space. Again, musical art cannot be physically touched, as can a quilt or a statue. Again, a director of movies, who has music, visual spectacles, acting, and writing at his disposal, would find it very difficult to depict the dream consciousness of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Before choosing a medium, the artist sits before a mass of infinite possibilities for expression. The choice of a medium places some limits on what he can and can’t do.

The artist then finds that the elements of every medium may be combined in an infinite number of ways. When I sit down to compose on the guitar, I am faced with an infinite variety of possible notes and rhythms. Each time I choose a note or a rhythm, I say no to another. I generally choose to limit myself to the 12 note series of the standard European chromatic scale. Even this limit presents me with more possibilities than I know what to do with, so I usually select a scale that limits which notes from the 12 I will focus on. Often, I choose an 8 note scale and key that has proven fruitful for creation, such as A Hungarian Minor, C Phrygian, or E Lydian Dominant. This limit brings with it a host of other limits because each key and scale has a peculiar mood and sound. Even these scales boggle my mind with infinite possibilities for grouping notes into chords and for sequencing the order the notes appear in. The rhythms in which the notes appear must also be considered, but I’ve belabored this example enough. I think it illustrates that the creative process is one of continually choosing limits to the possible. The completed work is a very particular thing that the artist orders out of the infinite.

Then again, I’m not sure Cather is completely correct in saying that laying down barriers and limitations is always the first thing the artist does. When I write poems, the first thing that happens is usually a flash of intuition about a feeling or a topic. It may be a simple metaphor, or even just a sense that a subject will yield art. At this point, I haven’t even limited the expression of the intuition to a particular medium. Admittedly, the intuition itself may be a limitation of sorts–it certainly makes a particular association and no other, and it may be what Cather referred to as a “certain relation of…objects to each other”–but, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” I’m not sure where these intuitions come from, and I’m not certain they are a limitation and barrier on the infinite. They are a sort of vague potentiality with barely discernible limits that resemble expanses to be explored, rather than barriers.

I generally choose to express these intuitions in poetry. This choice of medium imposes limits, but it may not be followed by rhyme schemes or meters. Sometimes, the next thing I do is freely associate words on a page in an attempt to capture some of the pixie dust of the original intuition. My only limit is to associate as many feelings and thoughts with the intuition as I possibly can. This word storm will become the material I impose rhymes and meters on.

The words usually come fast and furious, but I always fail to capture all of the elements of the intuition. They slip back into the infinite from which they were born. The process of putting the intuition into a mess of words is a process of putting limitations and barriers on the intuition, but I question that the artist used limits and barriers to obtain the intuition precisely because of these lost elements. The intuition seems to have the character of an infinite. I recognize that an infinite is not the infinite because it is some limited portion of the infinite, but what I’m striving to express is that the artist doesn’t necessarily obtain this first intuition by laying down limits and barriers. Somehow, his first step was to enter the freedom of the mysterious infinite. I’m not sure he consciously chooses to make that step, and the step is often only the matter of a moment, but this step must be made in order to locate a portion of the infinite upon which to impose limits and barriers. The choice of the portion is the first limit and barrier the artist imposes, but it is the second step he takes.

I’ll close this post with a short poem. The initial intuition came while I walked home from work one day. I had no paper, so the image and word storm was formed on the canvass of my mind. When I reached a notebook, I poured it onto paper in a matter of moments. I imposed very little structure on it beyond the initial words that came and a few minor adjustments.

I see God,
And undead hunger swells inside me.
I tear his head off
And eat his brain.
‘Tis sweet and satisifies
Like no other brain before it.
I see I’ve eaten Athena,
But I’m no cannibal.
She seems to have enjoyed it,
And I, now enlivened,
Look forward to the fruit
That will burst from my temple
After the coming consummation.