Will, Limitation, and Art: A Quote from G.K. Chesterton

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Note: This is from his classic book Orthodoxy; the chapter, The Suicide of Thought taken from a larger paragraph discussing the Will.

All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. (John) Davidson, are really quite empty of volition. They cannot will, they can hardly wish. And if any one wants a proof of this, it can be found quite easily. It can be found in this fact: that they always talk of will as something that expands and breaks out. But it is quite the opposite. Every act of will is an act of self-limitation.

To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else…Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses…It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that makes most of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little better than nonsense.

Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold, creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffee with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature.

You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which in some ways is the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.

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Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


11 Comments

  1. Benjamin Wolaver

    Chesterton was probably the greatest philosophical mind of the 20th Century. I love Orthodoxy. I think his point here is so poignant… and remarkably relevant to our time (are any Chesterton works not releveant?). Love of limitation is one of the reasons one of my favorite movies is 12 Angry Men. The more the artist can do with a little, the more value I tend to see in their art.

  2. Steve

    Ron,

    Thank you! I read this on return from lunch where I was reading George MacDonald’s “The Creation in Christ”, particularly:

    “What then, I say once more, is in Christ correspondent to the creative power of God? It must be something that comes also of love; and in the Son the love must be to the already existent. Because of that eternal love which has no beginning, the Father must have the Son. God could not love, could not be love, without making things to love: Jesus has God to love; the love of the Son is responsive to the love of the Father. The response to self-existent love is self-abnegating love. The refusal of himself is that in Jesus which corresponds to the creation of God. His love takes action, creates, in self-abjuration, in the death of self as motive; in the drowning of self in the life of God, where it lives only as love.”

    What Nietzsche and others may not have been able to grasp is that in the dying to self we are actually throwing away the peel for the fruit within. Doesn’t Lewis say something about getting earth thrown in when we chose the heavenly?

    Oh, and the picture is quite convincing. Or is that convicting?

  3. Tony Heringer

    He seems to shoot down the illusion of multitasking, eh? Thanks for the quick hit Ron and that is a good “separated at birth” comparison.

  4. Julie

    Here’s that Lewis quote you were talking about Steve. “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

  5. Pete

    “But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck.”

    I once heard a definition of “reality” as “that that IS”. From what you’re saying, a grounding in reality is essential to the act of artistic creation. It’s always the boundaries and structure that make things interesting – the better you understand them, the better you can approach them, tease them, or go outside them (but intentionally rather than through ignorance/laziness).

    Very cool.

    One of the indicators as to whether I’ll like a group is the amount of time it can go without a Lewis reference (or a Chesterton one). This one stack up pretty well on that score – I think you;d be hard pressed to find three Rabbit Room posts in a row where one commenter or another makes a Lewis/Chesterton allusion. Keep up the good work!

  6. Kevin Elias

    What I like about boundaries in art, regardless of whether it is visual art or music is the way it makes us search for the details. For instance a song that spans too broad a topic or simply uses generalizations does not have nearly the impact of a song which will give you the details. One of my favorite things in the world is to go to the mountains and smell the cool,damp, piney aroma. Though the sights and sounds are wonderful, it is the details that I take in through my lesser senses that make me come alive, and that’s what I believe happens when through our art we notice the small things, the cracks and crevasses we never would have explored had we not had some degree of limitation surrounding us. That I believe is where the feeling is hidden.

  7. becky

    All human creativity is limited. Is there such a thing as music that does not have sound? Line, shape, value, texture, color, movement, time…all visual artists work within the limits of the elements of design. We might change the principles, but the elements remain. God is the only person who created/creates without limits. He thought up the elements that bind us. Color and shape and sound were his ideas. Time and space are boundaries that he put in place around us. Even the most avant garde or anti-establishment artists are governed by them.

    One of my college instructors used to tell us that good designers create great designs with limited color pallettes, client budgets, and printing capabilities. And I have found that those limits often force me to be more creative. To stretch my thinking, and discover more of what can be done with fewer resources.

  8. Seth

    Having just graduated from school for Interior Design, I can attest to the truth of the words “The artist loves his limitations”. The most creative solutions are found where the problem is most complex. I see this as a beautiful reflection of the gospel; the problem of sin is so large that we cannot solve it ourselves. Yet, into that situation God sent his Son, the one perfect solution! I thank God for the limits that I must work with in design because they remind me of the limits that He has overcome.

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