Working with constraints

There is a theory that one can have too much freedom, at least in art.  With constraints the imagination is forced to work harder, and might achieve an elegance and beauty unobtainable when a simple answer can be used.  Rules and constraints can also be broken, at the right time, giving an aesthetic that is unobtainable for a completely free setting.  In particular a set of rules gives a possibility of some idea of perfection, and thus adding a deliberate flaw can, for many, increase the aesthetic appeal of a work of art.  It is not possible to have a flaw in a work which is completely free.  

 These ideas have been developed many times, especially in the modern era as freedom became more fashionable, and thus setting rules became more rebellious than breaking them (as an aside I would be interested if anyone has examples of such ideas from before the middle of the 19th century).  I would like to mention two of my heroes who also wrote theory on this subject.  The first is Max Bill, who gave a vision of concrete art, stating in his essay The Mathematical Approach in Contemporary Art (no prizes for guessing my interest):

…despite the fact the basis of this Mathematical Approach to Art is in reason, its dynamic content is able to launch us on astral flights which soar into unknown and still uncharted regions of the imagination.

The second is the Oulipo, a literary group, described by Raymond Queneau as:


Rats qui ont à construire le labyrinthe dont ils se proposent de sortir.

(Rats who construct the labyrinth from which they propose to escape)


The ideas of the Oulipo are perhaps more explicitly similar to the points I mention at the beginning, for the simple reason that my thinking has been heavily influenced by them.  An archetypal example of their work and possible my favourite novel is George Perec’s Life: A Users Manual.  This work had an incredibly complex set of rules for its structure, yet wears it lightly.  One can read, and enjoy, the book without considering, or even being aware, of the fiendish construction process.  In addition the story of the book, (grand, complex artistic schemes) describes the book itself.  The schemes in the book eventually fail, and the book itself only has 99 chapters rather than the 100 that the rules declare it should have.  One of its many themes, therefore, is a beautiful study on many levels of the aesthetics of flawed perfection.

One final idea that working with constraints introduces is the element of puzzle.  Can one find the constraints or rules given the finished piece.  This is an idea that I want to develop more fully, so for the moment I will just leave a forward reference.

The ideas of the Oulipo and Max Bill seem so close that it is amazing to find so few links between the two traditions, for example using google.  While I was writing this there were only 93 hits for “Max Bill” and Oulipo, “concrete art” and oulipo did even worse gaining just 23 and “constructive art” and oulipo only 2!  I think that it is therefore safe to assume that the ideas were developed separately in Literature and visual art.  Can one use this convergent evolution to justify the ideas, though simple are deep, profound and interesting?

Non-philosophic constraints

I did not mention above that one can also take on constraints for purely utilitarian reasons.  Either one is forced to because of the materials one is using, or certain constraints can solve a practical problem.  As a personal example I have recently been playing with images that can be created on squared paper.  For no other reason than I have been using a pad of squared paper as a notebook (and that I am not happy with my drawing skills).  A simple piece made on the computer from some of this thinking is below (guesses on the construction are again welcome, but no prize this time!):


Root 5 grids

Root 5 grids