Structure has a good rep amongst some, and a bad rep amongst others. There is great value in structure – it can be geometric, remarkably satisfying, it can be stable/unstable, it can bring a feeling of safety and security that we can rely on, it instills fixed boundaries and rules that can often be defined. However, it also can be seen to restrict, frustrate and alienate.
I have come to think that understanding structure and the value it has can ironically itself be a strong foundation from which we can most powerfully explore and express freedom. There are gaps that can be left open by structure for freedom, gaps in which creativity can flourish most spectacularly.
In my quest to explore this theme, I delved into the arts to see how “successful” creators have dealt with structure and freedom, and how much of both is reflected in their efforts.
I started with Bjork, who inspired this entire tangent (as well as numerous others). Bjork studied music as a child and was frustrated to her wits end by the generic approach. However, she pressed on. This seems to be a common trend of phenomenal achievers in a particular field – she didn’t throw in the towel then and there and abandon the cause because she didn’t like structure, she pressed on. It became part of the personal internal struggle that deepened her resilience and elevated her level of passion and determination to make a positive change to the world of music and the way it was experienced. Not everyone makes that leap – many fall by the wayside. In all of Bjork’s work, and even in the way she speaks, it is clear that she is highly intelligent and understands the structure of music, so well in fact, that she knows exactly how to leverage it in complex and simple ways to communicate her desired message. This has made her extraordinary, and she has been recognised for it. It seems to me that Bjork is a perfect display of a spectrum, where structure is the start and it blends into freedom until most of what we see her create is freedom, even though there is structure to it.
I then moved on to discover the Flying Steps, a world-leading breakdancing group from Germany. They were frustrated with the reputation of breakdancing and wanted to elevate it in the minds of the public to being an art form more than just part of the underground world of hip hop. They collaborated with Red Bull and a classical composer to create the Red Bull Flying Bach series, where they did breakdancing to pieces by Bach. They had deeply understood and mastered the structure of breakdancing and wanted to break out of the mould in an extraordinary way. They succeeded.
“To fail is sometimes sexy” Gabriel Orozco
My third inquiry lead me to meet Gabriel Orozco, a Mexican artist with a soft spot for boomerangs. Orozco was unsatisfied with the conservative approach he was taught and moved on to explore his own preferred means of artistic expression later. His installations/works cover a broad spectrum of themes and layers, ranging from him placing 1 transparent yoghurt lid on each of 4 walls in a massive gallery to something far more appealing to me, where he did a series of Samurai Tree paintings depicting the pre-predicted moves of a knight on a chess board in geometric patterns. This got me to thinking: When does something become art? Does anything, really, prevent something from being art or is it a matter of subjectivity? And if anyone else had done that, would they be written off? How much of his freedom and ability to do whatever he wants has come from his name? Gabriel used both freedom and structure in all of his works and was limited by neither.
In the words of Nyamza, an African dance choreographer who conveys deeply meaningful concepts through her work:
“Why does it have to be this way? Who said I have to do it like this? How can I make it my own, to fit my own body?”
She used the structure she had learnt in Ballet to help her push through the barriers and arrive at a new way of moving a/her body that expressed what she wanted it to.
In the East, things are explored as complements (see Yin and Yang) in a more holistic manner whereas in the West, things are polarised more as opposites, contrasted and even pitched against each other as mutually exclusive concepts competing for airtime. I sense structure and freedom are not opposites, but are in fact complements, and both need to be embraced and leveraged to the degree that is appropriately intuited in each context we find ourselves in.
In summary – for all of these phenomenal creators, they spent years of their lives dedicated to learning the structure of their art forms. All of them were frustrated with the constraints of a conservative approach, and all of them developed their own language using the words their art form taught them, to the point where they used their language to expose others to a new way, which speaks of freedom. The determination and resilience to push through the struggle is what defines these artists and sets them apart from many. Neither these individuals nor you and I need be defined by the structure or the struggle, but rather we can embrace what we learn with the understanding that we can make it our own. We need to have a commitment to our own truth and authentically convey that through whatever we choose to do, whether it be a world-leading artist or not. What all these artists have in common is that they had the creative insight to see beyond the structure that frustrated them, and to leverage the power it brought them. In fact, it perhaps was not the structure that frustrated them as much as the conservative, limited approach that delivered the structure – it isn’t about blame, it is about perspective. We need to understand the value of structure and to rise above being bound by it – this approach brings freedom, and releases creativity.
We need to all move away from the labels we plaster onto words and concepts, and with humble curiosity approach and ask questions, be willing to learn, be willing to grasp one way first before adapting it to communicate our message to the world. I think there is an element of laziness involved if we let structure get in the way of us being creative – we need the dedication and discipline to push through our own self-created barriers and to build a strong foundation of knowledge that empowers and frees us to creatively mould something unique. The possibilities are infinite, and we need to embrace the structure that freedom brings and the freedom that structure brings. The conversation would more poignantly turn from structure and freedom to creativity and perspective,the powerful catalysts between these two complementary concepts.