Art is Limitation (or A Quote from G.K. Chesterton)

Is limitation something to curse or celebrate? Is true freedom found in the absence of limitation or in the midst of it? Any choice is a thousand denials – common sense tells us that. Does this mean that we can never truly be free?

G.K. Chesterton has often been hailed as “the apostle of common sense.” In his book, Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes some fascinating thoughts on the beauty and benefit of 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.

What do you think? Do you agree with Chesterton? May true beauty and freedom be found within limitation and not in the absence of it?

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About jonathanapowers

Jonathan serves with his wife, Faith, as the director of student ministries for World Gospel Mission at Asbury University, where he is also an adjunct professor of Worship Arts. He recently received his doctorate in worship studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, FL. Jonathan serves as the worship pastor for the Offerings Community of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY and is the co-author with Jason Jackson and Teddy Ray of Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Tradition published by Seedbed.

3 responses to “Art is Limitation (or A Quote from G.K. Chesterton)”

  1. Enoch says :

    I absolutely agree with Chesterton, but I had never before heard it put so well. When I teach music composition, students initially don’t like the “restraints” I might put on a particular assignment. However, after some experience, they find that having to work within those confines forces them to tease out creative (and sometimes sophisticated) solutions. Even when Schoenberg seemed to throw out all the rules of preceding musical practice, he set now boundaries for himself so that he could free up others.

    • jonathanapowers says :

      Thanks, Enoch. One of the things I find when reading Chesterton is that he says things I have often thought, but in a profound and much clearer way. It’s one of the things I appreciate most about his writing. Like you, I also find that art tends to thrive within restraint. Perhaps the only true limitless painting is a blank canvas, or unrestrained piece of music is that which hasn’t yet been written. But I’d argue it doesn’t become art until you start setting the limitations. And, harkening to your comment, it’s those who are able to creatively and sophisticatedly tease out solutions within those limitations that often arise as the best artists.

  2. babybelly6 says :

    I absolutely love this quote. I think of it often in the context of the Psalmist saying, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” or Paul in Romans 6:22, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”
    I appreciate this as an art teacher and in my own artwork, but I especially appreciate it in life. When I think of the things I don’t have, and find myself coveting what everyone else has, the image of a framed work of beauty helps me thank God for what He has chosen to put in my frame. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.

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