A&O notes – RULES, technique





The Relationship of RULES to CREATIVE EXPRESSION is straightforward:   

RULES may provide the scaffolding–protocols, successful precedents that provides safety: comfort and confidence to go beyond.  ONCE IT HAS SERVED its purpose–to support development–the scaffold, can then be dismantled.  (in the brain connections are lost throughout development–failing that (especially in infancy) clutter and dysfunction result.  

RULES are often understood as unnatural or arbitrary limits on one’s potential, as constricting ones native creativity. Forcing discipline on what should be playful.  Like all such seeming contradictions there is a balance that finds different points of composure at different points in one’s life or experience.


WE CAN SAY THERE IS A DYNAMIC BALANCE between SAPIENCE and SENTIENCE, THINKING and FEELING, that can be understood by from the perspective of RULES and the BREAKING of RULES [this should evoke the ideas of DEVELOPMENT of the organism and the interplay of NATURE and NURTURE, the fixed and the flexible]. HERE we have to consider a theme that ripples through most of our thinking: DUALITY.



If one really wishes to be a master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an “artless art” growing out of the Unconscious. (Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.)  Now look at SPREZZATURA



proceed with confidence–“make it look easy…natural”

Learn about


(could this be any more than evoking confidence in the authenticity of the artist?) 


The great music teacher, Nadia Boulanger,[a] said:

“To study music we must learn the rules.

To create music, we must forget them.” [ii]


“The part of our brain that is most involved in learning a new task is the cerebral cortex, which controls higher-order, conscious thought and is adaptable to novel situations. But as we play a piece of music or practice a speech over and over again, we gradually transfer the control of that activity from the cerebral cortex to another area of the brain, the cerebellum, which orchestrates the lightning-fast motor activation needed to perform complex actions.  “The cerebral cortex is very good at general-purpose stuff but not at intricately timed things,” says Boston University neurologist Frank Guenther. “You want to get the better-equipped part of the brain doing the job for these tasks.” Thus, when people are learning something new they show high levels of activity in the cerebral cortex, whereas when they perform a task they already know well they show more activity in the cerebellum. // The wrinkle in this system is that the cerebellum, unlike the cerebral cortex, is not consciously accessible.”  (Elizabeth Svoboda (2009) reporting in Scientific American MIND,  Feb-March  p36-41)


As a guide to action, RULES provide a perspective that helps one appreciate the balance between sapience and sentience.  That rules do not rule is a frequent sentiment: 

  • There is sometimes a greater judgement shewn in deviating from the rules of art, than in adhering to them; and there is more beauty in the works of a great genius who is ignorant of all the rules of art, than in the works of a little genius, who not only knows but scrupulously observes them. (Joseph Addison 1714).[ii]
  • “…every individual is an exception to the rule.” (Carl Jung 1921)[i]
  • Lu Ch’ai says: Among those who study painting, some strive for an elaborate effect and others prefer the simple. Neither complexity in itself nor simplicity is enough. // Some aim to be deft, others to be laboriously careful. Neither dexterity nor conscientiousness is enough. // Some set great value on method, while other pride themselves on dispensing with method.  To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse. // You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to seem to have no method. (Mai-Mai Sze’s  The Mustard Seed Garden  (1888/1956 Princeton, N.J., Bollingen edition) Chapter 1 of The Fundamentals of Painting, (“Ch’ing Tsai T’ang: Discussion of the Fundamentals  of Painting” p17)
  • “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”  (Rob Siltanen text for Apple Computer’s “Think Different ad in 1997 (Wikipedia) (The one minute ad on You Tube)
  • … creativity, the God-given madness, cannot be reduced to human rule (Ion, Symposium, Phaedrus):  “…there is a form of possession or madness, of which the Muses are the source…” (Book VII 245) The poet becomes a ‘light winged holy creature who cannot compose until he becomes possessed and . . . reason no longer dwells within him.’[iii]  “There is no great genius,” said Seneca, “without a touch of Madness”[iv]


A&O seminar participants: I hope this helps clarify the spectrum nature of the processes that contribute to creativity


“All these arts [tea ceremony, calligraphy, painting, bushido] are expressions of the spontaneity, simplicity and total presence of mind characteristic of the Zen life. While they all require a perfection of technique, real mastery is only achieved when technique is transcended and the art becomes an “artless art” growing out of the unconscious” (from chapter on Zen in The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra)(sprezzatura?)

  •  “In appreciating Chinese calligraphy, the meaning is entirely forgotten, and the lines and forms are appreciated in and from themselves” (Lin Yu Tang (1936) quoted by Zhang Yu Huan & Ken Rose in A Brief History of Qi” (2001) resonates with Caoshu  (“grass writing”which “goes beyond not observing rules to complete freedom…” )[iii]

You would be forgiven if this reminds you of abstract expressionism

In fact, all forms of impulsive, unreflected creative expression – even poetry.  In William Wordsworth’s view “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” (William Wordsworth (1770—1850) in Lyrical Ballads, preface, 2nd edition (1801).[iv]


David Bartlett, in his whatsthepont.blog entry of 25 July 2015 celebrates this idea with a quote by fashion artist Alexander McQueen, “You’ve got to know the rules to break them… That’s what I’m here for – to demolish the rules but keep the tradition”. (Bartlett 2015)[b]



MORE ABOUT RULES–existentialism and authenticity:  we pursue FREEDOM (to make the existentially advantageous decision? … phoney authenticity is mastery of received rules –but rules, like the constraints of the “time and place into which we are born,” can be stultifying:) “How can one avoid the pitfalls of this phoney authenticity? More historical awareness of where our ideals of authenticity and freedom come from can help. As the American political philosopher Matthew B Crawford details in his book The World Beyond Your Head (2015), the narcissist has a mistaken idea of freedom. Crawford follows Adorno and Lasch, agreeing that the groundlessness of human action doesn’t imply that human beings are or should be completely autonomous. We’re born into a particular place and time, with particular psychological and physical attributions, and with particular people and traditions available to us that we can draw on or reject. These constraints are debilitating only if we see them as such, if we consider them as fetters from which the self should ideally be free. In reality, many rules and constraints are enabling: they are the conditions of freedom, not the barriers to it. They are the friction that allow us to move forward.”

… The Romantic ironist doesn’t regard this situation as absurd, but appropriate. If we’re to be authentic, we should ironically and humbly acknowledge the limitations of our individual perspective and effort, without despairing at our limitations. We should embrace the necessarily fragmentary nature of our endeavours, and we should enrich our efforts by trying to inhabit those of others, including those who came before us. In this way, we do take some steps toward the absolute.  [is the absolute something to be sought? If so, how would we recognize progress? More likely, it’s unattainablity seems essential – À la “… a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” (Browning)]  (excerpts from Alexander Stern (2021) Authenticity is a Sham. https://aeon.co/essays/a-history-of-authenticity-from-jesus-to-self-help-and-beyond?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter  If this echoes “the process is the product” (how does this equal (or not) “the medium is the message“?) so be it… movement is the essence of life, of being…products, unless they are in the service of more movement, are sterile dead ends, empty of meaning.  


[a] Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was at her death director of the American School of Music at Fontainebleau, which she helped found after World War I. A Enormously influential, she taught many distinguished performers and composers‑‑among them Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Elliott Carter. She helped American music gain worldwide recognition.@ She was the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony and NY Philharmonic.  But she is best known as a teacher —  training now distinguished composers from Europe and America. [Nadia Boulanger ‑ Aa name that can still inspire a mixture of admiration and fear in generations of ex‑music students! Many books, articles and recordings have testified to the genius of this remarkable teacher, who had such an impact on the course of 20th century music and musical life. Through her American School at Fontainebleau, she had a profound influence on the majority of the nation’s composers and teachers. In addition, she notched up an impressive list of ‘firsts’, including first woman to conduct several major US orchestras, and first person to discover and record the works of Monteverdi. Her enthusiasm for music extended from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, the only prerequisite being quality.@ B from  http://www.brailsford.demon.co.uk/hcblngr.htm] and see  “After her younger sister’s death, Nadia moved away from composing toward pedagogy, becoming the most renowned composition teacher of the 20th century — if not of all musical history. Her pupils, the so-called “Boulangerie,” included such luminaries-to-be as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones. The composer Virgil Thomson once described Boulanger as a “a one‐woman graduate school so powerful and so permeating that legend credits every U.S. town with two things: a five‐and‐dime and a Boulanger pupil.”  And that is largely how Boulanger, who died in 1979 at 92, is still remembered today, as a great teacher who taught great composers. This subordinate role is one that women have often played in music history: mothers, muses and schoolmarms to the men of the canon.” (from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/30/arts/music/nadia-boulanger-bard-music.html.  

[b] (https://whatsthepont.blog/2015/07/25/learn-the-rules-like-a-pro-so-you-can-break-them-like-an-artist/  –downloaded `Tuesday, March 9, 2021)

[i] From Jung’s Psychological Types (1921)  Quoted in http://psychologia.co/jung-personality-types/  Complete text of Psychological Types

[ii].  Joseph Addison) 1672-1719  English poet, playwright, and essayist; co‑founder of The Spectator; The Spectator no. 592 (10 September 1714).  (Recalls Pope:  Great wits may sometimes gloriously offend, /  And rise to faults true critics dare not mend. /  From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part /  And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art.  –Alexander Pope 1688n1744,  An Essay on Criticism (1711) l. 152.

[iii]. Plato is probably borrowing from Democritus, who said that ‘all that a poet writes when possessed and divinely inspired is truly excellent.’)  (see Hacklworth’s commentaries on Plato’s Phaedrus 1952:56‑62)

[iv]. Seneca: De Tranquillitate Animi XVII.x; (but Seneca says he is quoting Aristotle and the idea is also in Plato=s Phaedrus.


[ii]. Quoted in Context 9/24/99 17(2)

[iii] Sun Feb 1 2004.  I bought a book about Chinese calligraphy recently (Baltimore?), Between Heaven and Earth: A History of Chinese Writing by Shi Bo (2002, Shambhala)– it is simple-minded with lots of illustrations, just right for me.  And recalls my old love of calligraphy & sumi – I was taken in particular by a form that resonates harmoniously: Caoshu [“grass writing” in Chinese] was a cursive form that was invented about 200 c.e. between the end of Quin and the beginning of Han.  It was in striking contrast to the prevailing Kaishu or Lishu. Which were “governed by restrictive rules, all or almost all set forth and imposed by the supreme power.  In contrast, Caoshu observes no rules.  It even goes beyond not observing rules to complete freedom, which was a rare thing in the ancient, centralized empire, so subject to heavy codes of uniformity” (p.64).  One form, “. . . still very much in vogue today, varies with its authors, who invent a large number of words that are illegible but are very esthetically executed and, thus, appreciated by collectors.  This type of calligraphy is often called Kuangcao, “crazy calligraphy” (p.69).

[iv].All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. B William Wordsworth (1770BB1850), British poet. Lyrical Ballads, preface, 2nd edition (1801).  This sentiment, which is a central tenet in Wordsworth=s criticism, has parallels in Schiller, Ueber Büürgers Gedichte, as well as Coleridge==s Notebooks, in which he speaks of Arecalling passion in tranquillity.@ B http://www.bartleby.com/66/88/65488.html

“Twice in Wordsworth’s preface to the lyrical ballads, he defines poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of feelings.”  However, Wordsworth does not believe that anyone can have these feelings. Without coming out and saying it, Wordsworth hints that a true poet must be old. . . . Wordsworth sees poetry as emotions that come while reflecting on the past. The “passion” he mentions is not stirred by active exterior stimulants, but by thoughts of the past that have settled in a poet=s mind and, merely through time, have created an intricate web that replicates nature.    The wave of emotion that Wordsworth=s poet has “recollected in tranquility” resembles Coleridge’s “intellectual breeze” running over the Eolian harp: “tranquil muse upon tranquility.” Wordsworth sees writing poetry as a passive experience, and true tranquility can only be reached by the aged.