A&O notes – RULES, technique


The Relationship of RULES to CREATIVE EXPRESSION is straightforward:   

The scaffolding of rules, protocols, successful precedents provides safety: comfort and confidence to go beyond.  The scaffold, can then be dismantled. 

BUT 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.


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.)


The great music teacher, Nadia Boulanger,[i] said

“To study music we must learn the rules.

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

(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)


“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)

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)


“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]


[i]. 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

[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.