There were no boundaries or limitations on how she could express herself.
"Wasn't it difficult to channel your art in a frum way?" I asked her. "I mean, after you were used to painting and sculpting whatever you wanted, wasn't it difficult to limit yourself after you became religious?"
Nodding to herself, she frowned in thought before saying, "I wouldn't say 'difficult'...." She paused again, searching for the right words. "Yes, it's true that I can't create whatever I want--although in a way I can, because my soul expresses different things now--but my art is better now. Yeah, I feel that frumkeit actually improves your art."
"Really?" I said. "Having your art conform to frum standards actually improves your art?"
"Yes," she said. "Because without limitations, there is no real creativity."
Now, that stumped me.
In a thousand different ways, the secular world always insists that creativity demands total uninhibited freedom. And the definition of good art in any field was always how much it pushed past the current boundaries (rather than remain within the those boundaries)--whether the end product was actually any good or not.
For example, the highly lauded field of "experimental art" or "experimental music" is often merely something that hasn't been done yet. And at this point, what is left to do is often ugly, disturbing, and in bad taste.
She explained, "If you can just do anything you want, then what's the challenge in that? How can you be truly creative and even cultivate artistic genius if you just do 'whatever'?"
Needless to say, she's right.
And it applies to any creative endeavor, which is why we quip, "Necessity is the mother of invention."
Inventors create because something is missing, because there are limits.
Another example is in the field of writing.
For instance, publishers of mysteries often say things like, "I would love to see a really good locked-room mystery!"
(A locked-room mystery is when a body is found in a locked room with no window and therefore, no apparent exit for the perpetrator.)
This is one of the hardest mysteries to write. Therefore, anyone who can write it well shows greater genius and will be more in demand than one who writes a, say, a whodunit that takes place in an open park at night.
Why do we admire art which incorporates verses of Tehillim into a thematic painting? Because doing so demands such skill and creative thought.
And the list goes on.
The Innovative Beauty of Prohibitions
Millennia of Jewish scholarship has emphasized the importance of limitations, from limiting our speech to expressing gratitude for the limits God set on the oceans at the seashores.
Yet the idea of being limited often leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the modern millennial; limits are often seen as confining, strangling, suffocating, strait-jacketing, and so on.
Yet our Sages tell us that limiting our speech can merit us a light so great that even the greatest angels cannot perceive it. And without limits on our oceans, our world would be flooded and mostly uninhabitable.
"Restraint" seems like a quaint idea or else something necessary in only very extreme situations. Yet it is also arguably the best translation of the word gevurah, a highly prized quality in Judaism and one of the Sefirot.
While some see Judaism as a list of prohibitions, the way to spiritual greatness is to ask oneself, "Well, how can I do this within halachic parameters?" Or, "What can I do instead?"
Furthermore, who is the greater person?
The one who is happy even in poor health and poverty or the one who is happy while everything is going swimmingly?
It is limitation which allow our soul's potential to truly shine.