The question of limitation is caught up in the question of freedom and choice. In a condition of absolute freedom, fictitious as that may be, every option is presented and every option may be chosen. But such freedom is useless until one consciously selects an option, thereby eliminating other possible choices from consideration. By taking action, freedom is voluntarily restricted. In the end, freedom without action is pointless, and action without choice is impossible. This is the paradox of liberty: freedom become useful only when limits are accepted. If you’re just standing around in a state of being free, contemplating your choices, you’re not taking any action. Your condition would be paralysis. A life devoted to keeping all options open at all times is meaningless. Such a life would be devoid of sustained action and commitment. Ultimately, self-imposed limits are necessary.
I am not speaking of limits imposed on the individual, but rather choosing limits willfully. Voluntary choice is the crucial distinction here. Most people have felt restricted by a teacher, or a job, or some voice of authority. They feel compelled to act under duress, and their options are involuntarily curtailed. But I’m talking about choices that are made freely, and limitations that are accepted voluntarily.
I suspect the rhetoric of limits is appropriate to the present age. After all, we are learning what we get when we refuse to recognize restrictions. Limitless resources? Limitless oil and gas? Limitless air into which to dump pollutants? The lesson is becoming clearer, at least in the realm of ecology. The physical sphere is finite, and should be carefully preserved. I believe there might be a parallel condition in the artistic realm. The application of some structure and restrictions to the creative spirit is not necessarily evil.
In fact, many people are attracted to the crafts because they are comfortable with the notion of limits. They like the idea of a boundary within which to work, and they’re not terribly interested in crossing those boundaries. Instead of the metaphor of constant advancement into foreign territories, the operative metaphor in the crafts is more like a classroom assignment. One accepts a problem and a series of limitations, and then is expected to find a creative, intelligent solution. The craftswoman doesn’t see limits as a prison, but as a structure. She enjoys the technologies of a single medium because it restricts possibilities, but within those restrictions more possibilities arise as the material is mastered. The craftswoman also appreciates a traditional context because it gives her a specific history and heritage: potters make pots; glassblowers make vessels; jewelers make jewelry. All are responding to very particular materials and histories. They are given one arena within which to work, and another much larger one to ignore (or employ) at will. The restrictions inherent in craft bring focus and clarity.