Whether to prepare something in advance, such as improvising along a certain line rather than playing without that intention, is a question of trusting one’s immediate intuition alone, not even knowing what that might be. To assert the latter should never deny the value of mixing that with preparation, the will to create continuity or to make something acceptable to others. One has simply carved out a space for not following those related values. The immediate-intuition approach must have some protection for it to be asserted as something that can and does occur, which is why I reserve for it the name of playing freely. It doesn’t mean one is a free person, but that in the midst of playing, painting, dancing, etc., one is faced with the naked awareness of what is going on. Instead of imposing an idea on that and trying to make it something according to one’s will, one relies only on that situation, to which everything else is dismissed as external and irrelevant.
I am speaking here of art-making but it is only as part of all one’s life activities. To walk down the street with one’s usual gait is to fall into a normal pattern just as much as to play one’s conventional style or follow a score: Neither good nor bad, but that is what one is doing, it is one’s limit, and it’s possible to be aware of just what limits one chooses to observe. Following one’s secure habits or caring about the other’s judgment will not disturb others, whether audience or those seeing you walking. But in free playing mode, disappointment and frustration, even collapse occurs when one becomes aware of the penetration of any external element, which are blocks to immediate engagement.
As distinct approaches to making art, there is a constant tug of war between them, and neither is superior to the other. In one the artist has a vision or inspiration of what a work can be, maybe changes it somewhat in process but essentially seeks to fulfill that vision. In the other, the artist simply begins doing something and follows with something else, perhaps ending with no perceptible unity or fulfilling ending. A painting appears unfinished, and even the painter must make a leap to see that it is perfect as it is. In the first, freedom (spontaneity, intuition) is present to a flexible degree: one can operate freely within the plan and forget it somewhat, then return to it as the ultimate vision. In the second however, any hint of following a plan disrupts one’s moves. Those of the first approach are uncomfortable with an empty space; those of the second find anything but open space to be cluttered.Each is dissatisfied but for opposite reasons.
These two are not poles, such that each can reach toward the other more or less. For free playing, at least, it is not a question of balancing them. The first can reach toward the second, but if the second reaches towards the first it automatically becomes a version of the first and disappears as a possibility. It is purist except for this: those preferring it are obliged to recognize that both are valid art and can stand on their own, and they should never insist that theirs is the only way. Dogmatic insistence would deny almost all existing art, including most abstract expressionism, a kind of sectarian position that is useless to defend free playing (incidentally, this reverses an opinion I held through the early nineties). It is not so important for artists of the first approach to recognize the second, since they are already using intuition as a component of their work. What would be incorrect is for them to say they are playing freely when they are perfectly satisfied with mixing intuition with what preexists the situation.
The free playing approach is an obstinate reality in the cracks of our culture, which insists that there is no art without conception and “meaning.” Thus it can only go against the grain of what is socially valued, what we all mostly value. Free playing conceives culture as clutter, and sets about the work of removing it, an unending task, for “culture” is what is inevitably left in its wake. It is called “self-indulgent” but from its perspective it is the other that should bear that, for it indulges the players’ wish to conform. For this reason free playing is barely known as a possibility nor taken seriously by professional artists, and audiences cannot easily tell the difference. Those who prefer to play freely can however suggest it to anyone, including so-called serious artists: here’s something you might try, and we invite you.
Theoretically one can do both, but it is difficult, for it is inevitably a kind of dabbling, with the mind confused about what is to be done. In attempting to play freely one will be tempted to perceive where it is going and try to shape it, to create continuity rather than letting it emerge, if it ever does. If continuity and form in general seem diminished, one will try to insert meaning so as to restore it, . What latitude should be allowed for diverging from one’s conception of what art should be? That brings the deliberating mind into the game, such that one is trying to do two things at once: playing freely and taking care not to violate the border that is felt must be there.
When it is said that we all fear freedom this is meant, that there is a border out there we might violate, be accused of it, and will pay a penalty rather than be rewarded. Even darker is the suspicion that we have a deep wish to violate the other and will do so unless held in check by some sense of rightness that preexists our actions. Preexistent rightness is the common notion of form, and therefore art. In this way art gets aligned with the social order in its moral rather than institutional guidance system. It is that which determines what is freedom and what is illicit indulgence, what individualism is approved and what is asocial.
Free playing is first of all a protected, private, and disciplined space, like meditation, where one can learn by doing just how deeply the mind is penetrated by the need to conform to given form and order. There the need appears and we can let it go, as false and burdensome. It is where we can test our mutual fear of freedom before putting it to the social, collective test: What harm could it do to make this sound rather than that? Only then, when we’re able to dance semi-confidently on that shaky ground, do we open the door. A swinging door, as we discover, for that empty space is soon filled with all kinds of clutter.