Artistic creation is a messy process. It’s a neat process. It requires inspiration. It requires perspiration. Anyone who claims to create artistic content has, and is allowed to have, their own opinion about what making good art entails and requires. But (there always is one, isn’t there?) my personal philosophy about the subject is that creation takes place more regularly and more effectively in an environment with rules. Paralysis is often the result of too much creative freedom, as the only bounds then are those of the imagination, and those are pretty large and directionless. No this, only so much of that. No pencils, only paint. No smashing your hands on the keyboard, only certain sets of notes allowed (one or two composers might have a problem with this example). No writing just any words, only words that rhyme. The last restriction had a personal impact on me early in life.
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher Mrs. Ralph thought a fun writing exercise would be for the children to write rhyming couplets for some arbitrary holiday, maybe Valentine’s Day? Within the first 10 minutes, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, Mrs. Wagner had to deal with my 16-line poem, revealing my fascination with the number of words that rhyme with “poop” and “fart.” It wasn’t in iambic pentameter, but I think her problem with the poem was all of the scatalogical humor. She laughed, shockingly, but sent me back to my seat with an instruction to avoid using words “like that.” I spent the rest of class pushing the boundaries of my burgeoning fourth-grade vocabulary to lovingly typeset such wordcraft as “brown log” and “smelly gas” (although I didn’t dare rhyme that with “ass”; that’s fifth-grade territory). The original is lost to time, but my point regarding it is fairly simple: restrictions force creative innovation.
In (rhyming) poetry, this means disallowing dissonant words in certain places (and hitting the “enter” key randomly, if you like blank verse). For other art, the restrictions could be anything and everything from physical restrictions on media, like paint for paintings, or self-imposed limitations for a given work, such as that one artist who literally shoots bullets at metal and wood materials and makes semi-realistic silhouettes. Of course, artistic limitations aren’t always physically or willingly imposed: some are forced by an outside party, such as those handed down by Mrs. Ralph. This is commonly called “censorship.” No one wants to be called a censor, and the practice is seen as only appropriate in certain fuzzy contexts, usually involving phrases like “our children’s precious little jelly bits can’t handle the Lovecraftian horrors revealed by jokes about feces.”
But censorship, acknowledging its obvious negative qualities, has arguably created the conditions for great art over the years. I won’t go into the history of censorship or how many pictures of not-Jesus we might have if the religious restrictions of the last 2,000 years weren’t a thing, because that’s beyond the scope of this article and also because fuck you, that’s why. Instead, I’ll explain why modern cartoons are some of the best contemporary examples of art under limitation.
I’ll definitely miss some great works when cherrypicking a few shows, but I accept this and choose “Adventure Time” and “Stephen Universe” to exfoliate my point. Both are Cartoon Network television comedies made for children, ostensibly, but artfully (sometimes) weave adult themes and adult humor into the show without anyone noticing. At least, that’s the idea.
“Adventure Time” is a surreal storytelling masterpiece that follow best friends Finn the Human (an adolescent human) and Jake the Dog (a magical canine) through a mixture of post-apocalyptic fantasy escapades and Finn’s emotional development — pretty standard cartoon shenanigans, no? What makes this show limitation-friendly is that the writers and animators deftly interweave creative fantasy fun, coming-of-age themes and tasteful representation of mental illness. They do this while keeping the show’s characters relatable and grounded, at least for a show about a post-nuclear Earth that developed magic in the vacuum of technology after the bombs fell. And there’s a character made of bubble gum. Onto “Steven Universe.”
The show about “gay space rocks,” as aficionado’s call it, has garnered significant media attention, and for good reason. The science fiction series revolves around a strange, if not unheard of, premise: aliens visit from space. They’re made of gemstones, and each one is different in some way. Without going much beyond that plot-wise, the show tricks you with its flashy, well-written dialogue and musical numbers before you realize that the alien nature of the Gems makes their genders impossible to verify, letting the show function as a vehicle for progressive, gender identity-positive messages about accepting yourself and others (unless they’re being dicks, in which case DESTROY THEM).
And they can do this without violating Cartoon Network’s censorship of openly LGBTQ characters — almost. One very “intimate” dance between two characters was censored, and there was backlash on social media. These are only two examples of restrictions in art leading to better art, but I chose cartoons as the medium to exemplify this concept with because with advancing animation technology their restrictions are almost always outwardly imposed, unlike live-action shows which have a multitude of unfortunate limits based on cameras, human beings and other physical things. Take a look at other shows through the lens of restrictions and you’ll see that many genres develop creative solutions to genre-binding or technology-binding problems.