Formal Innovation

Formal innovation means nothing without artistry.

I’m reading a fabulous novel with virtuosic formal artistry. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is actually seven nested novels with interwoven plots. But though the form of his novel is compelling, it wouldn’t be nearly enough to sustain a reader if he wasn’t also a fabulous author.

Beethoven’s formal innovations to symphonies and string quartets are only worth anything because of his gift for melodic development.

Picasso could only innovate Cubism because he was a gifted enough painter to make his formal innovations make sense.

Formal innovation is something we notice; it’s a sign of towering achievement and usually praiseworthy in an artist. We too often overlook the truth that the artistry predates the innovation – indeed, the artistry enables the formal innovation.

If you want to create something new, first get good at your craft; eventually you’ll get good enough to change the very form of your art.

Or as Pablo Picasso famously said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”