Why do we, as artists and as a species, like rules so much? We’re mad for them. Give us rules to follow! If we have enough rules, we think, then everything will be under control and chaos will be averted and arrested. If we do what we’re told to do, the art we make will turn out acceptably well and we’ll be allowed to be artists. We mustn’t transgress the rules, or we’ll be outcasts.
“Don’t colour outside the lines” is the most obvious rule for art that we are taught as small children, but there are all sorts of aesthetic judgements that are made on the basis of supposed rules of art. You can do this, but you can’t do that. Those colours should never go together. Your sky should always be blue. Take a look at a real sky, one evening. It can be (and frequently is) yellow, pink, purple, orange, but so many painters always paint their skies blue, because they follow the assumed rules. Why? These rules are not good rules. They restrict us and condemn us to trite repetition. They curb our natural instincts for curiosity, exploration and inquisitiveness – skills that have helped us survive and flourish in hostile environments for millennia.
I think artists crave and follow rules because we think it’s easier this way and it reduces risk. We think that by following the guidelines, laid down by people who know better than us, we’ll be all right. We’ll produce some art and it will be acceptable. Consequently, we will be acceptable as artists and loved. If we just do what we’re supposed to do, there will be no controversy, no ruffled feathers and our safe little work of art will cause no lasting impact on anybody. Is that what we really want, from our art? No lasting impact? Why bother to produce art at all, if that’s the case?
Guess what? Risk is necessary for progress and learning. Also, there is nobody that really knows better than you, in all things. The rules you are following are hindering your development, as an artist and making sure that art, as a whole, stagnates. The people that are creating the rules and insisting that you follow them are, themselves, making it up as they go and are as clueless as the rest of us, in reality. There is no objective aesthetic standard to underpin their pronouncements.
How many rules for art do we actually need? How many do we have already? How would we even count them? Who could possibly comply with them all? It’s clearly an utter impossibility. That being the case, if there are too many rules of art to actually comply with them all, what purpose do they really serve? It seems like the whole body of artistic, aesthetic rules is like a dead weight around the necks of artists who, ordinarily, would be more experimental and curious.
But some artists love to enforce rules, because it gives them a petty power over another artist. They can bludgeon them with their weapons, their collection of rules, and these artists must submit or pay the penalty for resisting! They can be brutal with their enforcement of the rules, too. Careers can be casually ruined and reputations wantonly trashed. That seems to be as much the attraction of rules as obediently, blindly following them. It’s a disguised form of violence and some people seem to revel in dishing it out.
Who are the rulers and why do they get to rule? When you look into it, you find they’re self-appointed, mainly. They’re not democratically selected and there is no widespread consent for them to rule. Most artists are never even consulted. Why do we obey their more obviously self-serving rulings? Anyone in a position of sufficient artistic authority can make it a rule that only their particular approach is the right approach, simply because that’s all they can do and they cannot do anything else. The only thing a rule like that achieves is that it shores up the prestige and position of the rule maker. It doesn’t help anyone else.
Why do we listen to these self-appointed rule makers? Do we really believe they know better, or have access to some secret, magical, super powers? Do we suppose that their pronouncements come from a supremacy that we don’t share? Why are we so prepared to suspend our better judgement and accept their assertions of thought leadership and legitimacy? Why do we think these rules are good, beneficial, helpful and useful? Shouldn’t we be challenging most of these rules, with confidence and open minds and eyes? Shouldn’t we be more prepared to resist the rules?
Let’s imagine that we stopped obeying all of these rules for art, for a moment. Would art descend into brutal chaos? I think that’s highly unlikely. Instead, I believe we would find new and interesting expressions of art that we have tacitly suppressed, through aesthetic rules, imposed externally on artists that had other natural inclinations. We’d be surprised at how interesting and diverse our collective artistic expressions could become. I think we’d be delighted.
Actually, it’s the same with all of life, not just art. We are too quick to follow rules and obey rulers without asking why we should, or why the rulers are legitimate and competent in their rulings. Blind obedience to people we assume to be the authorities, who are only too willing to bludgeon us with violence if we transgress their largely arbitrary pronouncements, are stifling us and causing us all to stagnate. Humanity is weighed down by the need to comply with a lot of objectively useless rules.
We keep looking toward our leaders for solutions, when it is clear they don’t have any. Yet, we don’t dare to pursue the obvious solutions that occur to us, because they’re not officially sanctioned by authority. Authority, in the sense of rulers that know better than us, is a pernicious myth. There actually is no such thing as a leader with secret access to the super powers necessary to create rules to solve the most pressing things that require solution. There never was and there never will be. Technocrats whose livelihoods depend on propagating this myth disagree, but it doesn’t change the truth of the matter. Why do we cling to the myth of authority, though? There doesn’t seem to be a good reason.
I think that, as artists and as people, we should be more prepared to say “screw you” to rules and rulers. We should have the courage to follow what we know to be right, in art and in life, rather than suspending our faculties, in order to comply. I think that approach will ultimately serve us better.
Rebel a little.