Play by the Rules

OK, I admit it, I don’t do well with rules. I’m a “ask forgiveness, not permission” guy. I don’t cheat and I never take advantage of people, I just don’t necessarily play by the rules. And for context, this discussion is mainly about the world of art, so don’t extrapolate my malady too far.

Even if you don’t read the rest of this post please study this cartoon. A classic Calvin & Hobbs from the great Bill Watterson. This has been on my wall for at least 20 years. It perfectly captures my feelings about rules. 🙂

Whose rules?

Ah, this is a root of the problem. Who has the authority to make up rules I have to follow? Where did they get this power? What governing board set the standards?

Now, I’m not an anarchist in my everyday life. Not entirely. But in my artistic domain I do not give anyone authority to dictate rules about my work.

It seems to be human nature to want to control other people. Perhaps it is a power trip. Perhaps it is financially motivated to protest self interests. Maybe it is insecurity. I am a big believer in the old saying “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have seldom seen successful and respected artists put themselves forward as a critic. They do not see any need to, they are too busy creating. And if someone else wants to go off a different direction, fine.

What rules?

The art world has no shortage of rules to live by. Each little group wants to exclude you if you don’t play by their rules. So my work may be criticized because it it too realistic, too abstract, too colorful, too little color, lacking in social message, too much social message, too sharp, too blurry, too painterly, no people, only people, etc.

Even on a more safe level of visual theory, there is the “rule of thirds”, rules of balance, of leading lines, of framing; there has to be a definite foreground, middle ground, and background; don’t put the subject in the center, expose to the right, the subject has to be sharp, water should be smoothed with long exposure, never shoot in the middle of the day, always shoot on a tripod, …

Being Conventional

None of these so called rules make a work of art. If you are new to the craft these guidelines help you quickly learn to make images that are accepted as “conventional” and inoffensive.

Let me give an anecdote from my own experience. It goes way back, so I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired. I was an early adopter of Photoshop. The excellent camera club I was a member of had monthly competitions. I was the first to enter a “Photoshopped” image. It, of course, won the blue ribbon, because the post processing improved the basic image a lot. When I “confessed” how it had been processed and modified there was a lot of hand wringing and discussion. Some people even wondered if such images should be allowed in their competition. What I did was outside the norm and the expectation, therefore maybe a violation of the rules. At the least it was suspect as not being fair or in the proper spirit of photography. Yet, they chose it as Best of Show.

I have not been associated with that group for a long time, but from what I have seen, it would be almost impossible to win a contest there now without significant Photoshop processing. A new normal. Since it is conventional it is acceptable.

Why have rules?

I think I was on the right track earlier when I said rules create works that are accepted as conventional. Rules are normative, to use the proper term. Accepting a set of rules defines a baseline, a norm, it regularizes things.

There are times to follow the rules exactly. My accountant needs to follow accepted practices. I fully expect my doctor to follow best practices as he has learned them and as his profession requires. If I go to a restaurant I want them to follow all the health and safety and food preparation regulations.

But for artists? Well, yes. This may seem like I’m spinning 180 and shooting down my own arguments, but I believe the widely known rules are valuable for artists. Knowing and following them would protect the world from some of the useless stuff thrown around by people who do not know the history of their medium, its limits, or the social conventions people like to abide by.

I believe all new artists should learn the rules and spend quite a bit of time creating boring and conventional work. It is good practice and it instills some discipline. I’m not saying artists should go to art school. That works for some but not everyone. I don’t believe there are any valid credentials that qualify someone to be an artist.

After the rules are well understood, then comes the time to start exploring the edges. To start experimenting with breaking the rules that are limiting you if that is consistent with your style. Most experiments will be failures and the learning is that the rules are there because they point out something of general truth. But sometimes… Sometimes some new truth is discovered. Sometimes creatively breaking a rule leads to good art.

If I break the rules?

What happens if (when) I break one or more of the rules? Do the art police come and confiscate my computer? Do I go on a secret list shared by galleries and collectors to blacklist my works?

Actually, nothing happens. If I break a rule it is an experiment. The experiment will have one of 3 outcomes:

  • I love it, do more like that;
  • I hate it, don’t do it again;
  • or that’s interesting, it has promise, I need to modify it and try again.

And the people who view and potentially purchase my work will look at it and either say:

  • wow, I love it
  • yech, I hate it
  • or eh, don’t care.

The combination of these 2 sets of votes determines if breaking the rule was a success. And my opinion about what I like is the overriding vote. Note in my value system customers have a vote but people who are just critics do not.

Creating somebody else’s art

Playing by the rules guides us to create art that is acceptable to the largest audience. Like the paint by number cartoon above, we, in effect, create somebody else’s art. Our art follows the pattern that many other people follow. “Wow, it looks like Ansel Adams.” “Wow, it looks like John Shaw.” “Wow, it looks like John Paul Caponigro.”

These are good people to look like, until you develop your own style, your own vision of what you want to say. Then the rules are holding you back. At some point you have to make your own rules. To be you, you have to make something different.

Nothing new is ever created without a painful break from the past. Impressionism would never have been established if Monet, Renoir and the others had listened to conventional wisdom. John Rewald, in History of Impressionism, said The only thing to be learned from the critics was how to suffer the sting of their attacks and carry on just the same, accomplishing a task which more then any other required serenity.

If you play by the rules you will just get better and better at what everybody else does. That is not a waste. But to create something new and creative, rules, like eggs for an omelet, have to be broken.

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