Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Breaking the Law! On Rules and Rule-Breakers.

There are only three Universal Rules: 
a.) The speed of light is constant. 
b.) People who wear sunglasses indoors are either blind or assholes. 
c.) That's it.

But all rules have exceptions. Like; a man should not wear short shorts, except if you're Steve McQueen. Or; no good deed was ever performed by anyone with an upturned collar, except if you're Nehru. Okay, so maybe those are Truisms and not Truths, but the point is that there's hardly a rule that doesn't have an exception. 

"I make it a rule never to get involved with possessed people.
Actually it's more of a guideline than a rule."

The American realist painter Thomas Eakins' one simple rule of linear perspective, "twice as far, half as big," is mathematically demonstrable and seems pretty irreducible. Just like E=mc2, the best rules are the simplest ones. But what about the curious case of blind people who have had restorative vision surgery, only to realize that  piles of dirt close by and mountains far away look the same? Even "obvious" rules such as big=close and small=far are accepted conventions that we've had to learn.

A rule's validity stems only from our willingness to invest it with importance. In a relative universe, Truth becomes simply the lowest common denominator. Even the universal speed-limit of light can be broken. Nothing in the universe can travel faster than light? Not according to quantum physicsWhen it comes to Painting, there are a bazillion rules. The only question becomes, which ones do we choose to abide by? Classical realists might argue that strict dogma is essential. But is it?

The same argument for classicism in Painting played out in Opera. Wagner wrote extensively and pedantically about his craft. He passionately wanted to reform music and firmly believed that opera should adhere to a strict classical doctrine. Verdi, on the other hand, when asked (in response to Wagner) what his own theory of opera might be, answered only that, "my theory is that the theater should be full." Verdi's argument that the market dictates the rules sounds quite modern. Times have changed, people are less formal. I've been known to eat my dinner over the kitchen sink, and I've never once mowed the lawn in a suit and tie like my grandfather. Nobody reads books anymore or cares about your belief in tradition.

That being said - and Verdi's dismissal of Rules notwithstanding - as soon as we pick up our pencil and sketchpad we accept the confines of a common language: the pencil is confined to making certain marks, the paper is a certain size, the marks we make must speak a language that communicates to people. In other words, those marks better look like something recognizable. We indoctrinate our kids from day one by rewarding their doodlings with oohs and aahs, but only if they look like they're 'supposed to.'

You say, "what about Pollock? He didn't paint 'things.'" Who cares about him. If Clement Greenberg hadn't touted him to a bunch of bored east Coast intellectuals as the new vision of rugged American individualism, and if the CIA hadn't supported him financially in their anti-Soviet propaganda campaign during the Cold War, he would never have made it. The truth is, we don't celebrate real rule-breakers; they disappear into our lunatic asylums. True outsiders fall through the cracks and are never seen or heard from again. The people we deify as cultural barometers might be left of center but they're still distinctly on our side on the fence, and know very well how to play the game.

The point is: Rules are as mutable but ever-present in Art as they are in Life. There's nothing more boring in painting (or anything else) than someone who follows all the rules. Look at Komar and Melamid's experiments with crowd-sourced creativity. They produced paintings according to what everyone wanted to see, and the result looked like the bastard hellspawn of Thomas Kinkade and Hallmark Cards. We do like our artists to have the appearance of rebellion, but their work had still better look good hanging over our new couch.

This generation's resistance of the Rules is a tepid mix of some leftover punk rock anarcho-silly "rules are for fools" ethic, its disaffected lack of engagement with the past, and a ridiculous belief that all of us deserve success despite a lack of knowledge, skill, or any discernible talent whatsoever. Nevertheless, all the rebels hanging out in the mall still end up looking the same, which proves my point: In the end, there are no renegades and even rebels follow the rules.

1 comment:

  1. Why just this morning my husband told me a story about a guy in short shorts who kept eavesdropping on his conversation with a friend at an outdoor cafe then interrupting them. My husband scornfully told me that the guy even had the nerve to ask what happened to a yoga studio nearby that had closed. Asking about yoga and wearing short shorts = two strikes against the man, according to my husband.

    Anyway, I totally agree with your assessment of rule-breaking art and art-makers. People want something familiar but with a touch of newness and yes, it has to match the colors of your living room. Once somebody does something slightly different, everybody starts copying that style and then it becomes boring.

    I enjoyed the link to Komar and Melamid's experiments...I though Holland and Germany's most wanted and least wanted paintings switched it up from the other countries' results.