Breaking the (Art) Rules

Recently I tried to (at least start to) give you my answer to the question, What Is Art? Here’s a look at an interesting aspect of creative work that differs somewhat from the usual way of things. At least it does when looked at from a certain angle. It has to do with breaking the rules.

The angle I have in mind sees rules and laws as being along a similar yardstick. They are actually different basic ideas, but they share a continuum such that one blends into the other. They are not a Yin/Yang pair; one is not in any sense the opposite of the other.  Rules and a laws are just similar, but distinct, ideas.

You could sum up the difference by citing the common phrase, “Rules are made to be broken.” In fact, this article is about that common idea: rules are made to be broken. What is not a common phrase or idea is, “Laws are made to be broken.” Therein lies the distinction between the two. The similarity is in how they prescribe or proscribe our freedoms.

That’s rather a heavily freighted word, “freedoms,” but I use it specifically to catch the mental eye (your mental I). It also has a technical meaning that is precisely correct for what I mean about rules and laws. I do not particularly use it in its freighted, political sense. This isn’t about political freedom (although certainly the ideas about rules and laws do apply).

When technical people refer to “degrees of freedom” they mean what is possible or not possible for something. They are speaking of the constraints of a system. That’s the specific meaning I have in mind. Both rules and laws affect the degrees of freedom of a system. That system might be sub-atomic particles interacting, or the world of business, or people driving on the freeway.

Laws & Rules

At one extreme we have physical laws such as the law of gravity, the conservation of momentum, or the limit on the speed of light. Everything that we know about physics says these laws are unbreakable no matter what we do.

The speed of light, for example, (as far as we know) is an absolutely, no kidding, unbeatable law. That law, the maximum speed of light, is the subject of one of my favorite physics bumper stickers:

186,282 MPH
Not just a good idea:
It’s the Law!!

(Which reminds me of Sylvester Stallone in Judge Dredd, “I. AM. The Law!!”)

If absolute, unbreakable physical laws are one end of a spectrum, the other is something we might call custom or tradition or even groupthink. A rule such as not wearing white after Labor day is a custom. It is certainly not a law! Such a rule can be easily broken with the only risk being some form of censure by the group holding the rule. How bad the penalty for breaking these rules seems to you depends on your perceptions of yourself and the rule-holding group.

Somewhere in the middle of the two extremes are rules that are breakable, but which carry a heavy enough penalty, plus a strict enough enforcement, that they do almost have the force of physical law. In fact we call such rules laws for good reason.

But there is a very important distinction to be made here!

Social Rules

The rules a society forges don’t have the force of physical law; we can choose to break them. They have the force of social law; if we do choose to break the rules, there may be consequences.  And the consequences are typically bad enough to discourage rule breaking. Ideally the punishment is proportionate to the crime, but even so that doesn’t always deter criminal acts. The ultimate punishment, the death penalty, is widely acknowledged as not being a deterrent.

The bottom line is that you can chose to break social rules if you [a] accept the potential penalty, or [b] find the odds favorable, or [c] just aren’t thinking straight. And a lot of crime, especially one-time crimes, are done in the heat of some passion, which is the opposite of thinking straight.

But you can be in your right mind and chose to take the risk for several reasons. Personal gain is the obvious one, but there is such a thing as civil disobedience to make a political statement. The extreme example is terrorism that (at least in theory) seeks to balance a small, desperate force against a larger, superior force.

But being a successful rule breaker (for example, a bank robber) can eventually result in a bad outcome. The odds would seem to be against repeated rule breaking. Each time you break a rule, you play the odds of getting caught and punished. Each time you throw that die, more or less the same odds apply. Eventually you’re bound to roll snake eyes!

The point here is that breaking social rules is risky and the consequences of being caught are almost universally bad. You break them at your peril, and basically you only succeed to the extent no one notices you broken the rules (or catches you if they do notice).

Business Rules

Business rules are similar to social rules, but don’t always have the force of social law behind them. Breaking the rules may bring the law down on you, or it may just make you lose business, or (in some cases) it may make you very successful.

Two interesting things happen to the concept of rules when talking about business.

First, a new word and concept enters the picture: ethics. There are rules in business that do not have the threat of fines or jail time if you break them. But, as with wearing white in the wrong season, members of your community may react negatively. Worse, your customers may react negatively. A business can be fully legal and still distasteful to its potential customers (e.g. sweatshop clothing).

The second interesting thing about business rules has to do with those tradition and custom type of rules. These might be called guidelines and “rules of thumb.” These rules often exist due to long practice and, in theory, represent acquired wisdom. There is still the risk of failure from breaking these rules, but often breaking them amounts to the much sought “thinking outside the box.”

Acquired wisdom isn’t always right; times change and so do the rules. Finding a new way to do business can be a huge success. It can be a better way to do what you do, a new product you can sell (the better mousetrap), or new way to find customers.

In this sense, rule breaking is a form of invention.  And that brings us to art!

Art Rules

In art, the rules always have the implicit final clause, “…unless that’s what you want.”

In art, most (if not all) of the rules are guidelines, and breaking them is usually the key to good art.

For example, in photography a basic rule is that the lighting can’t be too dark, unless that’s what you want. Orson Wells famously broke than rule in Citizen Kane when he gave us film images with a background element brightly lit while a foreground element remained in darkness. The rule is that (normally) the foreground element gets the most light and certainly is never in shadow.  Unless that’s what you want. Unless it adds a new dimension that is interesting.

Music is often most interesting when it breaks the rules. Many early composers—musicians now revered as classic masters—created their masterpieces by breaking rules in scandalous ways. In some cases, they broke rules so cast in stone at the time that people were shocked and angry! Can you imagine being outraged by a Mozart concert? Think of Mozart as Madonna if that helps.

In art any number of things can happen when you break the rules. At worst your art is shunned or criticized. (If your life is ironic, it’s hated while you’re alive, and then revered after you die. To add injury to insult, people will make money off your work!)

But the worst that can happen is that you’re not successful. The best that can happen is that you’re another Andy Warhol. Or Madonna. Or Mozart.

The consequences may be banal. People note you broke the rules, find it “interesting” but upon reflection “obvious.” It’s nice that you broke that rule, but it was just waiting to be broken (or worse was broken long ago and you just didn’t know).

But here’s the really ironic part: breaking the rules may cause your work to be worshiped as “ground-breaking.” In art, breaking the rules is often a key to success. In fact, to the extent that art is about a new take on an old universe, art may require the breaking of rules to achieve anything interesting at all.

What makes art so complicated is that there really aren’t any rules. There are many “rules of thumb” and conventions. There are traditions and guidelines, but no actual, hard and fast rules. It’s almost impossible to judge the outcome of breaking a rule. It’s almost impossible to guess the outcome of any piece of art.

Which explains a lot of unsuccessful movies (Biodome, for example). That may also explain a lot about art and artists. No rules. And not just no rules; breaking the rules is a Good Thing!

No wonder artists look at life a bit differently! They know rules are made for breaking!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “Breaking the (Art) Rules

  • Lady from Manila

    It’s mystifying how a majority of your well-written and highly intelligent writings here could have escaped the staff of the Freshly Pressed department. Your blog is just brimful of insight and valuable information. I’ve been perusing your blog posts for weeks now and I still find myself being repeatedly blown away by your sharp-wittedness and the opulence of your mind. You can easily go deep and wax sophisticated about almost any subject. Sometimes I feel like I’ve doled out lame comments I’m beginning to wish I could take them back or do them over out of reverence for your excellent articles here. But I also have to be at peace with my insubstantial mental bent and continue hoping your hospitality won’t run out on me :-).

    By the way, one of your consistent, past commenters who caught my attention was “wake me now” – for her well-thought out responses. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to be keeping a blog anymore.

    I concur with everything you wrote above that artists who break the rules tend to become more successful – as they inevitably stand out from the crowd as a consequence. On a tangential note, my dearest one once reflected on the success of Michael Jackson and Madonna as singers. He mused that their unique voices were what set them apart predominantly. That they sounded like nobody else was instrumental to the favorable outcome of their careers. (His observation came right after I meekly insisted he buy me Madonna’s debut cassette tape in my early teens :-)).

    Works of art, especially those that take on a different appeal to our higher life and aspirations have more right to claim our time and attention.

    Another wonderful post, Wyrd.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      From what I’ve observed, being Fresh Pressed has nothing to do with the quality of your blog articles. The one time I was FP’d it was an article that wasn’t mine, but “From My Collection.” It’s either entirely random or based on favoritism of some kind or is purely whimsical or is based on criteria that completely escape me.

      To be honest, I’ve had a growing sense of low-level anger with regard to blogging. I’m feeling a strong sense of “pearls before the swine” and I’m wondering why I bother. Readers like you and “Wake Me Now” keep me going, but are just tiny oases in a vast wasteland of dim, dull minds.

      I keep trying to tell you, Marj, that you’re so very far ahead of most people intellectually. You don’t seem to realize that, but you are. Your writing demonstrates a very good and very active mind behind it!

      Jackson (despite what one might think of him personally) is (was!) hugely talented. I’m explicitly not a fan; it’s not my kind of music by any stretch, and his (apparent) personal life did bother me (not just the “is he a child molester” stuff, but the sheer weirdness of his personal life). But I happened to stop channel surfing on a “backstage” documentary about his (final?) show, and I just had to sit and watch for a while. He’s that good, and I have a lot of respect for talent and skill.

      Madonna is another one that never fell in my circle of taste, but for whom I have a great deal of respect. In her case, I think a lot of her success comes from her business savvy and showmanship (and sexuality). And both of them put on one hell of a show, on-stage and off!

      • Lady from Manila

        That you believe my writing “demonstrates a very good and very active mind behind it” means a great deal to me; coming from someone like you with a beautiful mind.

        I don’t bother to subscribe to the Freshly Pressed pages or community – especially the blog posts written by young writers (except maybe the humorous ones). There’s nothing to learn from them, frankly speaking. What’s the point of getting FPd, anyway? The blogger won’t even get paid; the “lucky post” gets visited by one-time visitors whose purpose for liking and commenting escapes me; blogger loses some degree of privacy, and starts writing subsequent posts that are mainly aimed to please the “new readers.” It somehow connotes a huge responsibility – and for what? Just my two cents. 🙂

        I am not a fan of Michael Jackson either. I watched “This Is It” more than twice, though, and thought he was (you’re right) a truly talented artist. Madonna was someone I had idolized in my teenage years. I’m not into her kind of music now.

        As I continue delightfully perusing your posts here and the comments, I also discover other smart commenters like “it’s only P” (who’s got a great blog). I’m sure you’ve had many other astute followers. I keep on wishing there is a Like button in your Comments section. Your replies are often as good as your main post. Oh, I’m such a fan. 🙂

        I believe you are a true artist in many ways, Wyrd. For one, your writing style is never flat because there’s always an adorable bounce in your words. Now I’m wondering if you also have a tendency to break the rules in certain quarters of your life.

        I hope everything’s fine with you, Wyrd. Take good care.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It is true that I’m not a fan of following anyone’s rules but my own! And I’ve realized that there are people in the world who view rules as cast in stone. I married one, and it was a definite source of friction. (I wonder sometimes, since I’m not willing to be explicit online about the details, if people assume one of the rules I don’t follow has to do with fidelity. In fact, that is one of my rules, and I have never cheated in a monogamous relationship. As far as I know, I’ve never been cheated on, either, although I do have a moment of doubt regarding one particular woman friend. It’s more that my wife was very uncomfortable with my past and my current opinions and value judgements about things. Basically what happened is that she decided she’d been wrong to marry me in the first place. So much for marriage vows being the “Great Promise” of a lifetime, and yes, I’m still pissed about it.)

        I wish my Dutch friend, of It’s Only P, was still blogging. She’s a web developer who got onto a good gig, and I suspect blogging is too much like real work. (As the Dutch say, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much!” :D)

        One thing you can say about this blog… anyone who hangs around here for any length of time is almost certainly a pretty interesting and pretty intelligent person. My natural (?) misanthropy tends to drive off everyone else (that’s been true in life, too), and — to be honest — that’s kind of intentional (that’s been true in life, too). Boring people are so… boring! 😈

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I get that artists like to break the rules, but I hope they actually have something to say besides, “Hey, I broke the rules.” That kind of art leaves me a bit cold. But, meh, I’m a stick in the mud.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Absolutely! I do give points for breaking new ground, but rarely enough to make the difference between “Hey, great!” and “Meh!” There does need to be more to it than just breaking a rule. There needs to be a reason for breaking it and perhaps even a statement of some kind.

      (Although, as my theatre lighting teacher once pointed out, even just filling the stage with flat, white light is a statement. It’s a really boring statement (like: “it’s day”), but it is a statement of sorts.)

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