Thursday, November 5, 2015

Rules vs. Artistic Freedom - Why Perfection Is Boring

The only rule in art is that there are no rules.

If you ever joined an artist community you surely came across people crusading for the one and only true faith in the world of art: rules. People who criticize those who dare to disobey conventions, those who don't do what they consider "good" art. And maybe you're even one of these people. Maybe you're extremely annoyed by all these kids who justify their obvious mistakes with "artistic freedom". Hell, I've even seen amateur writers defending their spelling mistakes with this argument!

So how many rules are necessary and how much freedom is allowed?

I warn you, this post is going to be much more subjective than the others, because ... What to consider "good" art is a highly subjective matter and since I don't like any rules but my own I'll have to deal with an issue that frustrates me personally.

First of all, I live by the creed: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted. The only rule in art is that there are no rules." In the course of my life I came across many people who strongly disagree with me: "You have to learn how to walk before you can dance." Hate me, quarter me, but I think that statements like this one are symptoms of the mindcuff syndrome. Who says you need to walk if you want to dance? If you want to dance standard, traditional dances, yes. But blow the limits in your mind and be creative! If there are people incapable of walking playing basketball at the Paralympics, then you can dance without even using your legs. Period.

Now you can argue that after learning the basics you can still do whatever you want. Most of the great painters first learned the classic ways before they revolutionized art. - And so what? How many great writers do you know who have learned writing prose in an academy? Not so many, right?

Following "rules" too strictly deprives an artwork of "personality".

Let me tell you about an experience I made both with prose and paintings: There are stories written in a good language, with a solid plot, characters with many shades of grey, everything neat and perfect. There are drawings and paintings with perfect proportions, correct shading, everything clean, neat and perfect. And there are stories that make me exclaim "dafuq?!" after every second sentence, metaphors I've never heard before, a totally random structure ... as well as paintings that are just a mess, disproportional eyes, chaotic outlines, twisted perspective ... and there are hints that the writer or artist didn't make these mistakes on purpose. And you know what? My impression is that imperfect artworks often are much more memorable and seem to have much more personality than perfect ones.

Yes, I'm serious. I can't get rid of the feeling that artworks of high quality, artworks made by professionals, often use the same structure, the same pattern ... because they're using structures and patterns that work. And yes, beginners often try to copy them, using the same structure and pattern as well, but they do it in such an awkward way that it isn't unlikely I'll remember them. Just like with people, it's often the flaws that make the charm of an artwork. Flaws show we're human. Perfection is creepy, since it feels like it's produced by a machine.

What I'm trying to say is: When an artwork follows all the rules it becomes predictable. And predictable is boring. It's just like with James Cameron's Avatar: Sure the movie has great visuals, yet ... Someone on German Amazon compared the movie to a too well planned party: when everything is perfectly organized, only the mood is missing. A little randomness is missing, something that would make this party unique. (I would've loved to provide the link, but, believe me, I just couldn't find that review again.) Cameron tells us a solid, rule-conform story we already know in appoximately 500.000 different variations. The only original thing is the setting. And it's well made technically. Yet sorry, for me it isn't enough.

"Rules" are useful nonetheless.

On the other hand, however, a novel that is full of spelling mistakes is unreadable. And usually it's hard to call a childish stick man drawing a piece of art. Many beginners in writing make plots even more predictable than strict rule followers, lacking any logic and sometimes even perverted. Many paintings made by beginners just look ridiculous, it's clearly visible that the artist doesn't know what composition is and the colours are just awful. I totally agree with that. But maybe we shouldn't talk about rules, since there are no rules but only many different techniques the number of which is constantly growing. So let's talk about what the artist is trying to do. Let's show him ways and possibilities to achieve his goal. Let's give suggestions how to make the writing more enjoyable and the plot more engaging and believable; how to improve the proportions, how to make certain areas of the painting draw the viewer's attention and how to make the colours work together. Let's not plant ourselves in front of the beginner, lecturing him about rules without being asked for it. Let's show empathy, try to understand him and just show him a few shortcuts on a path we already have travelled.

However, it's highly important not to mistake your own goals for the artist's. Maybe the artist doesn't want harmony and has made a conscious decision to mess up the colours. Maybe the story isn't supposed to be about complex personalities and the author purposely created his characters as embodiments of clichés. Maybe we just don't see what a great idea it is, because it's so different from what we're used to call "good". "Rules" are merely tools. And only the artist has the right to decide what to use them for.

I'd give every artist the advice to learn some theory. Personally I'm passionate about writing, and so I earned my master's degree in literary studies after one of Germany's best universities. Believe me, learning theory and analyzing works of great writers filled me with ideas and inspiration. See also my post on originality. And believe me also that no one is talking about rules among experts. On the contrary, they celebrate whoever breaks the rules.

There aren't any rules in art. There are only ways to achieve a goal. And there are goals that already have been achieved. You can learn from people who did it before you. If you don't do it, you'll end up a bad artist. Yet if you just blindly follow the paths discovered by others you're a boring artist. For whatever rules you are taught they're there to serve you. Make them work for you. But don't become their slave. And have courage for imperfection.

This time I won't ask any questions. I just expressed my opinion. Argue with me if you want. And don't forget to share his article!

In joyful anticipation of your precious arguments,
Feael Silmarien

PS: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" is a quote from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise; it's the creed of the Assassin Brotherhood.

PPS: Here are a some interesting articles I highly recommend:
Drew Kimble: Why Art School (may or may not) Suck!
Drew Kimble: Writing Classes Won’t Make You a Better Writer
Emma Darwin: The Only "Rules" Of Writing Are Your Rules. But You Need To Decide What They Are.

1 comment:

  1. I try to find balance learning and following rules, breaking these rules or even intentionally not learning some and reinvent the wheel my own way.

    Oh yeah and mistakes is something that makes art aesthetically unpleasing. If it looks bad but aesthetically feels good then it's not mistake.


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