Why Following the Rules is Overrated

September 15th, 2004 · No Comments · Writing

Murray has been blogging about originality in art, and I’ve found myself, as is often the case with married couples, and even more so with married couples who are also artistic collaborators, sometimes disagreeing with some of his smaller points, and alternating wishing we were of exactly the same mind, and ending up being very glad that we’re not.

I do agree that originality is overrated in art. I also think that originality is overrated in general, it being the current fad to be as different from the next person as possible. See Virginia Postrel‘s excellent book, “The Substance of Style” for a more thorough exploration of that idea. I am torn, myself, on this issue, being drawn to the Eastern philosophy of seeking commonality, or wa, with one’s community, and the very Western, and very American, ideal of the individual as an island.

But back to the point at hand: whether originality is detrimental to art.

It might be argued that originality is dangerous because it is ever pushing boundaries outward, necessitating further and more radical approaches to find the one, truly new, untapped niche. But I think that boundary-pushing is perhaps a good thing. What will happen to art if there is a general consensus of the limits of art? If we decide what the apex of art is, then what happens when we get there? Defining the limits means that the game, in a way, is over. Modern philosophers still argue over this point, and wish to have it both ways: to say, we’re already there, and to simultaneously say, but we’re still getting there. Maybe this is the best we can do.

Back to the idea of that good old emperor standing naked in his court: who is really in the better position? The folks who snicker about his lack of clothes and his very public flouting of convention? Or the emperor himself, who stands there, liberated from convention. Or perhaps the best position of all is that of the much-maligned weavers, whose innovation, and in some way, craftsmanship (they had to do a lot of performing to fake the weaving of invisible clothing), exposed a major flaw in the king’s kingdom, and in the king himself. Or is the real innovator the little child who strays from convention into uncharted territory by not knowing or caring about the rules, and thus, saying the thing that others weren’t willing to say.

We seem to be still deciding who we want artists to be even after all these centuries and all these arguments. Do we want them to be our prophets, the rarified folks whose charge is to elevate and inspire those in their tribe? Or do we want them to be just like us, with a little better hand/eye coordination, someone we ourselves could be if we put a little time and energy into the task?

If we recognize the artists as prophets, then we have to grant them a little leeway. They’re the vanguard, leading us into new territory, and they know things that we don’t. If we want them to be just another professional working at their job, like a house painter or a dentist, then we have a bit more license to tell them what we want from them. They’re doing a job, for us, the audience, so it makes sense that they should make things exactly as we’d prefer that they make them.

I tend to hold the more Romantic view of artist as prophet, but with a whole lot of caveats attached. Sure, artists need to approach their work as a professional, and no, I don’t think that they’re anymore imporant than anyone else with a unique gift. But I do think that the true artist is a very rare individual.

Just because we’re at a cultural point in time when art has become highly professionalized — there are, for instance, 2000 undergraduate art majors at my university — does not mean that every one of those potential artists will become a great artist, despite the education they might acquire. Even of those who challenge themselves with excellent technical training, and who will even go on to create artwork of some real value, very few of them will become our culture-shapers and historical standouts.

Most of the artwork created is disposable. Disposable doesn’t mean “bad,” it just means that it serves a temporary purpose. A Bic razor will shave your legs, but you don’t have to keep it around when it’s outlived its usefulness. This is also true with art that fails to achieve the standout status: it does have some value as a cultural thermometer, as a historical record or artifact, as a sentimental keepsake, or it might have value for the artist who made it, but ultimately, it’s disposable. Find a better example of a cultural or historical indicator, or let the generation for which the nostalgia existed pass into obscurity, and the artwork no longer retains its value.

So how does an artist become that rare breed that achieves permanence? There are a lot of factors, and I think that originality is one of them. So is excellent technical ability. A comfortability and expertise with the artmaking process that is so natural it becomes invisible.

I think what distinguishes originality from it’s flakier cousin, novelty, is exactly what made the young child speak up when no one else would. It’s a pure obliviousness to what others think. Not, mind you, a rebellious affront to convention, but a complete lack of concern or awareness about the deeply ingrained ways of the world. And that’s something that cannot be faked. That’s something you’re just plain born with.

Read Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Category: Writing

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