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Breaking the rules

18 June, 2003

Updated 16 November, 2008

In a text on John Baldessari:

'..he has encouraged students to break the rules for over 30 years.'

This quote gets funny if you apply the qualification for over 30 years not to B's teaching practice, but to the aging student who turns rule-breaking into a life-long habit, with naive dedication.

I want to put aside the question whether the artistic paradigms of subversion, of irony, of breaking the rules can still be valid for an artistic practice today. The fact is that you still see much of it; approaches setting themselves apart from this praradigm (I tend to avoid the term, but it could be called post-modernist, of course) easily take on an aspect of social engineering, of filling a void left by the erosion of public social services (more on that in an essay on community and communication in art).

'Rule' I use here to mean 'generative rule' (a term that I believe was introduced by Bourdieu, but it may have been around before); a term which describes the behaviour of the process that the artist is engaged in.

Some generative rules may be strict, some serendipitous, some responding to extraneous events or other subjects, some fixed in advance, some changing over time, some recursive or self-adaptive. The point is that these rules become visible only if the artist steps back and investigates his or her own practice (or someone else's, for that matter): 'What is it that I actually do here? What drives my choices? How do I react to my own output?', etc.

So, if rule-breaking still rules, how would you break the rule of breaking the rule? This is a real question—the type no other than oneself can answer. The answer may fall in one of the following categories:

  1. Don't break any rules. Follow some accepted rule set and strive for excessive conformance. Some may notice an irony here. You keep a straight face.
  2. Be slave to self-invented rules. Produce your own generative rules and follow them stubbornly, slave of your method? Then how do you avoid the regressive character of such single-mindedness?
  3. Break rules with chance. Use chance, or a combination of rules and chance, to open up the choice space, generate serendipity? (I am not going to drop names here - the question is whether a tradition can be useful in a new context)
  4. Accept heteronomy and resist simultaneously. Accept someone else's (or a statutory or über-ich instance of yourself) heteronomous generative rules and accept these, but resist them as much as you can, developing everything out of this resistance to rules? Sounds like a rather bland metaphor for a life controlled by outside forces, dotted with pointless acts of minimal resistance.
  5. Let rules creep, subvert rules. Subvert rather than break the rule? Corrupt, blend or smudge rules? Of course this is the common answer. Then how do you escape the traps of locking into a referential / melodramatic / blundering / meandering mode? Humor, the vernacular, the damaged, the tasteless, the wrong material, the deliberately unskilled or off-treatment is then the usual antidote—if it can be generalised this way. It seems clear that postmodernism cannot be written off, is here to stay like the tasteless tomatoes or the strawberries whose green bit can no longer be pulled out - whatever other names will be invented and papered over the p-word.
  6. Follow implicit rules. Work intuitively, don't think about rules at all? The rules will be embedded, resonances will guide decisions. Some may carry it off. The danger is that stop reflecting on your practice, become unthinking.
  7. Compound rule sets. Pick a rule set and violate it by superimposing an alien rule set on top of it—an act which renders both rule sets bizarre—but then how to escape the threat of surrealism, of being deliberately obscure?
  8. Set meta-rule of breaking rules. Or keep on breaking the rules, matter-of-factly as they have always done, but define what you do not in terms of rules or of breaking them? Social context, institutional critique etc
  9. Ignore the rule speace. Or don't do anything at all, make no deliverate decision on the 'generative principles'—the easiest, most elegant, most likely and most depressing option.
Last update: 16 November 2008 | Impressum—Imprint