My appointed cultural role is occasionally to stare at mundane artifacts, twist up my forehead and tug on a few rogue hairs of my beard, and then typity-type out a little rant overanalyzing some trivial something or other that’s evidence of the decline of everyone and everything. (Such as: today a vehicle in front of me turned left while signaling right, after veering to the right – yes, Janet, it was an SUV – and I immediately figured it had something to do with the ability of morons to get on television and say that no, there were no terrorist attacks in the US during the Bush administration. It doesn’t, quite…but yes: I am a crank.)

So, here’s a cartoon:

Okay: I know, it’s just a cartoon…but there are at least two huge things wrong with it. First, to “do art correctly” in actual practice has more to do with techniques (or possibly history) than it does with, I dunno, rigidly enforcing blue skies and green grass (especially since, as you can ascertain for yourself looking at any painting or, if your eyes are well-trained, any actual patch of grass, “grass” is not just green). Second, the cartoon assumes by implication that “being creative” has something to do with bypassing rules, with coloring outside the lines, with being like totally free, man. It may, sometimes…but even if “being creative” necessarily entails bypassing rules, bypassing rules by no means therefore leads ineluctably to creativity.

This seems to be the fallback posture of lame-ass artistic types, however: let someone dare criticize their work, and you just don’t understand it in your bourgeois, puritanical, limited, rule-bound, gray-flannel minds…I’m just trying to be free and express myself.

I would suggest that in fact, “rules” are devices to provide a certain kind of tension: to be stretched, reinterpreted, and occasionally disregarded or overturned, but by no means merely to be ignored as irrelevant. Anyone can walk up to a piano and play just any old set of notes, in no particular rhythm, with no kind of form or structure, rhythmic, melodic, or otherwise – but it takes some sort of engagement with “rules,” or convention, or simply an awareness of historical common practice, to play something interesting. This is because, overlooked by the “freedom, man” school of “creativity,” art is not a solitary activity but a social one. Or at least, any art that wants to do more than sit unseen, unheard in an attic is that. The moment anyone wants any second person (or hell: even their own self, later in time) to engage with artwork, there’s a necessity to recognize the syntax and coding of certain sorts of gestures, sequences, and patterns. And that means not a slavish but a dialectical relation with “rules,” “conventions,” “traditions,” and other such fusty nouns.

This is true also because consciously avoiding all that becomes clear in its unclarity: “free” music that is free to do any and everything but form recognizable rhythms, structures, chords, or melodies is rather unfree. And it’s also true that while such faux-free practices are in fact best engaged in by the highly aware (otherwise how would they know what to avoid, and how to avoid it?), the worse alternative is an unknowing fall into the arms of cliché: if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, you’ll do it anyway, because it’ll just sound like the thing to do. Thus the jam bands playing for half hours, soloing endless scales over trite blues progressions. A friend of my wife’s once owned a very small farm and decided to sell free-range chickens. As it turned out, the chickens were extraordinarily reluctant to leave their coops: he ended up, out of a sense of obligation to truth-in-advertising, carrying the chickens from the coops onto the dirt, so they could pluck and scratch for a few seconds on the unfamiliar earth before making their comfortable, mindless return to familiarity. Freedom! Even though we’re not chickens, we have our comfortable coops – and unless we know what they are, we’ll just return to them at the first opportunity, perhaps under the guise of freedom, while clucking out a very familiar song.


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