Art Rules (or, “Freedom! Terrible Freedom!”)

You could say I’m a formalist, both in my work and in how I relate to others’ work.  Formalism has often been a term of abuse, implying a concern only for formula without regard to “content,” as if they could somehow be separated.  But I think my previous posts have made clear my interest in the different ways ideas can be organized and expressed, and the layers of meaning that can be suggested by a smart deployment of familiar elements.  Concern for formal elements doesn’t preclude evaluation of ideas and execution as good or bad, nor need it imply a completely intellectual approach by which quality is an objective truth that can be proven one way or the other.

It does allow for some wiggle room, however.  A symphony, a film, or a comic book can be evaluated on its own terms, asking “What is this work setting out to achieve?” and “Does it succeed?”  Does it work within the established boundaries of the medium and genre or seek to challenge them?  Most people nowadays have varied interests, and are accustomed to engaging works of art or entertainment pitched at different levels, adjusting their expectations based on cues within the work itself (or implied by its marketing or venue, which can lead to disappointment or the occasional pleasant surprise if the work doesn’t match expectations).  In this pluralistic environment, we are all formalists, to a degree.

What does this mean to the process of creation?  Is it just a matter of hitting the right story beats or composing four-bar phrases, of Drawing Comics the Marvel Way?  Obviously not, although those are the starting points of craftsmanship as traditionally understood.  When people dismiss stale or soulless formula, it’s often this kind of basic “how-to-do-it” stuff that they’re referring to: “By the numbers.” “Hackwork.”  Sometimes the contempt is richly deserved, and we’ve all encountered enough impersonal, indifferent work to understand that calling something “merely” professional isn’t meant to be a compliment.  It’s one thing to cling to formula, to imitate, when just starting out; it’s quite another when you feel the artist isn’t trying or thinks you’ll be satisfied with the bare minimum.

The reverse, though, can be a search for “originality” with no foundation of technique or (sometimes) knowledge of what has already been done.  And that contempt for “rules” can lead would-be artists to actively avoid formal training: “You don’t learn what you can do in school, you learn what you can’t do.”  “I don’t want to be made to fit into a box.” “I want to be able to color outside the lines.” Et cetera.  Never mind that any artist worthy of the name should hope to graduate to drawing their own lines to color in (metaphorically or otherwise).

So, yes, I’m on the side of discipline, whether it’s channeled by an established institution or developed individually on one’s own. (The point that is often overlooked in this school vs. autodidact debate is that, when you come down to it, all artistic discipline is self-discipline; no one is going to do it for you, no matter where you are.)

As for rules?  Like any other artistic resource, they can be a help or a hindrance, and this is where the formal approach comes in.  Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music contains a famous passage which nails down the problem with unlimited freedom:

The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free. . . .  I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.  If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.

For a long time I considered that my mantra, placing sometimes-arbitrary restrictions on my compositions in the name of “structure,” but frequently alternating this approach with an anything-goes, all-inclusive aesthetic.  Thus did I refute Stravinsky!  My guide at this opposite pole was Frank Zappa, who defined his approach as “Anything, Any Time, Anywhere—for No Reason at All,” and who did as much as he could to upend and undermine what he called the “hateful practices” of music.*  Sometimes I found a happy medium between these two extremes, but I caused myself a great deal of trouble by misunderstanding musical rules and how to apply them.

There are negative rules and affirmative rules: rules that say you can’t do something and others that say you must do something.  Unfortunately, the early years of musical training are often filled with the negative kind: don’t have parallel fifths, don’t use retrograde chord progressions, don’t double the leading tone. There are good reasons for all those rules, but it can be awfully restrictive if you see yourself as a loner working outside the system: save those exercises for the sheeple in Theory I—I’m going to do things my own way.  It gets worse when you get into historical counterpoint (in the styles of Palestrina and J. S. Bach), and even Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system had quite a few “don’ts,” as he originally intended it to avoid tonal implications.  It’s not hard to see why school sometimes seems to be all about NO.

It can also be easy to carry that mindset into composition: sometimes the “don’ts” are merely pedagogical tools, obstacles put in the student’s way to make them avoid the obvious, or to prevent bad habits, and as such they are useful.  Many composers (and other artists) never get past those rules they’ve internalized, turning a brace that was meant to make them stronger into a crutch they depend on.  I’ve spoken to many mature composers who said they still heard their teacher’s voice in their heads when working, but whether they heed or ignore it is part of the decision-making process.  I remember vividly the first time I included a bass drum roll in a composition, something that my first composition professor had discouraged me from doing.  I had a good reason for using it, but it still gave me an illicit thrill—and I had been out of school for eight years!  Composition education, at least in schools, is still very much a one-on-one teacher-student relationship; I don’t know if my remarks apply fully to other disciplines, but I’d be surprised if writers and studio artists didn’t have similar stories to tell.

I might have made smoother progress if I had kept in mind a passage from a few pages earlier in Stravinsky’s book (emphasis added):

Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it.  For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.  What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from actual working out.

An important principal of form that isn’t always obvious is that very often the “rules” of a given work of art are discovered in the process of the “working out” Stravinsky describes.  Rules set out beforehand are apt to be negative: formal boundaries of the sort described in the first passage from the Poetics, and they may or may not fit the material chosen to elaborate.  Rules discovered in the process of creation are more apt to be both affirmative and organically related to the material, leading to the kind of creative freedom that is the goal of all this discipline.  Sometimes the discovery of internal rules is part of a painstaking process at the writing desk or in the studio, and sometimes it takes place on the fly, as in an improvised jazz solo, but either way it comes across to the audience as freshness and spontaneity, in which developments can seem both surprising and inevitable.

As an example, comics writer Alan Moore is known for the tight formal approach and attention to detail he brings to his work; his discovery of the guiding principles he would apply to Watchmen (in collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons) is worth quoting at length (from an interview with Tasha Robinson):

I was writing the opening pages [of Watchmen No. 3] and, as is my custom, making tiny little thumbnail sketches to actually be able to envisage what the page would finally look like when it was drawn. I had two or three strains of narrative going on in the same page. I had a truculent news vendor giving his fairly uninformed commentary on the political state of the world, the likelihood of a coming war. Across the street, in the background, we have two people fixing a radiation sign to a wall. Sitting with his back to a hydrant near the news vendor, there’s a small boy reading a comic, which is a pirate comic. And I think while I was doodling, I noticed that an extreme close-up of the radiation symbol, if you put the right sort of caption with it, could look almost like the black sail of a ship against a yellow sky. So I dropped in a caption in the comic that the child was reading about a hellbound ship’s black sails against a yellow Indies sky. And I have a word balloon coming from off-panel, which is actually the balloon of the news vendor, which is talking about war. The narrative of the pirate comic is talking about a different sort of war. As we pull back, we realize that we’re looking at a radiation symbol that’s being tacked to the wall of a newly created fallout shelter. And finally, when we pull back into the beginning, into the foreground, we realize that these pirate captions that we’ve been reading are those in the comic that is being read by the small boy. . . . But, like I said, it was purely while I was scribbling, doodling, writing bits of dialogue and crossing them out that I suddenly noticed these possibilities for things that could be done in a comic and nowhere else.

Thus, Moore and Gibbons developed a visual language in which images are paired, never standing for only one thing, but in relationship with other ideas.  The use of mirrors, symmetry, and double meaning became the underlying formal principle.  In another interview, Moore discusses his series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brought characters from nineteenth-century fiction together in a single narrative continuity:

Round about the second issue, I suddenly thought ‘Hey, what if I did this so that any character that’s mentioned by name had got to be a real character from fiction?’ . . . Well, a genuine character from fiction, someone that has existed in other people’s work. And I think that it was when, possibly in the first issue, where I suddenly got to a bit where I realized that I’d got Emile Zola’s Nana being killed on the Rue Morgue by Mister Hyde, I thought, well, ‘This is great! This is going somewhere!’

The relevant point here is that in both cases the rules Moore set for himself, discovered in the process of creation, are affirmative, opening up possibilities rather than closing them off.  They set up challenges, but ones that require invention and creative thinking to overcome.  In the language of improv theater, such rules are the equivalent of “Yes, and . . . “ rather than the “NO” that often comes to mind when the topic of rules comes up.

To bring it back to the audience, does it help to be aware of such processes when reading, watching, or listening? I think it does, but I’ve already revealed myself as someone who geeks out over these things.  Not everyone wants to dig so deeply into their entertainment, and that’s fine. Despite appearances, I’m actually a strong believer in the “gut reaction:” it’s okay to like or dislike something without preparing a thesis about it or reading volumes of background to appreciate it.  Sometimes things just strike us a certain way, and the surface is as legitimate a layer to interact with as any other.  In some cases all that formal scaffolding is for the benefit of the artist, and a façade is erected to hide it from the public.  There’s something to be said for both the “holistic” and “granular” approaches to art—but I think I’ll leave it for another post.

* It is now widely known that Stravinsky wrote very little, if any, of the Poetics published under his name.  Indeed, as Richard Taruskin notes, Stravinsky had a life-long relationship with ghost-writers, and in any case Stravinsky’s public comments were often deliberately misleading, as if to throw armchair analysts off the scent.  Similarly, Zappa (for whom Stravinsky was an important influence) frequently downplayed the rigorous structure of his own compositions, preferring to be seen as an audacious prankster and provocateur. My struggle to reconcile these contradictory teachings was, in part, the price of reading too much at a young age and taking it all at face value.


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