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Breaking the rules

January 1, 2013

An artist’s job has two foundations – creativity and craft.Image

Artists need the imagination and mental flexibility to engage in creative process, and the skill to structure the outcomes of creative process to communicate with an audience.

However you define creativity, it involves breaking rules. It involves bringing together things that are ‘meant’ to be kept apart. It means taking the risk to step outside what is known, accepted, expected, allowed. It means trying things differently.

It means not only breaking the rules that confront us in our societies, but also breaking the rules we impose on ourselves. It means having the guts to step beyond our comfortable self. It involves risking ‘being differently’. It involves dumping who we want, dream, expect, accept ourselves to be and taking the risk to change.

Creativity is breaking rules.

For some that involves breaking the rules of their society – becoming enfants terrible or some other form of public recognisable ‘non-conformist’. For some it involves challenging the moral rules that they have inherited and which dominate their culture – the rules of established religion or political orthodoxy. For some it involves the mental and ethical discipline of continually reinventing the self.  The domain in which any individual’s rule-breaking takes place will reflect their character, aesthetic, social context and the nature of their art.

But always creativity involves the breaking of rules.

Our job is to break rules. And as we enter into a new year, I am proud of that job. The rules need breaking.

In a time of war, sexual violence, economic collapse, disease, starvation, one of the UK’s leading churches’ message at Christmas was about how wrong it is to be gay. It is so absurd it is beyond parody. Is that really what a CHURCH – charged with the (self-appointed) task of moral leadership – thinks is the most important issue to discuss at this time of year – the fact that they dislike the way some people choose to love each other? It suggests to me a moral bankruptcy. Rules imposed by the morally bankrupt need to be broken.

Governments – more than ever over the last year – have shown themselves as the servants of the rich and powerful. The UK government connives with Rupert Murdoch. The British police lie to protect themselves. International corporations avoid tax. The Greek government ‘loses’ the list of Greek tax-dodgers the IMF gave them (and when it is found again, relatives of a leading politician have mysteriously disappeared from that list). Though we ‘elect’ our governments, the choice we have is between the dishonest and the dishonest. This is no choice.  Greece almost chose outside that box. Greece came close to ‘breaking the rules’, and electing a more radical alternative, but you can be sure that if they had, the rest of Europe would have united in opposition to that single, democratic creative act. For ‘conformity’ hates creativity – that’s at the root of the eternally awkward relationship between the state and artists. Artists who are absorbed into the structures of the state forget that at their peril.

Governments protect and serve the rich and powerful. They are ethically bankrupt. Rules imposed by the ethically bankrupt need to be broken.

And then of course there are the rules we impose on ourselves. They perhaps are the hardest to break. Some are easy to understand (though still hard to break) – we are told we must look at certain way, so we try to look that way. We are told that certain things constitute ‘success’ so we try to achieve those things (and beat ourselves up when we don’t).

Other rules about the ‘self’ are harder to perceive – they are assumptions we make about who we are, how others see us, how we should behave. We think of them as ‘the sort of person I am’. They are still rules. They can be as restrictive as the most totalitarian political regime.

These rules too need breaking. In fact, the breaking of those rules is the heart of the creative act – perhaps creativity always involves a willingness to reinvent oneself. The act of personal creativity involved in breaking the rules of ‘self’ and the act of public non-conformity that comes from refusing the rules of the culture one lives in, are part of a continuum. As Carol Hanisch wrote in her great feminist essay of the 1960s, ‘The Personal is Political’.

I am not suggesting that every rule we encounter should be broken. It is against the rules to kill someone. I am not about to do so, for it would be in direct opposition to my ethical and moral framework. As someone who deeply dislikes conflict, I am not going to challenge my sense of self by going to get into a violent argument in a local bar. It would run counter to my ethics and would yield no useful result (perhaps it would, but I do not think it likely enough for me to risk doing it). Breaking rules requires that I take responsibility for my own actions and for the consequences of those actions.

This is rather like being an artist – for when I make work, I must accept responsibility for that work. A good friend of mine talks of the need for performers to ‘sign’ their work like a painter does – to reach a point where they say to the audience ‘this is what I have made, I pass it over to you now.’ In creating work, I break rules. In giving work to an audience (or in my teaching, in giving my work to those I train), I accept consequences. I cannot say ‘it is not my fault, I just followed the rules’. For the act of creativity means breaking rules – and inventing new ones (which must in turn be broken).

So as I sit here, on this dark first night of a new year, I wonder about the year ahead – how to choose a path through it and what rules must be broken if I am to follow my path with as much integrity as I can. What rules of the ‘self’? What rules of ‘art’? What rules of the society I live in?

I know this:  though times are hard for many of us, indeed as hard as I have seen in twenty five years of working as an artist, I find myself full of hope. Though our society may not want us, more than ever it needs us. We live in times of bankruptcy (in every sense) and it is time to create fresh visions.

That creativity requires that we break rules. Smash rules. Joyously dance on the wreckage of the rules that created this whole damn mess. Society, now, needs creativity. It needs art.

So let 2013 be a year of breaking rules. Whether you earn your living from ‘doing culture’, or you engage in creative acts as a relief from ‘earning your living’, whether you are just starting out or feel like you are just finishing up, whether you express your art through dance, writing, performance, teaching, parenting, graffiti, music, social activism, environmental radicalism, through the body, through words, in the privacy of a quiet room, then let 2013 be full of your creative daring.

Break the rules

Take the consequences

Enjoy the ride.

Happy new year.

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