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Art & artists

Breaking the rules

— December 2014

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Eduardo Paolozzi, Meet the People, screenprint and lithograph based on 1948 scrapbook collage from BUNK, 1972

Does art have rules? And how would you go about breaking them? And will this book help?

Art Rules! (And How to Break Them) by Mel Gooding

The title serves more as a provocative assertion than as some kind of rule book or even a manual of transgression.  Its tone throughout is to endorse the views of Marcel Duchamp on the one hand, about art as idea and about the role of chance, and of Joseph Beuys with his declaration that ’Every human being is an artist’.

The originality of this project is to present its arguments in the form of sets of cards, with an image of the work of an artist on  the front and a text on the reverse, setting out a task for the ’player’ to perform, followed by an explanation  of the related motives and procedures of the artist illustrated, and a number of prompts towards other artists of interest. 

The box is supplemented by a short book, Modern Art: Inside Out, confronting fundamental questions about current understanding of how art is made and experienced.  The overriding theme is that the actual practice of contemporary artists is no longer restrained by traditional boundaries of media and materials nor by adherence to fixed programmes or the litany of modernist movements.

The concept of the box of cards, seven sets of six cards, clearly reinforces the idea of art as play – albeit often quite serious play – relying on imaginative responses to chance, on taking risks, but also on setting up rules of the game with given boundaries and restraints.  Certainly the spirit of Surrealism infuses  the project.  This strategy is announced by the opening card, which appears to present an interesting but unfamiliar example of minimal, linear abstract painting, but this is then revealed to be an exercise in woven strips of paper, done by a 19th-century kindergarten child. The message that art can indeed be made by all could not be more evident.   

An example of the ‘games’ proposed is to construct a Memory or Dream Map by using found fragments of material.  Another instruction is to make a drawing with one hand of an object explored by the other, but to do it blindfolded. A Surrealist, Karel Teige (1900–51), provides an image that might encourage the ‘player’ to compose a collaged picture/poem. A torn paper abstract could be made using scraps of coloured wrapping paper, in the manner of a piece by Francis Davison (1919–84).  Photography is acknowledged, but not through the careful and experienced skills of the photographer, but through the eyes of sculptor Richard Wentworth CBE (b.1947), alert to the chance contingencies of everyday life such as a shoe redeployed to prop open a sash window, or to the use of a photobooth by Liz Rideal (b.1954) to record surprising and lyrical images of ferns.      

The directions followed by the book are wider ranging and more theoretical than the cards.  It is only a short book, some 60 pages, so it cannot realistically take on the task of signalling some radical new reading of the nature and place of art in the wake of critics Herbert Read (1893–1968) and John Berger (b.1926), but succeeds well enough in addressing the ‘frequently asked questions’ that might arise from today’s public about contemporary art. 

Mel Gooding reminds us of the importance of debate and criticism that is needed to bring life to art, which would remain hidden and inert without it.  He does not shy away from fundamental issues, ‘before we consider our experience of art, let us consider our experience of the world’, but nevertheless keeps his feet firmly on the studio or gallery floor. He is concerned with the  dangers of art language, such as the extent to which the designation, ‘Conceptual Art’ has shifted from its original usage, referring to word- or idea-based art, to apply to emphatically physical and conceptually undemanding work in the wake of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. 

Painting, Gooding insists, has not actually disappeared as a sustained practice but has only been disparaged by the prejudice of ’the smarter salons where the higher nonsense holds sway’. Also tackled is the tricky but often reiterated question of quality of technique balanced against quality of idea or discourse. This is addressed by talking through distinctions between craft and art, but recognizing the complexities and mutabilities of critical judgement.

All in all, this highly original production is to be recommended for a range of uses.  It is seriously and imaginatively conceived sufficiently to enable it to form the basis of an effective course in contemporary art practice, either for groups or individuals, but it also provides a stimulating experience to readers/game players who might be reaching for their scissors only at a conceptual level. 

Art Rules! (And How to Break Them) by Mel Gooding is published by Redstone Press, 2014.Boxed collection containing 42 illustrated cards and 64 pp book.


Robert Radford
University of East Anglia

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