Essence

Rebellion as Freedom

You can't learn to paint by studying Picasso. Picasso was a deconstructionist, meaning he was able to push the limits of conventional portrayals of a thing while still conveying the concept of that thing. This may be better described as essentialism: so long as the essence of the thing is maintained, the artist can do what he likes. In fact, in some ways, the higher the degree of abstraction, the more compelling the piece since the more abstract, the more difficult it is to retain the essence of the subject and the more challenging, and therefore gratifying, the viewing experience. It's not hard to identify that the essence has been maintained; it's binary: either you recognize the thing or you don't. But what's hard to intuit is why. What is the essence of the thing? How does one capture it? How does one tether one's art to it securely enough? You probably won't learn the fundamentals of painting from Picasso because his paintings are not fundamental. In fact, he tries his best to depart from the fundamental - to break as many rules as possible while still conveying something meaningful. Skillful rule-breaking requires mastery because the rules must be understood before they can be broken or one risks losing the essence of the thing the rules govern.

One sure sign of mastery is the ability to break conventional rules in surprising and compelling ways in order to shock, challenge, emphasize or add texture and depth to the "story". Two colors may clash in isolation but in the broader context of a painting, the discord may serve a purpose - it may be intentional chaos. Similarly, certain notes played together create disharmony. The sound is abrasive in isolation. There a sense of that's not right. But in the context of a broader movement, they could add texture and create dissonance or suspense which is soon after resolved, satisfying the listener.

To learn to paint you'd need to learn the essence of objects. To learn to play music you'd need to learn the fundamentals of music. To write a novel or make a film you need to understand the basics of storytelling. Masters break rules and make new ones. But they can only do this because they've mastered the rules as they exist. It would be difficult to learn the basics of film making by watching Tenet but much easier to pick out what makes a good story by watching Studio Ghibli.

The amazing thing about Nirvana was that Kurt & co. broke all the “rules” of the era. Rock & roll had gotten far afield from the blues it was birthed from. It was hair bands and glam rock in 1980s. It was over produced and soulless. It found the formula for a hit. Formulaic anything grabs attention and hits pleasure centers but has little substance. Like potato chips, it’s fine while it’s being consumed but is ultimately unfulfilling. It has no philosophy. It isn’t subtle. It has explicit goals. It doesn’t challenge the consumer. Enter Kurt Cobain who had a philosophy, who knew subtlety. Nirvana was real and raw and analog. They broke the conventional rules of music of the era and in an instant, all that was vapid and vacuous in music was laid bare. Eminem did the same to 1990s pop music. An interesting question is who will be the rebel-destroyer of hyper commercial hip hop?

Rebels are interesting. Refreshing. They upend the status quo of a given paradigm. They represent hope and change and possibility – even if they don’t deliver on that promise. They have a coolness. What does it mean to be cool? Isn’t it to shun commonly accepted norms? Doesn’t it have a fearless quality? Doesn’t it necessitate independent thinking, or better put, reject group-think? It’s the less traveled road, the one that invites criticism. But to do it right, there has to be something compelling. Rebelliousness itself is the necessary but not sufficient feature. It has to have some subtle philosophy. Some hint of a thing to be admired. It should inspire. It should be a vehicle for the more fearful to live through. The coolness of a young rebel is façade. Authority is stifling so they rebel; boring, so they refuse to submit. They could get lucky and paint something with the aesthetics of a Picasso but the meaning, if there is one, will be juvenile. They haven’t lived enough. They don’t understand that against which they rebel. The older rebel is rare but more complete. Their coolness is honed. They’ve stared into the abyss of life’s absurdity. Their recognition of the artifice of the human world informs their rebellion. They are free once they’ve grasped the nature of their confinement. With a deep understanding of the rules they can artfully break them and indeed create new ones. If compelling and inspiring, they create a new paradigm of thinking for others to assume. They are the ice breakers that allow passage for other ships. They are the fire that makes room in the old forest for new growth. The recession that bombs out poorly managed corporations so that younger, more agile start ups can solve today’s problems and flourish. The Picasso that brings us back to the essence.