Saturday, August 1, 2015

Banks' Theorem of Stupid Rules

Not a stupid rule at all

Long before I started selling my art online, I sold it at festivals, art markets and gallery shows. Early on, I was seriously puzzled, and often annoyed, by the ridiculous rules of many art shows and festivals. No paintings that are still wet? No getting juried into a show and then subletting your space to someone who didn’t? Who would do that? Why would anyone have to even mention these things?

Then, after a few years of selling, I began to get involved with organizing some shows, and I found out. The very first festival I organized, an artist told me weeks before the show that she couldn’t make it, but that she had arranged for a friend to use her booth space. My jaw hit the floor. Absolutely not! She seemed amazed that I wouldn’t allow it, although I can’t imagine any half-decently run art show that would.

Another fairly common trick was to have a friend help in the booth, in exchange for which the “official” artist showed some of their work in the space. That’s why you see that rule everywhere that all the work has to be made by the artist who applied. Maybe you think that’s not a big deal, but to all the artists who applied and were rejected, it is!

Later, I coordinated a show of about 30 artists at a gallery space. I kept the written rules to a minimum – and a guy showed up with gigantic pieces with very recently applied globs of still-wet acrylic paint. When we hung the work, the paint came off all over my hands and clothing. 

One very basic rule for gallery shows is that artwork must be ready to hang. Ever wonder why some shows are so freaking fussy about pieces having “a single wire across the back, no nails, screw eyes, or sawtooth hangers”? Number one, because while some of those things work OK for hanging, they tend to scratch up gallery walls, which will have to be repaired. But number two, and far more to the point, is that every single time, someone will bring in work that has absolutely no hanging hardware, and expect someone else to deal with it. Every. Single. Time.

Two years after wet-paint guy, a woman at the same show presented us with paintings in mats, no frames. When we said we couldn’t accept them because there was no way to hang them, she went away and came back with the work still in mats, with pieces of string taped across the back.

All of these examples, and many more, led me to develop Banks’ theorem, which is:


Broadly extrapolated, Banks’ theorem explains why we can’t have nice things. It applies in many other contexts than art shows, of course. Why do you have to go to such lengths to prove to banks or government agencies that you are who you say you are? Because assholes are out there stealing people’s identities. Why are there so very many silly rules on what you can claim as business expenses? Because jerks keep trying to claim their vacations and shoes and haircuts. Why do we have to take off our shoes at the airport? Because that one idiot that one time tried to ignite a bomb in his shoe. 

All of this is deeply unfair to the vast majority of people who would never dream of doing any of this stuff.

Even though people constantly try to get away with shit, I still think we should strive to avoid making rules based on worst-case scenarios. I struggle with it all the time, though. I do commissioned paintings, for example. People almost always love them and pay happily. Then somebody will come along, commission something, and, after I let them know it’s ready, cut off all contact. Does this mean I always have to get payment in advance? I probably should, but I still don’t. Why punish the majority of nice people for the actions of a few jerks?

A few weeks ago, somebody asked me to use one of my images for a non-commercial project. I said yes and even found and sent her a better-quality image than the one I had online. And she never said a single word. Not even “thx”. I decided that was the last time I was letting someone use one of my images for free. So when someone asked me last week if they could use another image, I hesitated. I talked myself through basically all the points in this post, and then I said yes. And, of course, she said thank you, and we were both happy.

So Banks’ theorem is explanatory, not prescriptive. I understand why rules exist, even very stupid rules. We all, especially those of us who run our own businesses, have to decide on a set of rules we can live by, and with. But maybe if we focus on the 98% percent of people who are honest, and kind, and not pains in the butt, (OK, maybe it’s more like 80%), we could end up with fewer - and fairer - rules altogether. 

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