Systems, wrote Hollis Frampton in 1962, are the stuff of "old men, angels and Germans". Yet dogma and closure were exactly what artists like Sol LeWitt, composers like Pierre Boulez, and authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet and those associated with the Oulipo group were hoping to circumvent when they committed themselves in all freedom to constrictive systems. By means of arbitrary, systemic procedures? By "letting the system do the work", to speak with LeWitt? They deliberately excluded the necessity of incidental and subjective decision-making, as aesthetical and rational choices tend to be conditioned by cultural conventions, habits, and preferences. In the words of Oulipo-member Marcel Bénabou: "writing under constraint is superior to other forms insofar as it freely furnishes its own code". As it is difficult to distinguish true free choice from apparent free choice, which is in reality based on ingrained cultural patterns, the decision not to make personal choices might be the more radical act of freedom. In 1954, more than a decade before Roland Barthes first published "The Death of the Author", Boulez already called for the creation of an anonymous, self-generating music or text, "speaking for itself and without an author’s voice".

In this paper I discuss the problematization of the concept of free choice in the systemic work of practitioners and theoreticians of various arts (1957-1975), all of whom were inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé, who believed that a work of art must originate in its "inborn" structures, and whose writing Oulipian Raymond Queneau has compared to "the fruit fly in genetics".