Modern Art that the Past Would Have Scorned, Part 2
In the previous article, we looked at the two modern works Merda d’Artista and My Bed. This article discusses two more works that leave interpretation up to the viewer.
Museum of Non-Visible Art
This museum is dedicated to displaying only works that exist in the imagination of the viewer – or as the organization prefers to call it, “non-visible”. An art project started in 2011 by James Franco and Praxis – Brainard and Delia Carey, a conceptual art duo from New York, this museum has attracted people from around the world.
Each work has a description included, but the actual work of art remains non-visible, perhaps as a way to get the viewer to imagine the artwork from its description. Purchasing one of these works does not get you an actual artwork, only the descriptive card which you can then display on an empty wall and an imaginary artwork that you can describe to your audience.
While some people have been skeptical as to whether this is really just an elaborate scam, the museum assures people that its works are real. The Museum of Non-Visible Art attempts to promote subjective artwork that is simply imagined by the viewer, and in fact sold a piece titled “Fresh Air” to media producer Aimee Davidson for $10,000. When she was asked why she purchased the artwork, she replied:
As a new media producer, I identified with the ideology of the project and was particularly inspired by the sentence, “We exchange ideas and dreams as currency in the New Economy.”
Social media, which is integral to “the New Economy” of the Internet, post Web 2.0, has revolutionized how artists create, promote and sell their works of art. I felt that the act of purchasing “Fresh Air” supported my thesis about a concept I term “you-commerce,” which is the marketing and monetization of one’s persona, skills, and products via the use of social media and self-broadcasting platforms, like Franco’s use of the crowd funding platform Kickstarter to fund the Museum of Non-Visible Art. Essentially, I wanted to put my money where my mouth is.
In short, Davidson felt that the ideology of the non-visible art spoke to her and how she worked on social media. She felt that “Fresh Air” represented the struggles artists faced when creating and selling their art online. However, considering that Davidson sold her soul on Craigslist for $100, perhaps that is not so surprising.
This may sound reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes, just that it is very real indeed. The Museum of Non-Visible Art has a page on Kickstarter for crowd funding. They note that by funding them you will not get an artwork, but a descriptive card for a non-visible artwork that is defined by the viewer’s imagination.
At this point, one may wonder: what aspects of non-visible art make it art? Is it the description card, the fact that the art is non-visible, or the ideology behind the whole concept? Is it worth a lot of money because it is considered art, or is it considered art because it is worth so much money?
4’33” is a musical work by American experimental composer John Cage, composed in 1952. The piece consists of three movements and is written for any combination of instruments. How so? Well, the score instructs the performers not to play their instruments for the entire duration of the piece.
However, as might be expected, this composition was not well received. The audience thought 4’33” was some kind of joke or an avant-garde work trying to be funny. After its performance, one local artist was said to have stated, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town.”
The work became known by its duration, 4’33” being the total length of its first public performance. One may ask if 4’33” is simply four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, but John Cage claimed otherwise.
They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.
(Source: Kostelanetz 2003, 70)
The piece is meant to let the audience listen to the accidental and ambient sounds amidst silence from the performers. Unlike other works of music, where the outside world dims and the audience is drawn into the music itself, 4’33” draws focus to the sounds of the outside world rather than itself.
Cage was inspired by an encounter with an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, a room which was scientifically designed to hold absolute silence for the purposes of acoustic testing. He wrote that he entered one such room and heard one high-pitched sound and one low-pitched sound. The engineer informed him that the high-pitched sound was that of his nervous system, and the low-pitched sound his blood in circulation. This struck a chord in him, causing him to focus his compositions on such ambient sounds. “Until I die, there will be sounds,” he wrote. “And they will continue after my death. One need not fear about the future of music. Any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.”
Another source of influence for this controversial work was Cage’s colleague Robert Rauschenberg, who had produced a series of white paintings in 1951 which were seemingly blank. In fact, these paintings changed depending on the lighting in the room and the shadows of people standing around them. Cage stated, “…when I saw those, I said, ‘Oh yes, I must. Otherwise I’m lagging, otherwise music is lagging’.” Later, he wrote, "To Whom It May Concern: The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later."
4’33” is often considered to be Cage’s greatest and most controversial work. It is, however, not the first conception of silent compositions. In earlier years, a number of other artists had thought of similar ideas, including the 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man by Alphonse Allais, the 1919 In Futurum by Erwin Schulhoff, and the 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony by Yves Klein, consisting of a twenty-minute drone followed by a twenty-minute silence. In fact, the idea of a silent composition was even joked about in 1947 by the jazz musician Dave Tough, “A string quartet is playing the most advanced music ever written. It’s made up entirely of rests. Suddenly, the viola man jumps up in a rage and shakes his bow at the first violin. ‘Lout,’ he screams, ‘you played that last measure wrong.’”
Perhaps the idea of 4’33” and other silent compositions is to take a look at concert etiquette and prey on the unsuspecting audience. Given the composer’s name and a prestigious concert location, the audience tends to have high expectations for the piece, and would probably focus on the work as much as they would any other great symphony. In what other situation could anyone get a hall of people to sit quietly and listen to the ambience?
What do you think the Museum of Non-Visible Art and 4’3” are trying to communicate about art? Do you think their message is effective?
Why do you think the precursors of silent compositions were not as well known as John Cage’s 4’33”?
In the cases of non-visible art and silent compositions, art is defined as subjective and largely created by the viewer, rather than the artist. As such, do you think that the work belongs to the artist or to the viewer?