(Yale University Press, 2012)
Arriving with nearly 50 color plates and three essays by editors Toby Kamps, Steve Seid, and by contributor Jenni Sorkin, Silence is the companion to an eponymously exhibition co-organized by the Menil Collection in Houston and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. At nearly 100 pages, it is a solemn, handsomely produced affair. Silence, “that most elusive of subjects,” Kamps writes, is “embedded in the form and content of religion, philosophy, and politics, and across the arts. It is an eternal preoccupation, an idealized goal, and perhaps a final destination for all beings.” But, as Kamps himself will also argue, one has the impression from this volume that, however eternal and pervasive, silence is less a subject embedded in sounds and images—namely, the sounds and images of Cage, Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Marclay, and Tino Sehgal, among the two dozen others included here—than a diffuse aesthetic activity with ethical consequences. Unfortunately, the full aesthetic range and historical applicability of such an activity is hardly accounted for. Silence is understood chiefly as an attribute of contemporary aesthetics, a rather late invention dissociated from its earlier, less easily classifiable manifestations in literature, music, sculpture, painting, and performance. This isn’t to dismiss the book for failing to produce a more comprehensive genealogy of the uses of silence, but I do wish that what feels to be the disadvantages of its historical shortsightedness were better redressed by its (lukewarm) efforts at contextualization.
Susan Sontag’s “The Aesthetics of Silence” in the Fall-Winter installment of Aspen magazine—a volume appropriately titled The Minimalism Issue—was placed alongside contributions from Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Morton Feldman, Merce Cunningham, Richard Huelsenbeck, Michel Butor, and Sol LeWitt, artists who contributed actively to postwar debates about the elimination, the paring down of information for eyes and ears, and whose exclusion from the pages of Silence form one of the book’s few perverse, if not impudent, curiosities of historical reportage. We get instead a narrative that begins with the 1952 premiere of what Steve Seid calls John Cage’s “noise-canceling composition,” 4’33” in Woodstock, New York, the Copernican moment that supplied proof that “what was once thought of as the zero dB default of sound was now a subset, rife with durational artifacts, ringings and decayings, and soft exhalations from the void.” Cage is undoubtedly one of the preeminent, founding figures of what this exhibition might identify, after Sontag, as the aesthetics of silence (it shares the title, after all, of Cage’s first published collection of lectures and essays), and the book’s contributors are correct to approximate a small set of examples from the past hundred years—from de Chiricoand Duchamp to Steve Roden and Nathaniel Dorsky—to ideas developed by Cage during the middle of the last century.
But silence is not—or should not become—a series of footnotes to Cage. What I like most about this book is its awareness of a cultural history that either antedates Cage considerably (the development of Zen Buddhism, for instance, or Romanticism in the 19th century), or that exists contemporaneously with some of his most productive years (Black Mountain College, Abstract Expressionism, Happenings). When Jenni Sorkin writes that “the first-ever Happening in postwar art, Theater Piece #1 also functioned as a reinvention of a late-19th-century idea that lingered in avant-garde art and music: the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk,” we have, if only temporarily, a much larger, more inclusive view than the book ordinarily seems interested in developing. What a pity, then, that the 19th century is restricted to a few passing references to Keats and Wagner, or that silence is understood mainly as an instrument of 20th-century aesthetics with only a scattering of intellectual precedents (Nietzsche, Lao Tzu, Saint Benedict). If the questions posed in the book’s foreword by Josef Helfenstein and Lawrence Rinder—“What is silence? Why does it have such a grip on the imagination? And why do we automatically connect it to important parts of the world such as mystery, memory, contemplation, and mourning?”—are to have any import as a credible supply of metaphysical speculations, why not take the long view? What else are we to make of the great tradition of mystical literature (John of the Cross, Thomas à Kempis, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, for example) if not a theology, a theory of God’s silence? If what Kamps calls memorial silence (“silence in the face of loss”) is “integral to the act of mourning,” why not mention the sarcophagi of the medieval church, or the appearance of witnesses to the passion in Fra Angelico and Matthias Grünewald, whose altarpieces and wood paintings supplied models of mourning in the guise of silent, aggrieved faces? (Sontag again: “Silence… as a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.”)
Without asking that the exhibition itself be modified, we could hope that a catalog accompanying a show featuring visual artists working under the sign of Cage would be more mindful of similar developments in mid-century literature and music. Why is there no discussion of the ideas of Pierre Boulez or Morton Feldman, for example? Why don’t we hear about the important working relationship between Cage and Feldman in New York, or of Cage’s correspondence with Boulez in the late ’40s and early ’50s? When Boulez writes of Webern in an essay from 1954 that “one senses unexploited worlds in one’s ear,” we are getting one version of Cage’s own statement, “Music is an oversimplification of the situation we are in. An ear alone is not a being.” Why, too, the complete absence of the novelists associated with the nouveau roman, whose interest in characters dissociated from psychological explanation—in what Nathalie Sarraute calls the “dead silence” of distant objects and persons—found its exempla in Camus’s The Stranger, a work written by a novelist with no stated affiliation with Sarraute and her colleagues, but which Maurice Blanchot could call “the very image of human reality when it is stripped of all psychological conventions”? (Beckett’s cry becomes the standard of a new sensibility: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”) But perhaps even more puzzling is the omission of any discussion of Minimalism, its inheritance of Cage, and its importance for a younger generation of visual artists represented in the exhibition.
The book concludes with a selection of images from its film program, a list including work by Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Nam June Paik, Harry Smith, Bruce Conner, and Rudy Lemcke, among others. For the purposes of the exhibition, these films have been compiled and programmed into three sections: A Kind of Hush, Sonic Slippage, and Sourcing Sound. One can think of any number of other filmmakers—or other titles by the filmmakers listed—that might be worthy of inclusion here, although there is no compelling reason for the utter neglect of narrative cinema, particularly when so much of the 72-year period represented by these films (the earliest, from 1936, is Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart; the latest is Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin’s Lossless #2 from 2008) promises a range of pleasures that might be meaningful in the context of this show: Think, for example, of films by Tati, Chaplin, Akerman, Bresson, Bergman, Alonso, and so on.
Valèry, writing at the end of the 19th century: “We must not forget that a thing of great beauty leaves us mute with admiration.” Of course, not all forms of admiration are mute, nor are all moments of speechlessness accessories of aesthetic judgment, or expressions of taste. The quick, unhelpful reference in the book’s foreword to our “especially noisy moment, as the din of digital life increasingly hollows out silence and any attendant powers of concentration” seems to me a rather jejune effort of observation, particularly when so many examples of contemporary performance, theater, and art installation seem so unapologetically entropic and over-peopled (thus the importance of audience participation and intervention in work by Cartsen Höller or Rivane Neuenschwander, for instance, or the manic waywardness of Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, in New York) not because of their callousness toward silence—or because of their irreverence toward the “attendant powers of concentration”—but as a result of their attempts to devise newer, more alert, less enfeebled styles of attention and reaction. “It is all very well to keep silence,” says Beckett, “but one has also to consider the kind of silence one keeps.”