Difficult Art

20 April, 2016

I recently read a very wonderful piece on John Cage written by the Mountain Goats's John Darnielle and published by Harper's. (It's behind a paywall but Harper's now permits one free article a month so you will probably be able to read it.) I highly recommend it.

How do we comprehend art, with its rules and its standards? This piece presents this relationship between art and its rules and standards--and breaking from them--as one of the foremost themes of John Cage's music. Classical music is strict in its demands on performance, so what does it mean when a piece leaves it up to the performer to decide how long it ought to be performed? (How does 639 years sound?) Or, what should "performance" entail? (Listen to the audience in a recording of his performance of "Empty Words," and it's clear the performance may be just as much about the audience than the performance itself.)

I'm reminded of a defense of pretension published by Slate, which featured the author fondly recalling witnessing, live, this video of a woman dancing in butter and falling, then standing to dance again, only to fall, over and over again. He writes that he was moved by it, while the Internet largely ridiculed it. Is it possible that they wrote it off as pretentious due to the discomfort of processing a radical and challenging work? I've seen this video before and just rewatched it, and I still think it's pretty ridiculous. (Reading that the butter dance was inspired by the performer's "feelings of alienation when she moved to Germany and her first experience eating butter" did not change my mind.) Well, what about a piece of music four minutes and 33 seconds long of just pure silence, so that the music is not about the music performed but the sounds that accompany the lack of music? It might still be a bit ridiculous, but I find the element of audience reaction compelling.

Why am I more sympathetic to silence as having grand merit? I wrote much this piece with earbuds in, while walking home, listening to a song that sounded nice. It was good writing music: not distracting, more or less. But I remembered my favorite quote of Cage's from the piece: "I remember as a child loving all the sounds… even the unprepared ones."

I took out my earbuds and took in the sound of the city on the remainder of my walk home. They sounded pleasant, if a little discordant. I typically think of these noises mostly as sound pollution (I'm already fairly hard of hearing, owing to years of concert attendance without using earplugs), but Cage's quote, and my reaction to Darnielle's written piece, had me thinking otherwise. It had me thinking of my time and place on this planet, about how an organ performance will outlive me by hundreds of years, and that it's very important to be present in the moment. Those city-sounds are my moment. I'm plugged in far too much as it is.

Cage's most difficult work is a frustrating demand on your full attention in the moment. Today, at a time in which we're constantly pulled in multiple different directions and many profess to having trouble staying focused on any individual task for more than a short period of time before succumbing to distraction, this demand is more important than ever.

In any case, I am appreciative of this "difficult art," art that is not simple to process, that has no easy answers or straightforward interpretations. Sometimes this misfires--as the ridiculed butter dancing shows--but when it doesn't, it is something that will stay with you longer than a catchy song or television episode you watch once or twice, but never revisit, ever will, or can.