Perfect Sound Forever


Andy Warhol's Brillo Box

by Chris Cutler


1 Until at least the end of the seventeenth century painting and sculpture were classified as mechanical, not liberal, arts; '..neither art nor artist, as we use the words, is translatable into archaic or high classical Greek.' (Havelock. Preface to Plato, 1963); 'The Renaissance.... had no real equivalent of our Fine Art.' (Kemp, Behind the Picture, 1997).' And so on. In this essay, then, I will use art always to mean Fine Art - that is to say that post enlightenment European concept of an autonomous realm of production and reception to which we still adhere, and not to the more utilitarian understandings of art as varieties of techne which preceded it. It is the concept of Fine Art that is thrown into crisis by the historic avant gardes, and it is the consequence of their critical challenge that I try to trace below.

2 In 1913, Duchamp famously asked "Can one make works, which are not works of art?" In 1917, his assisted readymade, Fountain - a commercially mass-produced urinal that he had bought in a shop - was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists in New York, specifically on the grounds that it was not art. And it was not exhibited. The 'original' Fountain was then lost. Few today, however, dispute that Fountain was and is an artwork, or that, by implication, any object at all might be an artwork. In fact just the idea of an object might be an artwork (subsequent, exhibited, 'Fountains' were newly purchased from commercial outlets without in any way affecting the status of the work). Even the idea that a mass-produced urinal (or bottle-rack, or snow shovel, or anything at all) might be an artwork might itself be accepted as an artwork now.

3 I will use this term of Peter Burger's to refer at least to Constructivism, Russian and Italian Futurism and Dada.

4 In Fluxartist Yoko Ono's case ('Bottoms,' 1966).

5 Three short comments:
1. Robert Motherwell's book, The Dada painters and poets was published in 1951 and is constantly referenced by artists of this generation, though surely it was more a symptom than a cause.
2. I say anti-art, but anti-art and non-art seem confusingly to merge into one broad concept in this period - and of course by then Dada already belonged tacitly in the camp of art.
3. If I single out Andy Warhol in the pages that follow, it is because it seems to me that he took cogniscence of the changed context of his borrowings in a way that many of his contemporaries did not, concentrating more on the conditions of meaning than on its production and insisting not on his own freedom so much as acting to expose the conditions of his confinement.

6 Andy Warhol. From A to B and Back Again. 1975

7 In 2004, it was voted the most influential artwork of the C20. Perhaps this accolade was intended as a slyly philosophical art event? But I think not. Interviewed in 1962, Duchamp was already resigned to the new situation: 'When I discovered the readymades, I hoped to discourage the carnival of aestheticism [...] I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their face as provocations, & now they are admiring their aesthetic beauty.'

8 Sometimes, it did seem to depend which side of the joke his public felt they were on: when Warhol sent look-alikes to stand in for him at university engagements, some of those attending became quite indignant - although his action seems entirely consistent with the WarholTM brand; in fact was even rather an exquisite instance of it.

9 Clement Greenberg. 'avant garde Attitudes'. 1968.

10 In spite of the later disavowals of some of the Fluxalumni, who echoed the Dadaists even in this retrospective redrawing of their own recent history.

11 George Antheil's Ballet Mechanique - in fact his entire composing and performing career from the early '20s to the mid '30s - would be exemplary, blending a repetitive machine aesthetic with Stravinsky's take on 'primitive' folk rhythms.

12 'All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.' Walter Pater, 'The Renaissance,' 1873. Until the fourteenth century the status of music was pitched far below that of painting, but by the eighteenth century the situation had effectively been reversed. Seeing music as the first of the arts to escape the Aristotelian task of imitating nature, writers from the late sixteenth century onwards (Schiller, Goethe, Schopenhauer, de Stael, Baudelaire, Hanslick, Whistler...) increasingly promoted its superiority over, and its power as a model for, the other arts. For many, the idea of Absolute Music became an ideal for art in general.

13 The breakdown of the sharp division between Object arts and Event arts is a crucial aspect of the story of the emergence of new artforms consequent on the appearance of ambiguous new media in the mid to late nineteenth century - I think of film and sound recording in particular, both of which were time-traps or event-objects: events in their unfolding and objects in their straight-from-the-world repeatability. The pursuit of an integration of space- and time-based arts (deeply ingrained as fundamentally incompatible since at least the publication of Lessing's influential 'Laokoon,' in 1771) was endemic in the historic avant gardes, and was expressed in soirees, actions and performances, as well as, more obliquely, through ready-mades, photomontages, Rayograms and Merz works, in which the inclusion of the event of finding, making or presenting seems forcefully to be implied in the final object (something similar could be said, perhaps, of impressionism and abstract expressionism). It seemed that if art wanted to approach life, it would need to acknowledge that life was an event. In short, it has been one of the defining features of twentieth century art that admixtures of different media have grounded new forms and new fields of work. With the entry of sound into the condition of post avant garde art-in-general - following the critical interventions of John Cage in the 1950's - a critical levelling step was passed that laid the basis for a number of innovative new forms in which event and object, space and time-based arts collapse into genuinely new means of perceptual signification.

14 'My fight for the liberation of sound and for my right to make music with any sound and all sounds has sometimes been construed as a desire to disparage and even discard the great music of the past. But that is where my roots are. No matter how original, how different a composer may seem, he has only grafted a little bit of himself on the old plant. But this he should be allowed to do without being accused of wanting to kill the plant. He only wants to produce a new flower. It does not matter if at first it seems to some people more like a cactus than a rose...' Edgard Varese 'The Liberation of Sound,' 1936

15 Of course, looking to the past is not inherently conservative (the Renaissance for one looked back toward classical antiquity). But the simple claim to legitimation or inspiration from some aspect of the past may, according to circumstance, express varied impulses: returning to a path from a thicket, sloughing off accumulated noise, asserting authority for what are in effect new insights. Context in this, as in so much else, is everything. In the case under observation, Darmstadt seems in part to have been trying to mount a late defence against continuing dissolution, while Fluxus strove to accelerate the process of dissolution in order to force art into the condition of a new paradigm.

16 Michael Nyman in his invaluable book Experimental Music (1974) spells out the difference between the 'avant garde' and the 'experimentalists' at this time, as does John Cage in his address to the convention of the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago in 1957 (reprinted in the brochure accompanying George Avakian's 3 LP recording of The Cage twenty-five-year retrospective concert at Town Hall, New York, 1958. KO8Y-1499 -1505).

17 But was that work an artwork or some other kind of work? If we think it was an artwork, we have already answered, and therefore rendered redundant, its raison d'etre as a question – and then where is the work? Duchamp himself took great care to exclude the objects themselves from any art value their real or virtual presentation might claim. And that removal was the basis of his own claim to have produced a work. But when form is irrelevant, and content is lost along with the loss of the historically specific context that gave it meaning, what remains? Such works, after their initial proposition, become empty relics; at most evidence of critical moments in the history of art (or music). How else could they be meaningfully understood?

18 Cage had his own answer of course - that any sound could be music, including silence, 'If you want to know the truth of the matter, the music I prefer, even to my own or anybody else's, is what we are hearing if we are just quiet.' (Conversing with Cage, ed Kostelanetz, 1988).

19 John Cage 'Diary: how to improve the world (you will only make matters worse) continued 1968 (revised)' in M: Writings '67-72, London, 1973.

20 By using chance procedures and non-sentient systems to make decisions, Cage also deliberately avoided the Surrealists' appeal to the unconscious. Their uses of non-intentionality, such as automatic writing, were employed to sidestep conscious reason - with the implication that this might release deep, and therefore meaningful, archetypal forces buried in the unconscious mind. To avoid this, Cage deliberately eschewed the human for the inhuman in his aleatoric operations.

21 Duchamp recognised this problem and was careful to limit the number of readymades he presented as works, despite knowing that there was no limit.

22 And against the 'avant garde': For instance, in 1964, Fluxartists picketed Stockhausen concert in New York in an 'Action Against Cultural Imperialism,' handing out a leaflet written by George Maciunas condemning 'White ... Ruling Class Art.'

23 It was a musician involved with Fluxus, Henry Flynt, who coined the term 'Concept Art' - in his pages in An Anthology, edited by La Monte Young & Jackson Mac Low in 1963.

24 I do not intend to decry Pop Art, Fluxus or any of the extraordinary propositions made by artists in the last 60 years. Indeed, generally I celebrate them. Here I am only trying to answer a specific question about the validity, in the new conditions, of the concept of an avant garde - and parenthetically, perhaps, to raise the question of whether we are failing to recognise new categories as we attempt to subsume them under old ones - to the detriment of both.

25 Do I exaggerate? Here is a sample of statements that say not: 'To establish an artist's non-professional status in society... he must demonstrate that anything can be art and anyone can do it' (George Maciunas, 1965); 'If you want to know the truth of the matter, the music I prefer, even to my own or anybody else's, is what we are hearing if we are just quiet.' (John Cage, 1958 - see Fn. 15) and 'Sounds one hears are music.' (John Cage, 1968); 'It seems to me that the most radical redefinition of music would be one that defines 'music' without reference to sound' (Robert Ashley, 1961). There are plenty more.

26 Ludwig Wittgenstein. 'Philosophical Investigations.' 1953.

27 Much has been said about experience being central to contemporary art, but in this sense, at least, it is classical art that rests on its invocation of experience and modern forms that produce types of alienation that result in verbal contemplation?

28 John Cage wrote of Edgar Varese, meaning to praise him, that he was '...the first to write directly for instruments, giving up the practice of making a piano sketch and later orchestrating it' - before going on to criticise him for being ' artist of the past. Rather than dealing with sounds as sounds he deals with them as Varése'. (John Cage Silence, 1961). That set of mind seems to me rather to sum up the current confusion: one either accepts this as a meaningful criticism - or at least a clear statement of position - or wonders why Cage is so keen to erase the will to create and to communicate.

29 Again, perhaps with the exception of the later Cage who, it might be argued, made an attempt to escape the issue altogether. At the very least his goal, like Duchamp's, was profoundly ambiguous.

30 In an interview with James Johnson Sweeney in The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, Vol XIII, no 4-5, reprinted in The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, 1973. Or as Tristan Tzara wrote in the Dadaist Manifesto of 1918, 'There is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean.'

31 In mute recognition of this, Paul Griffiths' book A concise history of avant garde music published in 1978, was quietly renamed A concise history of Modern Music for its 1992 reprint.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER