[6. Sung / Conflict, Six in the First Place, Nine in the Second. Changing to: 25. Wu Wang / Innocence (The Unexpected)]
A painting is not a record of what was said and what the replies were but the thick presence all at once of a naked self-obscuring body of history.
How does the flag sit with us, we who don’t give a hoot for Betsy Ross, who never think of tea as a cause for parties?
This is the second of four essays on non-musician artists in the second half of A Year From Monday (although Nam June Paik was a musician, his primary medium was video). It is also John Cage’s major statement on Jasper Johns, another member of the American neo-avant-garde. It is noticeably dense and long, comparable only to Cage’s essay on Rauschenberg in Silence, and I find it interesting that Cage spent so much time describing these two artists while devoting very little space to composers such as Edgard Varèse and Arnold Schoenberg—even to Merce Cunningham for that matter. Cage notes in the introduction to the essay that he spent a great deal of time investigating the “aura of his personality,” and the literary style of personal anecdotes is in contrast to the Whitmanesque prosaic tone of “On Robert Rauschenberg Artist, and His Work.”
I am not an art historian, and as with the Rauschenberg essay, I defer to the standard criticisms and stylistic boundaries. It is tempting for anyone in the humanities to dabble in a neighboring field, a dalliance that in the beginning often feels exhilarating, but ultimately ends with an embarrassing hangover. The same can be said of Cage himself; while he did have a general understanding of modern art from his early studies (including the often-cited anecdote of his brief stint teaching art history to Santa Monica housewives in the 1930s for extra cash), in this case and in many others, Cage reads any and all artistic programs against his own, and thus this is less a reading of Johns and more a reading of Cage’s aesthetic of silence in relationship to Johns.
There has been a recent rush to publish on the history of sound art, and many of these investigations, such as Seth Kim-Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, prop this history against the solid weight of twentieth century American art criticism. Theories of the acousmatic, reduced listening, and the objet sonore are of particular interest to electroacoustic composers and sound artists, and as with many auditory histories, theory tends to rely on the primacy of the visible over the audible in writing and constructing sonic history. Thus, audio examples of phenomenological experiences are described using the many visual metaphors critics carefully constructed to describe the radical pace of innovation in postwar American art.
As a musician and a musicologist, I naturally feel that this trend is unjust, yet realize it is inevitable, due to one simple fact: the steep commodity market value of art versus the tenuous value of a musical object or composition, thus providing a consumerist imperative to construct theory to add weight to artistic objects. The relationship between Cage and his two counterparts in the visual arts, Johns and Rauschenberg, perhaps epitomizes this drastic economic disparity, and it is surprising that this perhaps rather touchy topic has largely gone unnoticed. In Cage’s essay on Johns, he casually mentions Johns’ Jaguar sitting unused in the garage of his summer home on Edisto Beach, the registration unfiled. He goes on to allude to what was no doubt a difficult situation for a struggling composer to witness:
The Jaguar repaired and ready to run sits in a garage unused. It has been there since October. An electrician came to fix the thermostats but went away before his work was finished and never returned. The application for the registration of the car has not been found. It is somewhere among the papers which are unfiled and in different places. For odd trips a car is rented. If it gets too hot, a window is opened. The freezer is full of books. The closet in the guest room is full of furniture. There is, and anyone knows there is, a mystery, but these are not the clues.
I think it would be unfair and unjust in any way to implicate the artists in this economic disparity; it is a curious fact of modern society that we value and identify tactile visual material as objects and denigrate or devalue ephemeral auditory experience—no one except for the artists themselves really decried the fall of the music industry, yet vintage clothing, or custom handmade knots (admittedly a joke) continue to demand a premium. Concrete objects are more clearly defined as property, and thus it is easier for one to ascribe them a commercial value by reifying their status as unique and original. In the end, however, musicians have managed to survive via a thick skin coupled with a heavy dose of self-deprecation and irony.
But more to the point, there are some very good comparisons to be made between Cage’s “sound-as-sound” thesis and the painterly strategies of Johns. While Rauschenberg presented artworks that epitomized Cage’s extremist dictums of nothing at once or everything at once through his White Paintings and assemblages, Johns provided something else: literal self-reflective images, paintings that were abstract yet representational, providing, as one critic puts it, “a twist with a knife attached” in the Abstract Expressionist criteria. Naturally Cage was in full support of the attack.
“Any fool can tell that that’s a broom.” The clothes (conventions) are underneath. The painting is as naked as the day it was born.
There are certain self-admitted natural affinities between Johns and Duchamp’s retinal literalism, with one marked difference: Duchamp signed literal everyday objects, while Johns literally painted everyday objects, leaving traces of the painterly object embedded within the encaustic. I believe that, in the end, this was one line of differentiation between Cage and Johns, though in the end any surface contradictions in style were overridden by their mutual respect and friendship.
In the center of the essay Cage reproduces Duchamp’s famous dictum of retinal literalism: the suggestion “to reach the Impossibility of sufficient visual memory transfer from one like object to another the memory imprint,” a concept I believe to be comparable to the sound-as-sounds thesis, which in certain ways paralleled theories of the acousmatic and reduced listening espoused by French engineer and acoustician Pierre Schaeffer. Musicologists, and especially theorists, have tried desperately to link Cage’s program with Schaeffer’s, and while it is true that Cage visited his studio in Paris during his first Guggenheim fellowship in 1948, there is scant evidence that he truly understood or embraced the concepts, and even if he did, they were in many ways anathema to his concept of unmediated perception.
The problem with theories of the acousmatic and reduced listening is fundamentally an audiovisual one, related directly to Michel Chion’s notion of “synchresis,” the indelible weld between sound and image that occurs upon first experiencing an audiovisual event. To review, acousmatic sound refers to the Pythagorean experience of listening to a veiled sound, the source unseen, and reduced listening advocated for an auditory goal similar to Duchamp’s impossible situation. What Schaeffer failed to incorporate in his thesis was Duchamp’s precondition: reduced listening was an impossibility, and the goal was not to succeed, but to attempt to reach toward that impossibility of memory transfer – to get away from the literalness of the thing.
This, in my mind, was Cage’s ultimate sound-as-sounds goal of unmediated perception, something reflected time and time again in his writing as an ideal rather than a possibility, hence the extensive veil of Zen dictums and east Asian heuristics that speak of a pure situation of “imitating nature in her manner of operation.” Does viewing a flag purely for is visual pleasure cause one to reach a state of unmediated perception in the same way as hearing a frog croak amidst the clatter of Williams Mix? In my mind, no, and this is the inherent problem of the modern mediated subject: we have developed our facilities for spatial perception purely according to visual calculations, and thus our ability to develop visual theories is much more adept, while our auditory facilities are largely untrained, even among the best musicians. One can look at a Schenkerian graph and understand the complexity of form, and perhaps hear it on a local scale, but one can rarely and only partially comprehend musical form (or deliberate anti-form, non form, or any other structure) in its totality the way one can when looking at an architectural form or a painting set against a relief. In the end, the debate remains more concerned with the matter of degree, not kind.
I believe that this conflict between optical and cochlear is inherent in Cage’s critiques of visual artists, and his essay on Johns is in my mind less complete than the essay on Rauschenberg. The problem seemed to lie in the issue of literalness and specificity, which are difficult issues to parse in the Cage aesthetic. Johns’ flags were not literally flags, yet they literally represent them, while Cage’s sounds, particularly in experiments with magnetic tape, were literal sounds, inscriptions of a reality, and they literally represent them, but there is no concern for what them is; Johns chose specific objects, Cage chose any object. The brushstrokes embedded in the encaustic provided a marker of the figurative, yet Cage’s tape splices, static, and various markers of fidelity did not point back to the creator.
Perhaps (or likely) these thoughts are incomplete, but this is a growing and notable debate within sound art history, rich with new criticism and theory that will hopefully, in the future, create a better understanding of the nature of the auditory experience, one that relies less on the primacy of the visual, and one defined more in terms of the audiovisual experience.
An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them? Deluge.