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The Utopia of Art

Composition as construction of an alternate reality

In her recent contribution to Public Seminar, my colleague Dominique Suberville argued that art, in its current form, is stylized exhibition of the social condition: what some of us, following Jeffrey Goldfarb and Iddo Tavory, have been designating as the examination of irreducible social tensions and socially mediated personal dilemmas. In doing so, Suberville has discovered a new “narrative” by which art can continue to be intelligible as art, contra the funeral oration delivered famously by Arthur Danto in 1984.

One of the significances of Suberville’s observation is that she points to a way in which contemporary art is functioning as a sort of exhibit on the social world. In a reply to a related piece from the Italian critic Renato Barilli, philosopher Chiara Bottici asked if there is any longer such thing as a boundary between society and art. I think that Suberville’s article answers “yes,” but the distinction is not so radical as it once was. Art no longer depicts the world, nor expresses it, but intervenes in it: it examines the world and uses artistic forms to exhibit what it finds, throwing the world back upon itself as an object of consciousness. It takes what we take for granted and turns it into phenomena that can be confronted.

Art can do this — expose the unexamined — exactly because it is not part of the normal flow of social experience. An art piece that is acted out within the social world itself must still be pointed out as a work of art in order to accomplish its aim. It is in this ontological separation, between creative act and the flow of life, that art can act as commentator and critic. Art, then, insofar as it relates to the problems of the social world, is an idealized space where the social condition itself can be dealt with, as opposed to its consequences. In other words, when we apprehend art as the social condition, we need not solve a dilemma or resolve a tension ourselves. Given the opportunity to appreciate them in a context where they do not directly affect us, we treat them not as crises to be overcome but as objects to be examined.

If we take this a bit further, we can find ways in which art functions as a utopia — a world where the social condition can be done away with entirely. As I described in an earlier piece, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating and fundamental sites where the social condition is found is in communication and interaction. It is in relation with others that we form selves — in other words, meaningful lives — but these relations are necessarily imperfect, subject to the failure that follows from misunderstandings. Without direct access to the consciousness of another, we are always apprehending each other approximately, and the reality of our selves is consequently a matter of recognition: we are what others can reliably ascertain us to be. This creates a social life in which we are all constantly struggling against the loss of our own agency: trying to make ourselves understood, trying to smooth over misinterpretations, trying to present the selves we want to be recognized, our hands forced by the control our interlocutors have over us. When the most significant agency in interaction lies always with the recipient of the message, the spoken-to and the interacted-with, social life is necessarily a struggle, with the sanctity of selfhood implicated in the delicacies of intelligibility.

Art has found a way to neutralize this fundamental aspect of the social condition by redefining composition as process. By “process art,” I mean art that takes the end of composition to be the formulation of a process, the results of which are ultimately incidental. Take for example John Cage’s 4’33”. Cage’s composition consists of a pianist sitting before a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds in silence, lifting and closing the piano’s lid periodically to demarcate “movements.” However, Cage’s point was not to create a “silent piece,” as 4’33” is often erroneously described. Instead, his point was to create music out of the incidental sounds that occurred in the performance space during that duration of time. Rick Moody wrote in Salmagundi about the first time he experienced Cage’s piece:

[A]nd so there was, during “4’33”,” the marking down, the scribbling of pens and pencils, and the whispering of teenage ADHD cases, and the occasional cough (which cough has to have been the most consistent instrumental timbre across all the myriad performances of “4’33””), and then gradually there was consternation among the kids … In fact, the sound of this consternation, the increase in stirring and categorical anxiety, was the unmistakable music of that music.

(Click here to see an orchestral production of 4’33” in an auditorium; click here to see it performed by a bass guitarist in a park. Note that the music of 4’33” in these instances is not only what appears in the videos, but also whatever sounds occur around you as you are watching them.)

La Monte Young continued this idea in his series of 1960 instructional compositions. These compositions consist of nothing more than Young typing instructions for the unfolding of a process on a notecard. Consider Composition 1960 #3:

Announce to the audience when the piece will begin and end if there is a limit on duration. It may be of any duration.

Then announce that everyone may do whatever he wishes for the duration of the composition.

Or perhaps more to the point, Composition 1960 #10, which simply states: “Draw a straight line and follow it.”

Process composition also has a tradition in the visual arts. A salient example is Lawrence Weiner’s Gloss white lacquer, sprayed for 2 minutes at 40lb pressure directly on the floor. The work apprehended by the gallery patron is the result of the exact text of the work’s title: someone sprays gloss white lacquer directly on the gallery floor at forty pounds of pressure for two minutes. I personally viewed this piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. What one sees is no more than a white spot on the floor; what is interesting about the piece is its title and the realization that the work is the title. The spot that materializes on the floor, like the sound that occurs during a “performance” of 4’33”, is incidental. Its visual aspect is accidental, random, and actually unnecessary. The work was complete the moment Weiner finished writing the title, for the title is the only real aspect of composition that the work can claim to possess.

What is significant about these pieces, for our purposes, is that they create a space where the social condition of interactional failure ceases to exist. This is because the apprehension of the works — the phase of interaction where the final agency typically lies — is purposefully indeterminate. The author, the originator of the interaction, has made no claims to a proper interpretation of the work. Instead, the author has set up a process that (s)he knows may result in any number of manifestations, all of which are legitimately related directly back to the processual instructions themselves. In other words, whatever the person who experiences the work experiences, is a valid interpretation of the work. All parties to the interaction thus maintain full agency without being in conflict or struggle. The originator maintains full agency because (s)he cannot be misunderstood; all that is required for understanding is knowledge of the process’s instructions. And the recipient maintains the same, because (s)he may respond to the piece any way (s)he likes without this response being antithetical to the composition — because it could not have occurred without that completely open-ended composition.

So art objectifies the social world for our apprehension, and it creates a utopian space where the social world can be what it is not. And this only affirms our observations regarding the inescapability of the social condition and the demands it places upon (responsible) actors. For it can only be avoided, only be resolved, in constructed conditions: the conditions of art, where a new world can be built according to rules of our choosing, an alternate reality that simultaneously gives us respite and forces us to confront the nature of the primary reality in which we must spend our daily lives. Where art deals with the social condition, it becomes social life in idealized form, providing critical insight, but necessarily remaining unable to transform the rules of the world in which it functions. Perhaps, then, the blurriest line is between art and social research.

Zachary Sunderman

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