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THE AESTHETICS OF SILENCE / SUSAN SONTAG

March 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Studying this incredible essay for my dissertation:::::::::::::

From ‘STYLES OF RADICAL WILL’ 1969 by Susan Sontag:

“.. In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.” The activities of the painter, the musician, the poet, the dancer et al, once they were grouped together under that generic name (a relatively recent move), have proved to be a peculiarly adaptable site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness, each individual work of art being a more or less astute paradigm for regulating or reconciling these contradictions.

.. Art, itself a form of mystification, endures a succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outgrown maps of consciousness are redrawn.

.. From then forward, any of the activities therein subsumed becomes a profoundly problematic activity, each of whose procedures and, ultimately, whose very right to exist, can be called into question.

.. Denying that art is mere expression, the newer myth, ours, rather relates art to the mind’s need or capacity for self-estrangement. Art is no longer understood as consciousness expressing and therefore, implicitly, affirming itself. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote — evolved from within consciousness itself.

.. The newer myth, derived from a post-psychological conception of consciousness, installs within the activity of art many of the paradoxes involved in attaining an absolute state of being described by the great religious mystics. As the activity of the mystic must end in a via negative, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the “subject” (the “object,” the “image”), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.

In the early, linear version of art’s relation to consciousness, a struggle was held to exist between the “spiritual” integrity of the creative impulses and the distracting “materiality” of ordinary life..

.. But the newer version, in which art is part of a dialectical transaction with consciousness, poses a deeper, more frustrating conflict: The “spirit” seeking embodiment in art clashes with the “material” character of art itself.

.. Art is unmasked as gratuitous, and the very concreteness of the artist’s tools  appears as a trap. Practiced in a world furnished with second-hand perceptions, and specifically confounded by the treachery of words, the activity of the artist is cursed with mediacy.

.. Art becomes the enemy of the artist, for it denies him the realization, the transcendence, he desires.

II

.. That seriousness consists in not regarding art as something whose seriousness lasts forever, an “end,” a permanent vehicle for spiritual ambition. The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a “means” to something that can perhaps be achieved only by abandoning art; judged more impatiently, art is a false way or  a stupidity.

.. Though no longer a confession, art is more than ever a deliverance, an exercise in asceticism.

.. But formerly, the artist’s good was mastery of and fulfillment in his art. Now it’s suggested that the highest good for the artist is to reach that point where those goals of excellence become insignificant to him, emotionally and ethically, and he is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a voice in art.

.. Silence in this sense, as termination, proposes a mood of ultimacy antithetical to the mood informing the self-conscious artist’s traditional serious use of silence: as a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal which ends in gaining the right to speak. (Cf. Valery, Rilke)

.. So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the “new” and/or the “esoteric” Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture; by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, audience, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.

.. Still, in this renunciation of “society,” one cannot fail to perceive a highly social gesture. S

.. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, as well as that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.

III

.. Most valuable art in our time has been experienced by audiences as a move into silence (or unintelligibility or invisibility or inaudibility); a dismantling of the artist’s competence, his responsible sense of vocation — and therefore as an aggression against them.

.. Modern art’s chronic habit of displeasing, provoking, or frustrating its audience can be regarded as a limited, vicarious participation in the ideal of silence which has been elevated as a prime standard of seriousness in the contemporary scene.

But it is also a contradictory form of participation in the ideal of silence. It’s contradictory not only because the artist still continues making works of art, but also because the isolation of the work from its audience never lasts. With the passage of time and the intervention of newer, more difficult works, the artist’s transgression becomes ingratiating, eventually legitimate.

.. The history of art is a sequence of successful transgressions.

.. The characteristic aim of modern art, to be unacceptable to its audience, can be regarded as the inverse statement of the unacceptability to the artist of the very presence of an audience — in the familiar sense, an assembly of voyeuristic spectators.

.. Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence. The sensory or conceptual gap between the artist and his audience, the space of the missing or ruptured dialogue, can also constitute the grounds for an ascetic affirmation.

.. As long as art is understood and valued as an “absolute” activity, it will be a separate, elitist one. Elites presuppose masses. So far as the best art defines itself by essentially “priestly” aims, it presupposes and confirms the existence of a relatively passive, never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity which is regularly convoked to watch, listen, read, or hear — and then sent away.

.. The most that the artist can do is to play with the different terms in this situation vis-a-vis the audience and himself. To analyse the idea of silence is to analyse his various alternatives within this essentially unalterable situation.

IV

.. Silence exists as a decision —

.. Silence also exists as a punishment — self-punishment

.. But silence can’t exist in a literal sense as the experience of an audience. It would mean that the spectator was aware of no stimulus or that he was unable to make a response.

.. The non-awareness of any stimulus, the inability to make a response, can result only from a defective presentness on the part of the spectator, or a misunderstanding of his own reactions. But so far as any audience consists of sentient beings in a situation, there can be no such thing as having no response at all.

.. Nor can silence, in its literal state, exist as the property of an art work —

.. There is no neutral surface, no neutral discourse, no neutral theme, no neutral form. Something is neutral only with respect to something else. (An intention? An expectation?) As a property of the work of art itself, silence can exist only in a cooked or nonliteral sense.

.. To cultivate the metaphoric silence that’s suggested by conventionally lifeless subjects (as in much of Pop Art) and to construct “minimal” forms which seem to lack emotional resonance are in themselves vigorous, often tonic choices.

.. even without imputing objective intentions to the art-work, there remains the inescapable truth about perception: the positivity of all experience at every moment of it. As John Cage has insisted, “there is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.”

.. Similarly, there is no such thing as empty space.

.. In order to perceive fullness, one must retain an acute sense of the emptiness which marks it off; conversely, in order to perceive emptiness, one must apprehend other zones of the world as full.

.. “Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to demand on its presence. Just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence. Not only does silence exist in a world full of speech and other sounds, but any given silence takes its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound. (

A genuine emptiness, a pure silence, are not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the art-work exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.

V

.. In my opinion, the myths of silence and emptiness are about as nourishing and viable as one could hope to see devised in an “unwholesome” time — which is, of necessity, a time in which “unwholesome” psychic states furnish the energies for most superior work in the arts today. At the same time, one can’t deny the pathos of these myths.

VI

.. The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence.

.. The alternative is an art consisting of “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.”

.. Since the artist can’t embrace silence literally and remain an artist, what the rhetoric of silence indicates is a determination to pursue his activity more deviously than ever before. The artist is enjoined to devote himself to filling up the periphery of the art-space, leaving the central area of usage blank.

.. Art becomes privative, anemic

.. But these programs for art’s impoverishment must not be understood simply as terroristic admonitions to audiences, but as strategies for improving the audience’s experience.

.. The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc. — specifically, either for having a more immediate, sensuous experience of art or for confronting the art work in a more conscious, conceptual way.

VII

.. art is a technique for focusing attention, for teaching skills of attention. (

.. The history of the arts is the discovery and formulation of a repertory of objects on which to lavish attention; one could trace exactly and in order how the eye of art has panned over our environment, “naming,” making its limited selection of things which people then become aware of as significant, pleasurable, complex entities.

.. Once, the artist’s task seemed to be simply that of opening up new areas and objects of attention. That task is still acknowledged, but it has become problematic. The very faculty of attention has come into question, and been subjected to more rigorous standards.

..Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with its inevitable distortions of experience.

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Categories: blog

sound symposium in bridport

March 10, 2010 Leave a comment

went in dorset last week-end for this interesting and exciting symposium around sound, art and space

AudioLab10


Harminder Singh Judge – The Modes of Al-Ikseer
The Drill Hall, Portland, Dorset, DT5 1 BW
5 March 2010 @ 7.30 PM

Sound Symposium – the language of place
The Salt House, West Bay, Bridport, Dorset
6/7 March 2010

Categories: blog