on the nearly nothing and the persistence of composition

Image: Robert Ryman, Twin, 1966, oil on canvas. Museum of Modenr Art, New York.

Work in which seemingly nothing happens is almost always more interesting than work in which a great deal happens. Actually, maybe that’s not exactly it.

Work which seems unplanned, unconstructed, unorchestrated, is what is almost always more interesting. This could be environmental recordings such as Alvin Lucier’s “Chambers” or Luc Ferrari’s “Presque Rien,” work in which, as Ferrari’s title intimates, almost nothing happens, at least is intentionally made to happen (intentionally being the key word), or it could be a Merzbow performance or one of John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s Happenings, works in which too much seems to be happening. In some ways both can be described using Lawrence English’s term ‘maximal minimalism’, although in a slightly different respect than he intended the term of course. (English used the term in reference to a recent set of spare recordings in which the artist works with a pipe organ and lots of environmental space. It is a truly great phrase though.) This is art that occupies the paradoxical position of telling us it is unplanned, telling us it is doing nothing.

All of this work, including English’s own, is also at least to some degree art that is very much about listening to the world and the sounds that are already in it (For English it is perhaps the auditory space of a room itself that becomes at least a secondary subject). A non-hierarchical understanding of technology also dominates works like Lucier’s in environmental sound; the idea that merely what a space sounds like through recording technology is in and of itself worth attending to, is of interest; that there are rich layers of resonance one can hear in recorded voices or sounds. To think of this style of working as composition is to recognize art’s necessary mediation; that composition is perhaps at its most basic and also its fullest when an artist merely points, merely directs our attention to something. Lucier and Cage sit at the head of a long history of artistic struggle with the conflict between a desire to eliminate creative choice and authority despite the persistent (necessary) presence of themselves as figures doing the pointing to what is at hand. (They also epitomize the artistic struggle with technology, the doubly mediated art that is recorded sound, an art in which the role of the artist and their intentions are blurred even further by their use of the equally creative force of technology). What these artists actually do can seem negligible, devoid of technique, evoking the tired cliche of “well i could have done that.”

I think a lot about why things come to mean something to us, why they matter, and how or why art, in all of its complexity or perhaps quite often its silliness, continues to draw us in, to demand our attention.

Alfred Whitehead’s idea of subjective form seems helpful.  Whitehead’s theory emphasizes that the perceiver and the perceived which meet or encounter each other in a moment of experience always already exist, really are always already encountering each other.  On certain occasions however, these encounters become suffused with feeling, they become meaningful experiences. It is feeling that gives rise to/comprises Whitehead’s idea of subjective form (and aesthetic experience more broadly).  It is through our inherently feelingful experiences of subjective form that we forge an actual relationship with or a ‘feeling with’ something/someone else.  Suddenly an encounter with a sound or an object is not taken for granted but affectively charged.

For Whitehead this is a creative process; both the perceiver and perceived (the object and subject) participate equally in the production of the feeling or connection.  To go one step further for Whitehead, the subjective form gives rise to what he describes as affective tone, the perception of our relationship with something else, that which makes something matter to us in certain ways, the ‘mood’ in which we find ourselves (inasmuch as we also help to create it).  Per Whitehead the capacity to ‘feel with’ in the way that subjective form encourages is not just the product of art, or properly aesthetic objects; we can ‘feel with’ a tree or a rock inasmuch as we can with a work of music.  But Whitehead does acknowledge the role of creativity in its emergence, and Susanne Langer (who studied with Whitehead), and whose work focused on art more specifically, argued that significant form is art; the feeling significant form (or art) produces emerges from our experiencing a form as right, necessary, something made possible through our recognition of an intentionally produced aesthetic forms (in my understanding). What Langer seems to take for granted is the qualitative difference that Art as an institution produces; that a natural, or found object could be (or at least could more easily be) imbued with significant form in the context of the art world than it would in nature (something I’m not sure Whitehead would want to agree with, although I suppose we could think about the cultivation of an intentionally aesthetic approach to nature.)  This is to downplay the specificity of what is a primarily Western experience of Art and the artist, as institutions which encourage an attendance to objects and ideas our experience in the wider world tends to discourage (or at least that we are not used to.)

To put it simply, it matters that Lucier, or any artist working with environmental, organic sound is present. Their pointing allows the sound to mean in a way it might not (really, if we’re being honest, most of the time does not) on its own; sounds need  perceivers, sets of interacting perceivers, to feel with them before they become significant form, before they can come to matter to us, and, quite often, we must be reminded to act as perceivers at all. (This also seems consistent with Adorno’s emphasis on the necessity of the action of the composer, of music as being realized through the subjective; that it is through subjectivity and only through subjectivity that we can reach the objective.) We need someone or something to point. Perhaps our (or at least artist’s) tendency or even desire to downplay the necessity of the art world and the artist as intermediaries in our experience of the world (a tendency Adorno and too many others are responding to) merely takes for granted the reality of experience for most people; people who do not have time, or would even ever think, to just sit in a room and merely listen. It is through imagination/ideas that the world comes to exist for us as objective reality at all and artists are one means through which the development of our encounter with the world comes about.

A thought for another time perhaps but Jacques Attali’s notion of composition as an activity made available to listeners after the advent of recording and the opportunity for repetition it afforded, tracks with several of the ideas I have been grappling with. Recording as an intermediary to aesthetic form is central to the liberatory nature of Attali’s notion of composition as an aesthetic activity that listeners can now creatively participate in in their own right. Composition affords us all the opportunity to transform life into art, to objectify subjectivity, to make the world matter to us.

A recording of a room is always produced. It is always presented, intentionally, and the intention, and therefore the intender, matter.  Langer distinguished between a signal and a symbol; if the symbol communicates an idea, a signal merely points to something.  If she fell on the side of symbols as that form which comprises artistic expression, I might re-emphasize the way that even a signal can give rise to significant form; a signal for Langer is successful if we merely look to what it directs us.  As Kirk Varnedoe noted in his lectures on abstract art, abstraction, in all of its “pictures of nothing,” is a communicative practice, it stages an expressive communication between an audience and a work. A great deal of work merely invites us to look (or listen), to look again only this time with a different communicative or expressive inflection, at sounds or objects we missed.  It is a less intellectual encounter than that which we still tend to associate with art, but that’s what affect is too, right? We might not know why, we might not think about it too intensely, but things come to matter to us in a variety of meaningful ways just the same.  As Varnedoe concluded in his attempt to justify the value of minimalist art, the ur-form of art which exists by defining the minimum possible conditions under which something might be considered art at all (Pictures of Nothing, 94), if his arguments were not effective, if he failed to defend or define this style of art-making, at the very least he did it. “There it is. I have shown it to you. It has been done. It is being done. And because it can be done, it will be done.” (Ibid 272)