Listening to Paintings: Soundsuits, Photos, Portraits & Landscapes
Taubman Museum of Art
Below are quotes & notes comprising the outline for the "Listening to Paintings" program I shared with the Docents of the TMA November 30. Starting with an untitled abstract watercolor by John Cage (Series I, No. 5, from 1988), I shared the following poem. We then used a chance operation to determine which song from the program I would sing first, and then commenced a tour of the galleries, during which we discussed ideas of perspective, connections between music and art, artists and society and any other thread we might unspool in the wonderfully labyrinthine world of the "meaning" of art...
from Communication by John Cage:
What if I ask thirty-two questions? / What if I stop asking now and then?
Will that make things clear? /Is communication something made clear?
What is communication?
Music, what does it communicate?
Is a truck passing by music?
If I can see it, do I have to hear it too?
If I don’t hear it, does it still communicate?
If while I see it I can’t hear it, but hear something else, say an egg-beater, because I’m inside looking out, does the truck communicate or the egg-beater, which communicates?
Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?
Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?
What if the ones inside can’t hear very well, would that change my question?
Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?
People aren’t sounds, are they?
Is there such a thing as silence?
Even if I get away from people, do I still have to listen to something?
Zen proverb: Form is emptiness / emptiness is form
Questions for Today: What do we see / hear?
Artist places the viewer via perspective / looking out / in, etc…
Composer positions us as listeners by painting musical perspective…
Are we active or passive? Do we enter the work or (simply / merely) observe it?
Are we subject or object, viewer / listener or participant?
Philosophy & Art: Dialectics – Thesis / Antithesis = Synthesis
Ordinary / Everyday / Terrestrial / Rational / Normal are TRANSFORMED -
Extraordinary / Visionary / Fantastic / Magical / Excessive / Virtuosic…
(this transformation may be most obvious in the operatic "soundsuits" of Nick Cave...)
The dialectic is not as clearly delineated in contemporary / modern art –
lines, styles, boundaries, categories are blurred, mingled, irrelevant or fused…
Art can mean anything that appears or occurs in an art context
Duchamp proved the boundaries of art are dizzyingly ambiguous; he didn’t question their existence, and thereby grounded his ironies.
(P. Schjeldal, New Yorker, 21 Nov. 2011)
And we will return to Marcel Duchamp, courtesy of John Cage...
Shadow and Light:
I would know my shadow and my light,
so shall I at last be whole
from A Child of Our Time, by Michael Tippett
Roanoke Times Photo - / Video Journalism:
Dedicated to the Dream...MLK Jr Bridge
Steal Away is background song for this example of video journalism – the same African-American spiritual is tellingly used in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, anti-fascist oratorio composed by an engaged British artist imprisoned as Conscientious Objector in WWII – “shadow and light” quote above forms the core of this work and the composer’s life as an “against the grain” artist – a gay pacifist who wrestled with big questions…
Roanoke Times Photographs:
Girl in Window, Residents in Manor
Portraits and Land- / City- scapes –
from the "Old Masters" (where genres like Portraits & Landscapes were distinct) to modern masters like Hopper where genres merge & categories blur -
(do portraits & landscapes merge in Romantic period?)
modern artists like de Kooning rotating the canvas while painting;
further blurring distinctions, categories, genres and perspective...
Britten Folksong: I wonder as I wander
Appalachian folk song from John Jacob Niles
arranged by a colleague and friend of Tippett’s, fellow gay pacifist composer Benjamin Britten, whose dozens of folksongs were written for his companion and collaborative partner, the tenor Peter Pears. If Britten & Pears did not invent the 20th century art song recital, they helped make it the creative, poly-stylistic dialogue –like a multi-artist exhibition – it can be…
Rockwell: Framed (1946)
ironic, tongue-in-cheek humor; playful; painting within a painting,
art about art…
cf: Gerhard Richter, whose Shadow Painting of a frame casting a shadow - plays with “fictions of illusionistic space” by the very “facts of oil on canvas”
[From MCA Chicago’s current exhibit on minimalism,
The Language of Less (Then and Now)]
Ralph Albert Blakelock: Solitude
miniature impressionist nocturnal landscape –
is the focal point a lone figure
or is the central tree fantastically anthropomorphic?
what is the lone animal in the foreground - an elk, an antlered deer?
recalling the expressionist & surrealist (blurred genres, anyone?)
Franz Marc's question “Is there a more mysterious idea than to imagine how nature is reflected in the eyes of animals?”
Britten Folksong: At the mid hour of night – hauntingly beautiful nocturne…ambiguous perspective - who is the subject? object?
Leiber Handbags & Pillboxes:
Exquisite miniatures, ornate & “exotic” like ancient classical or Asian artifacts: marriage of “high” art & the functional “crafts” of artisan…
continuum of ornate / complex to simple / minimalist (Bauhaus, et al)
Musical miniatures & Romantic fragments – "perfect as a hedgehog" (Schlegel)
round and blurred around the edges
concept of Synecdoche (one part standing for the whole & vice versa...)
Goethe / Schubert Wandrers Nachtlied
Synecdoche & minimalism & fragments AND “maximum” works like Nick Cave’s…
Opera & Installations (Soundsuits): Multi - / Interdisciplinary –
to freely blur the lines b/w genres [quotes in italics from TMA guide]
Nick Cave: to surrender to transformation
such abandon (=opera singing!)= newness
something textural and visceral / union of form & content
evokes (visceral) response / emotion
ordinary to extraordinary
power of the fantastic in everyday life…
from a poem I love and have shared with opera patrons:
An image of articulateness is what it is:
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?
Words as they fall are monotone and bloodless
But they yearn to take the risk these noises take.
What dancing is to the slightly spastic way
Most of us teeter through our bodily life
Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say,
In the heart’s duresses, on the heart’s behalf.
(from "About Opera" – William Meredith)
3 Types of Soundsuits: Bogeymen, Celestial Spirits and the Tree of Life
as “pure” art: color fields / like bands of Ab. Ex. paint
as costume (how operatic!), sculpture & installation
metaphors & symbols / talismans & totems
Tondo = mandala, horoscope, constellation & allegory (from ancient decorative and religious art to surrealism)
Ready-mades & found-art objects = folk songs, hymn tunes ("ready-made" songs...)
Cave the dancer – heritage from Martha Graham to her students:
Cunningham & Alvin Ailey –
(Abacus & Button Soundsuit reminds me of Cunningham & Cage
and their I Ching inspired chance operations...)
Read: Martha Graham’s letter to Agnes de Mille:
There is a vitality, a life force
A quickening that is translated through you into action
And because there is only one of you in all of time
That expression is unique...
If you block it it will never exist and be lost...
Masquerade, Cultural Remix and Empowerment – Artist & Identity -
Coexisting / Overlapping in concentric spheres -
Theatre / Ritual; Social / Political; Liberation (art & life…)
The “engaged artist” confronting the abyss – facing the void - faces choices:
retreat, capitulate, jump
(the high mental illness / suicide rate among artists is sobering)
Or respond – from Britten & Tippett to Cage & Cave – with affirming creativity…
All art - by the very nature of its existence - is affirmative...
(paraphrasing the so-called avant-garde writer Donald Barthelme)
Dada=subversive play / Fluxus=“happening” (performance art) play
Chance=freedom & anarchy=liberation from hierarchy or constraints of form
The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence
(Ravel on the alleged levity of his Tombeau – an homage to the Baroque composer Couperin)
In conclusion, sing John Cage:
from 36 Mesostics Re & Not Re Marcel Duchamp
youR paintings on the walls.
"i Can't stand to look
that's why you must hang them on the waLls.
i Read it.
death we expeCt,
but all wE get
(from M: Writings '67-'72 by John Cage)