« Beauty in Photography | Main | Lake Huron »

Saturday, 10 November 2007


The great irony is that a true appreciation of an effective work of art requires almost an "unlearning," hence your confusion about some people wanting to stifle "intellectual advancement."

The true appreciation of art requires an empty receptive mind, almost anti-intellectual. Education, by and large, is about keeping the student trapped within the stifling limitations of using words and symbols as a vehicle for understanding art, like trying to extract a screw with a pair of pliers. And the innate ability to understand art, as a birthright, is slowly lost as the educational process unfolds.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the greatest artists, themselves, are not exactly educational role models, reason being that they are working on a different level, and they quickly realized the danger of becoming intellectuals. And the same danger exists for anyone hoping for an understanding of art, even if they are not creators themselves.

Sure, on the surface, become "another brick in the wall," but don't ever lose the birthright of looking beyond the wall, if that's even possible.


An interesting enough theory. Not quite the way I would put it. But sure, I have blind spots and prejudices.

To be fair though, take the Inner Snobs to task too. There are a lot of folks in most fields, and certainly in the arts and crafts, who have "promoted" their IY into an IS and inflict it endlessly on anyone foolish enough to listen.


Thanks for the lesson Ctein, afraid my opinionated nature is too far ingrained for me to suppress it much - and besides, my friends wouldn't recognise me any more.
Maybe unreserved appreciation of Country music is for Neanderthals, that would be a worrying condemnation of your countrymen...as with so much sophisticated popular music the key to enjoying it is in the irony.

Cheers, Robin

`Then why are any of you folks dismissing art you don't understand or don't appreciate as worthless?!'

Another one-sided post. If all negative reactions are the viewer's fault for having some "inner yahoo", then how can a piece of art ever be bad? And if no art can be bad, then it simply doesn't exist; there is no subject to teach, no way to improve. Or what if `bad' were defined as a lot of people disliking a subject? That could become quite interesting if your audience is an entire culture.

Very, very well put, Ctein.

But i am not liberated, as psychology knows awareness does not imply remedy (sorry for the probable bad translation from german, my english is not perfect. still i don't have resentments towards native speakers ;-)))

However, i also have to object this: "By the same token, is there anyone here who really thinks that only art that has mass appeal for the "common man" is worthwhile, and all the rest is a fraud? I sincerely doubt it, ..."

To the contrary, i don't doubt it for a splitsecond, there are lots of such people, and i know some of them, believe me. When they look at abstract paintings they always stress the same infantile argument, that their 3 year old child could do the same. I can't hear that anymore, but people are that dumb, no doubt about it.

Most people hate what they don't understand, even worse, they reject what they don't already know. There is much brabbling about life-long learning (of course this origins from economic lobbies powered by particular interests, but that's another story). But truth is that most people don't want to encounter the unknown. By learning they mean improving a bit what they already know, but no more. I witness this, people at my age (30) or even younger think they know everything, and even worse they get angry when someone tries to explain something new.

This is not only relatet to art, but as you already mentioned is an inherent human property. Sad but true.

but hope dies last, and the discussion alone is worth the effort, and a lot of fun too!

Thanks all for being involved into this topic and sharing their often sophisticated opinions.


Thank you for your reflections on our inner Yahoos (IY). My own IY tends to come out on two occasions: First when it comes accross art that might be down to earth but seems to be lacking of any further reflection. Country&Western might be an example for this category. The other kind of art that makes my IY come out is art that is merely reflecting itself while being out of touch with the world (or life). That is the way I feel about intellectual jazz.

Or to put it in terms of knowledge and learning: In one case it seems there is no knowledge and nothing to learn and in the other case it seems that there is lots of irrelevant knowledge and nothing worth learning.

"Then why are any of you folks dismissing art you don't understand or don't appreciate as worthless?! Huh, riddle me that!"

My take. Because art today is going to some ridiculous directions.
Go to a “modern art” gallery and you might see a pile of bricks lay on the floor with a poetic title like “the fragile infinity of matter” and a price tag of $5000!!!
Go to a “modern” photography exhibition and you likely see prints of feces, shot with a cell phone in VGA resolution, (thank god, prints are blurry).

Am I supposed to respect this kind of crap even if I don’t understand it? No sir.

Quote: "Country & Western music."

"My I.Y. thinks it's just dumb beyond belief, annoying as all hell, and a worthless waste of people's times..."

Yes, a lot of it is, but country music can also be sublime, poetic, even complex (a list of examples would be too long). The I.Y. that can recognize quality vs. dreck no longer needs to be told to go to hell.

I'm probably just reiterating your basic point here: Learn, baby, learn!

Hear, hear! Right on! Amen! and other, similar expressions of passionate agreement...


Well said, and food for thought.

I do think, however, that it works both ways. The cognoscenti seem to feel that only THEIR art is worthwhile, and something that appeals to millions of people is (to use your word) fraud.

I grew up in Oklahoma. Country Music was injected in My Inner Yahoo at a very young age. Although I don't get IT either, but my reaction to it has been numbed by the earlier medical procedure ;-)

However... raygay is a different story :-)

Nicely put,and without coming across as a yahoo, a challenge that stopped me from commenting earlier on those "who don't know art, but know what they like."

When faced with something we do not understand, such as a difficult book on Relativity or Quantum Mechanics most of us immediately recognize that we do not understand it and someone else does. I think with art we often do not realize we don't understand it and therefore feel qualified to judge it and dismiss as worthless.

Well put, Ctein. And I agree.

There is another dimension that I think is also important to consider--I'll call it the "Junk" dimension.

For example, let's say I let my hamster loose to run up and down my piano keyboard. While some might consider the result to be "art", but in reality, it wouldn't bear any relationship to anything a learned student of music would recognize--no key, no meter, just effectively near random notes.

One could perform a similar experiment with paint, or photography etc.

Any while everyone is qualified to judge what art they *enjoy*, are any of us qualified to make a statement on the art vs. junk dimension?

To be honest, I'm not sure that any of us are, nor am I convinced that no one is. But before I make a statement, yes, I confirm that it is not my "I.Y." speaking, and also try to make sure that any position I might have on the "art vs. junk" is at least defensible.

Without this, how can one separate what one doesn't like from "junk"? This is how one might separate Country Music (art) from my hamster's piano concerto (junk).


All right, but just because I think a piece of art that requires a separate individual in a completely different medium to "explain" it, is a failure, doesn't mean I decry all abstraction, or modern art in general.

Ctein, what are you, some kind of commie pinko weirdo, denigrating the sacred music of our hinterland? :)

For those lacking humor, it's a joke.


What is wrong with despising stupid music?

I'm pretty sure there is no DaVinci code hidden within "Achy Breaky Heart" that only drunken rednecks can access.

And I'm not sure that dismissing out of hand those things which one doesn't understand - or more to the point - those things which one doesn't like is a sign of ego, lack of curiosity, or intellectual decadence.

It simply may be the instinctual judgment of our artistic eye staying on the ball. I would argue that there is plenty enough learning for us to accomplish in disciplines that we actually enjoy to keep us busy for the rest of our lives.

I have enough guilt in my life already. Please don't tell me I need to add to it because I haven't
taken fifteen college credits on rap music. :D

I think that it's OK to significantly dislike things you DO understand. Maybe you understand country music too well. Run of the mill country music offers a lot to dislike - robotic drumming with absolutely no rhythmic feel for example. I believe that you can actually talk about quality in music (musicians have a whole language for doing that).

The trick to not being a yahoo is to appreciate that some music you don't like is work of quality that just doesn't click for you. And some music you do like is sort of dorky. And some music you don't like just doesn't have anything going for it in the way of musical quality.

It's important to distinguish between an inner yahoo and an informed distaste. The inner yahoo just bellows with blind outrage. Blind outrage is sort of boring - it really doesn't go anywhere. Informed outrage can be very stimulating.

I agree with Tim's words. In addition, I think that Ctein's standpoint, while a valid one, might be problematic in the way of discouraging critical thinking and questioning.

As a scientist, I've learned to question and criticize everything, no matter how "established" it is. And often, in science, if someone questions your work, the onus of relying on knowledge to validate it it's your's, not their's. You don't write back to a reviser that turned down your scientific paper saying "You should go and study more about tropical plant productivity". You write them back trying to prove them that whatever you did is right, and why.

In the end, questioning by itself is the basis for acquiring knowledge. If I see a pile of bricks in a gallery and must dismiss my initial reaction of "this is crap", thinking instead "someone knows better", I would be leaning too much towards complacency. Imagine it translated to other fields: "What, taxes were raised 20%?...oh, well, someone in the government knows better, and as I am not an economist, I will not criticize it". At the end, it turns into a very unilateral system, as Tim said.

At the topmost (or bottom most) level, even if no-one in the world likes my art, but I do, it means that I know better than them, and they are all wrong. Then it's complete entropy. Where do we go from there?

Art today is often less about the object than it is about the idea behind the object.

I recently took a tour through the Roy Arden exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery with a much respected local curator. Roy was a student and is now a contemporary of Jeff Wall. Roy often appropriates archive photographs and “repurposes them”. I asked the curator about a piece in the exhibition called Mission. “If the photographer who took the original photographs put these pictures on the wall would they be art?.” The curator said no. I asked, “so the pictures are art because Roy Arden put them on the wall?” The curator said yes explaining that only he knew how to put them on the wall properly which in this case he did by enlarging them to 3 feet by 4 feet and displaying them side by side in a thin wood frame.

The curoter is saying that because Roy Arden is an artist, when he puts something on a wall it’s art. But if a photographer puts exactly the same picture on the wall it’s not art because he’s just a photographer, not an artist. Only artists understand the significance of the work photographers do. Photographers are mere technicians. The curator didn’t say this of course but in my mind it was implied. And why is Roy Arden an artist. Is it because he says so, because the critics and curators say so, or because he was a student of Jeff Wall?

What being an artist means to Roy Arden is he can put a picture that someone else made on a wall and sell it for 40 or 50 thousand dollars. What it means for the original photographer not being an artist is that his photographs are only worth the paper they’re printed on.

I realize the theory of appropriation is complicated by the philosophy of ownership but the argument put forward by this curator, to me, is ridiculous and it gives me the right and maybe even the obligation to be very critical of what is called art.


You don't have to respect what you don't understand or appreciate. You merely have to have the wit to keep your mouth shut rather than proudly trumpet your ignorance to the world. That's all it takes to suppress the Inner Yahoo.

If you can't realize that others may appreciate or understand work that you do not, then you are in bad trouble, because your IY has become an OY.



My column wasn't half so one-sided as your response.(And, by the way, you should understand that an opinion column does not have to be even-handed)

I never said, nor implied, that "all negative reactions are the viewer's fault." Taking a nuanced discussion and turning it into an absolute is false reasoning.

But it is undeniably and irrefutably true that MOST OF THE TIME, it is the viewer's fault.

It costs you nothing to maintain an open mind, except possible damage to your ego. It gains you the possibility of actually learning something new.


To both of you: when you see an artwork that others are trumpeting as successful and leaves you unmoved and uncomprehending, consider this:

Instead of thinking to yourself, "Well, they're just idiots, and I know better," try thinking, "OK, I know they're not idiots, so what are they seeing that I'm not."

You may still dislike it (in fact you probably will). You may still not comprehend it. But at least you have the chance of coming away knowing more than you did before. And maybe even liking something new.

Or you can let your IY remain imperviously smug in ignorant self-righteous. Which benefits him, but not you. So who's running your life, anyway?

pax / Ctein


In my opinion, if ever there were a blatant case of Naked Emperor in photography, it's Roy Arden.

Mike J.

Dear Mike & John,

OK, this is very interesting. I wasn't familiar with Roy Arden's work until you two brought it up. So I just looked at a smattering of stuff of his online (and watched the first coupla minutes of the movie on his website).

Damn, I really LIKE his stuff! I don't have the brainpower today to figure out why, well enough to explain it ('cept to say it's got some resonances for me with both collage complexity and snapshot aesthetic). But I really, really do!

Mike, I think this is the first time we've been at opposite ends of the scale on a particular photographer. Ain't life grand!

(And a good cautionary tale in the context of all the recent threads.)

pax / Ctein

Brad and John,

I think you're addressing the same questions from different angles, and they're deep, profound ones about what art MEANS. I don't have answers, just some musings...

Take it as a given that art is a form of communication. So, you've got a speaker and a listener (artist and audience). But there's more than two components to the communication: along with what the speakers says and what the listener hears (two different things), there's what the listener THINKS they hear (a third different thing).

For decades we've had computer programs that generate credible music, verse, and visual art. By which I mean that humans 'listen' to the results and variously like them and find meaning in them. Superficially, we can't distinguish them from mediocre human-created art.

There's no meaning being imparted by the creator of the works (whether you say it's the programmer or the computer). These programs use VERY simple, noncognitive rules. I wrote one back in the late 70's that generated credible American Southwest semi-abstract landscapes. It ran on an Apple II... in real time. And it wasn't coded in assembler. It was a REALLY stupid program, and it embodied no rules that related to human perception or cognition. It just shuffled pixels.

So, do we call that stuff Art? I have no idea. But the fact that the question vexes us shows that we consider the speaker to be important, not just the statement they make. The cheery tune created by a mouse running across the keys (or bits sloshing in a CPU) is not the same to us, on some level, as if a human sat down to write it. But on a different level, we can imbue both of them with meaning that has nothing to do with original intent.

Mondo puzzlement ensues.

Different angle on the same problem. Components of an artwork don't have to be art. Take collage (both spatial and temporal). Most commonly, the component images AREN'T interesting or profound in any way by themselves. It's the context, the conjunction of them, that the artist creates that gives the piece meaning. So, yeah, I might make an assemblage of photos grabbed off of Flickr creative commons stuff and it may be true that none of the components is remotely artworthy while the assemblage is.

That doesn't mean collage is art and photography isn't. Just that those particular photographs weren't.

Third angle on the same question.Famous painter, name escapes me, who does those "tiled" portraits, where he divides up the canvas into a mosaic of small squares, and each square contains a small painting whose overall perceived tone approximates the average tone of that 'pixel' in the large composition. Y'all know who I mean.

Ten or so years ago, some photographer (name also escapes) me figured out how to apply the same method to his photographs, building up a pixelated composition consisting of thousands of sub-images.

Both neat bodies of work, both meaningful. Both consisting of components that are usually neither artistic nor meaningful. But that's not where I'm going (we've been there, already).

Where I'm going is that this mosaicing ability is now built into many image-processing programs as a simple tool. Click a button, point it at any bunch of photos, and it uses them as mosaic components. It can be used precisely as mindlessly as the computer-generated art I mentioned at the start.

We've come full circle. Why do I feel the unnamed painter and photographer were making art, when invoking a macro that does essentially the same thing automatically isn't? Same speech, different speaker?

Why does it matter? I dunno, but it does seem to matter who does the speaking. And we don't understand why!

pax / Ctein


Remember that I was trained as a physicist, and mostly it's how I think about the world. But when I'm faced with someone with apparently expert credentials who says something I don't understand, I don't assume they're wrong until proven right. I assume *I* am, and I explore the incongruence from that angle.

90% of the time, that's the right choice. Even in physics, where I'm a lot smarter (and better educated) than the average bear.

And definitely in photography. I'm one of the world's real experts on matters photographic. I got that way by following this rule. And I really do love it when someone points out something I got wrong-- I get to learn something more!

BTW, Art isn't science, nor politics, nor tax code. And just 'cause you lay claim to a hammer doesn't mean you should declare everything is a nail. I didn't attempt to translate my essay to other fields. Neither should you. It ain't a hammer, either.

pax / Ctein


Your site and you are to be applauded. Very thought provoking writing.

Ctein, I still think you're a "commie pinko weirdo" but I had a positive response to Roy Arden, too. It also made me realize that there is a whole industry, the tail to the dog of art, so to speak, following the dog around, writing learned commentary on what the dog produces. Why, who am I, to want to see perfectly respectable art historians out of work. I will go forth, a better person, with my inner yahoo somewhat quelled.

Mike, thanks for reccomending 400 Photos, by A.A. Curious, even there, at least two pieces of abstraction. The book requires further study. I'm a little disappointed that more information wasn't placed beside the photos, though. I guess I need to study him more, Take that, inner yahoo.


Good advice Ctein,

I thought "Country Music" was the art form of choice for Yahoos?

On the other hand maybe you just have your radio turned to the wrong dial....Seems "Country Music" ain't so country any more.

There are plenty of country bands here in Chicago that are so "Country" that the Country folks don't even get it.

"Tolerance," brothers, that's all that's required. If you don't like or understand something, be it art or music, etc. etc., just move on and don't let it spoil your day. There are plenty of other things to enjoy and take pleasure in. Each to his own poison.

A close reading of Ctien's comment about country music suggests that he *knows* that (some) country music is art, but his IY won't let him appreciate it.

For a few bucks you could go on-line to the Apple Store and download:

"Rich Man's War" (Steve Earle) -- an anti-Iraq war song.

"We Can't Make it Here" (James McMurtry) about what's happening to American society and life.

"Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of Each Other)" (Willie Nelson) -- homosexual cowboys

"Angel from Montgomery" (Bonnie Raitt) Only one of the best songs ever written.

"Me and Bobbie McGee" (Brian McKnight) Will blow your mind.

"The Road Goes on Forever" (Robert Earl Keen). Bonnie & Clyde, sort of.

"Wanna Rock 'n Roll" (Cross-Canadian Ragweed) Harsh. Refers to the Canadian River in Texas, not the country.

"Lyin' Eyes" (The Eagles) If you want to ease into it from Rock.

And, of course, the song often listed on Southern & Midwestern jukeboxes as the "National Anthem," the all-time favorite, "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" by Ray Wylie Hubbard or maybe Jerry Jeff Walker. One of those three-name guys.

"Sure does like his Falstaff beer,
Likes to chase it down with that Wild Turkey liquor;
Drives a fifty-seven GMC pickup truck;
He's got a gun rack; "Goat ropers need love, too" sticker"

Don't find lyrics like that just lying around on the floor. Anyway, download those songs for $9, and You'll probably start listening to a little C&W.

Remember that great scene in Blues Brothers, where Belushi asks the bar maid what kind of music they play?
Barmaid: "Why, both kinds."
Belushi (one eyebrow near the top of his scalp): "Both kinds?"
Barmaid: "County *and* Western."


Hey Ctein,

You should ease into it a bit. You can start with a City boy even.

I'd be willing to bet if you listened more than once and with effort you would find much to like in Robbie Fulks or anybody on Bloodshot Records.They have a sense of humour and Robbie feels your pain.

"Every Kind Of Music But Country"

Well, I've been hounding her for such a long time
Trying to impress her with my hillbilly whine
But she told me I was barking up the wrong tree
She liked every kind of music but country.

Every kind of music but country
She liked it fast, she liked it loud, she liked it funky
She liked everything about me, 'cept for one thing
She liked every kind of music but country.

Well, I thought I had a big one on the line
She said listening to music was her favorite pastime.
But she told me I was trying to swim upstream
She liked every kind of music but country

She saw I had a guitar in my hand
(But she never heard me playing until the night she heard my band)
But she thought I was a hick until the night she heard my band
And now she can't remember having told me
She liked every kind of music but country


Wrt. art and science.

Thiago: I don't think "not understanding" an idea is a sufficient reason for a reviewer to turn down a scientific article (unless it is not understandable because it is badly written). In fact one would expect from a competent reviewer that he does understand the paper and is able to articulate why he does not find it good. (Surely a simple "I don't like this" would not make it)

Ctein: although you have no claim of universality, I find that your general argument applies quite well to science. When confronted to new ideas, many scientists' Inner Yahoo irresistibly push them to claim that this is all in fact similar to what Prof. XYZ's student did some years ago. A common variant, the self-important Inner Yahoo, would even point you to one of his own former papers and claim that the new idea is essentially the same.

None of this would ever happen within the realm of art, I am sure. :-)

If you really think there is something to like about country music, then you should probably listen to some and find the things that are good about it. If you don't find them, then you are free to say you don't like it and it sucks. It's going to go on without you one way or the other.

On the other hand, I've listened to a crapload of classical music. In general, I think it's a waste. For a money spent on it/pleasure gained by it ratio, classical music is stupendously expensive. It's just another genre of music (and it always has been). There are things that I really appreciate about it (Bach, much early music, Shostakovich, Stravinsky) and other things that after thinking about for a long time, and listening to (Brahms, Beethoven, Haydn) I've found that I really don't like. I know all about it and know how other people appreciate it, to me it's just a plain waste. I'll let them have their opinion about it, that's fine.

Anyway, what's the point here? Stay ignorant about something but know you're ignorant?

Since when do we "consense"? We may reach a consensus, or agree, but I cannot remember learning "to consense" at any time in my education (which ended officially in 1966).

We all deserve the inner yahoo. It's part of the beast. What we can do is learn to recognize it and appreciate it for what it is.

That said: there's a lot of shite out there!

Dear Mike,

I'm not sure if you took your education too early or way too late! [grin]

"Consense" has been around since the 13th century. Its meaning has meandered, but its modern usage (common only for circa 30 years) is very similar to its original one. What goes around comes around.

It does not mean "agree", BTW.

pax / Ctein

-- "Never get in a knife fight with a man with an OED" ~ anonymous

The point in the original posting that I have some issue with is not where most comments have been made. I acknowledge that everybody I've known who has been truly expert in a subject has been quite humble in the face of all the things they don't know, and to be very aware that others in their field know more than they do in some areas (while perhaps knowing less in others).

Still, someone trying to dispassionately and objectively assess their knowledge in their field of expertise might well conclude, quite accurately, that they know as much as anyone and more than most simply because that is, indeed, an accurate assessment. To me that isn't hubris, its just an acknowledgement of reality.

The doctor who (successfully) treated my mother for cancer really is one of the top five people in his field, worldwide (as our research showed, and as he didn't say). I'm glad he substituted his judgement for that of others with less knowledge and who were recommending different (and most likely fatally unsuccessful) treatments. This wasn't done in a high-handed way: more "this is why I think that is the wrong approach and why I think this is the right one".

I think this is important because there's plenty of research out there suggesting that true experts tend to under-rate their level of knowledge while genuine incompetents tend to over-rate theirs. While a little humility is good for everyone, you don't want to end up with the expert deferring to the bozo. "I may not know everything, but I know more than you do" may well be an appropriate response. If that can make the expert seem arrogant, well, tough: because the alternative is a good deal worse.


Don't know if you've heard this one or not, but someone quoted a real gem in the midst of a discussion on some forum about pornography vs. art.

"Definition of pornography: If you like it, it's pornography. If I like it, it's art."

Question: What does a pink monkey eat?
I would like to feed mine and let it prosper.

I do not have any issues about offending the "masses". I feel it is good to actually get them to think occasionally.

At the core of it all, we are all critics.
That is possibly the criteria by which the Pink Monkey aka Inner Yahoo is named.

Are we not all merely putting up our efforts to "the masses" and asking "critique me please" for I know not, without you, how worthwhile my efforts actually are"?

Ctein wrote:
"You don't have to respect what you don't understand or appreciate. You merely have to have the wit to keep your mouth shut rather than proudly trumpet your ignorance to the world. That's all it takes to suppress the Inner Yahoo."

This really sounds like you're telling me you know better and I should keep my mouth shut. Maybe you don't mean it that way but that's the way I read it.

"To both of you: when you see an artwork that others are trumpeting as successful and leaves you unmoved and uncomprehending, consider this:

Instead of thinking to yourself, "Well, they're just idiots, and I know better," try thinking, "OK, I know they're not idiots, so what are they seeing that I'm not."

The key phrase here is "I know they're not idiots". I don't think you can assume that. I wouldn't classify art experts as idiots but neither do I assume that they hold the keys to a truth that I don't have. I can read up on the meaning, intention, etc. of a work but if I still end up with the same conclusion that disagrees with theirs then I'm entitled to think and say that and I'm entitled to say that I don't agree with the other people.

Comparison with the sciences isn't the same. There's some objective truth in physics that can be dispassionately measured. There is no objective truth in art, just opinions, and I'm entitled to mine without feeling guilty about whether I'm sufficiently qualified to hold it.

Sometimes, perhaps there's a value in telling the art establishment that they've disappeared up their own backsides (John Cage's 3 minutes of silence being the best example).


"Sometimes, perhaps there's a value in telling the art establishment that they've disappeared up their own backsides (John Cage's 3 minutes of silence being the best example)."

You mean 4'33" by John Cage. And I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it--it's one of the most famous compositions in the world. Even you are talking about it.

And have you ever heard it performed? If not, why are you judging it? Consider what Peter Gutmann says about the piece:

"Although often described as a silent piece, 4'33" isn't silent at all. While the performer makes as little sound as possible, Cage breaks traditional boundaries by shifting attention from the stage to the audience and even beyond the concert hall. You soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic –shifting in seats, riffling programs to see what in the world is going on, breathing, the air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. This is a deeply personal music, which each witness creates to his/her own reactions to life. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4'33" the same way. It's the ultimate sing-along: the audience (and the world) becomes the performer.

"Let's tackle a few obvious questions. Is this music? Sure it is—each sound has a distinct tone, duration, rhythm and timbre. Isn't it arbitrary? But so are all artistic conventions. Couldn't a 3-year old have written this piece? Perhaps. But did he? Did you?

"If all this still sounds more like noise than real music, don't feel bad—you're in very distinguished company. As chronicled in Nikolas Slonimsky's perversely wonderful "Lexicon of Musical Invective" (Washington University, 1965), even the most comfortable and cherished staples of our current repertoire, including Brahms, Chopin, Debussy and Tchaikovsky, had been condemned by contemporary esthetes in the very same way. Even Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, now the most popular classical work of all, was damned as "odious meowing"—and not music—decades after its premiere.

"The 'point' of 4'33", and the appeal of most avant-garde stuff, is that unlike most music it presents an open process rather than an attempt to realize a composer's prescribed directives to achieve a specific intended result. It's an invitation, not a command.

"And yet, few people genuinely like to listen to modern classical music. (And here I don't mean mainstream derivative stuff, but real cutting-edge avant-garde.) Often the concept turns out to be far more interesting than its execution—once you acknowledge the basic scheme you really don't want to have to sit through it. 4'33" is one of the very few pieces that has the opposite appeal. Its idea sounds simplistic and even stupid, but performances are fascinating, since they involve each listener so fully and intimately. And it's over before you can get bored or uncomfortable."

Mike J.

Mike, the question "have you heard it performed" is an oxymoron. There is nothing to perform. There is a lack of work. Nothingness is what you get when you haven't done anything. "Could a 3-year old have written this piece? Perhaps - but did he?" There is nothing to write. The 3-year old "creates" silence every time he isn't making noise. We all do. Cage didn't "write" or "create" this piece - he did nothing.
I really think you need to look at the emperor with a child's eyes and admit that he is naked.

You're falling prey to a very common failing in art--imagining you know what the experience is like even when you haven't had the experience. 4'33" obviously makes an impression on people. Go to a performance of it and then I will listen to your opinions of it. Until then, you're literally just imagining things.

Mike J.

Ok then, how about this.

In my mind about 5 minutes ago, I created the greatest photograph in the history of art. I swear. But I didn't see the point of actually producing it using any of the current imperfect printing techniques that would by their very nature ruin the work.

Can you imagine it?

Ok, quick now, can some museum please send me a check.

Regarding the 4 min and 33 sec of silence, does that qualify as "green" art? It hardly uses up any resources at all. I mean, you don't really need to buy the CD, do you, unless you're determined to own a particular live recording of it, say the Carnegie Hall version, if there is one.

(To be partly serious, this goes back to something I mentioned in a previous thread. The discussion of the meaning of that 4 min of silence can lead to a meaningful debate. But the work itself is pretty forgettable, isn't it? Taken by itself, is it really more meaningful than 4 min of my own silence? But, I am not an expert in art, barely a beginner really, so feel free to disregard my comments as worthless. I will not take offense. But I'm still not going to buy the CD.)

(Just having some fun.)


"The discussion of the meaning of that 4 min of silence can lead to a meaningful debate."

Now you're starting to get modern art (and modern music), or at least some of it. It's about the ideas behind the work. By putting out 4'33", John Cage got people talking about what is music, what is a performance, who is performing it and whether he actually created anything (I certainly think he did).

I don't agree that "the work itself is pretty forgettable", but that is a question of taste and reasonable minds can disagree.



So, did you like my conceptual photograph? (Would you buy it?)

Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, wrote about conceptual art in a much better way than I can manage.

My phrase "the work itself is pretty forgettable" was badly written. The fact that we are discussing it here again proves that whatever it is, it's not forgotten. What I was trying to say was that I don't believe that there is anything special about Cage's specific 4'33" of silence. My silence, or yours, or Mike's, are all pretty similar and equally meaningful, if we accept that any of them has meaning. I don't know about Mike's musical talent or yours, but I can guarantee that no 4 min of music that I would write would be as good as Mozart's, or even Hank Williams', but my musical silence would be as good as anybody's and much appreciated by all of you.

Much of what has been written in these threads, it seems to me, have a lot to with taste, not always about the "value" of the underlying art (not that I know how to measure such value but we have to accept that conceit or there is no discussion). Cstein doesn't like classical music or opera, I can't stand Motown, it's fun yakking about it, and I enjoy it, but we're talking about taste and trends. If someone tried to denigrate the importance and "value" of the thing we call classical music, well, they would have to explain how something of little value can survive across generations and centuries. Will anybody be listening to Hank Williams in 2106? I hope so, but if Shania Twain's music disappears, it may not be missed.

We are in part discussing the "value" of certain forms of art when one of the more important measures of its importance is its longevity.

I'll stop now, like I promised a couple of days ago.



In a sense, you’re right. If you take four or five minutes out of your day to just concentrate on the sounds around you, then you are getting a good chunk of what Cage was getting at with his 4’33”. In that respect, your silence is almost “as good as” his.

But I wouldn’t discount what Cage was doing, or how his 4’33” differs from your own. First, by specifying the length of the piece, exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds, Cage gave it a start and an end. This is more significant than it seems. It serves to separate the sounds we hear during that time from the sounds that we hear during the rest of the day. This makes it easier to discuss those sounds in a meaningful way. And as Mike pointed out, it’s long enough to be interesting, but not so long you get bored or fall asleep. Second, it is a piece that is designed to be “performed”, in the sense that a number of people are supposed to get together in some venue with the common purpose listening to those same 4’33”. This both changes what you hear (people breathing, coughing, rustling through papers, etc.) and provides you with the opportunity to discuss the significance of the work with a group of people who “heard” (or experienced) the same thing you did. (For what it’s worth, this is a key difference compared to your conceptual photograph. Anything I imagine is likely to have little to no resemblance to what you conceived, so it’s not possible for us to have a meaningful discussion about it.)

Now, anyone else can come along and “write” a piece called, say, 5’12”, but that obviously won’t be the same thing. It doesn’t have the significance of what Cage did, just as my drawing a black square doesn’t raise me to the level of Malevich. On the other hand, this isn’t to imply that people can’t build on what Cage did, just as people have built on the work of prior artists since time immemorial. For example, you may want to create a work entitled “1 year, 2 months, 14 days, 6 hours, 8 minutes 13 seconds”, designed to be performed in solitude in the woods. I will wait for the reviews before attending a performance, however. ;-)

I would promise to stop, but nobody would believe me anyway…


Once more into the breach.

If someone did compose a 5'12" silent piece, could Cage sue, do you think? His lawyers could make a pretty good argument that the first 4'33" of the new piece was lifted straight out of the older work. The inevitable countersuit might claim that Cage didn't invent silence.

Might it mean that anytime we're silent, we have to pay Cage royalties? Sort of like adding a magenta tint to a photo that could land you in a German trademark court.

Now, I really will stop.


Dear Robert,

I think you've nicely illuminated the point that I made earlier-- that WHO does the speaking is important, not merely WHAT is spoken. If you or I or Mike J created 4'33" it is not likely that anyone would pay any attention. It would not get performed for major audiences, it would not get discussed nor analyzed, it would not engender the kind of discussion we see in this thread.

For art to communicate, there must be someone willing to listen to what it has to say. And who is willing to listen depends upon who is doing the speaking* . You or I or Mike writing 4'33" is NOT the same as John Cage doing it.

To put it a bit snarkily, when someone says something along the lines of, "Hey, my kid could draw that!" my reaction is "But no one save you would care if your kid drew that." The artistic statements are not the same.

pax / Ctein

*(this is not unique to art-- it's true of most declarations. And it's a reasonable thing. If Mike J makes a statement about quantum mechanics, it should not be given as much attention as if I do, and that should not be given as much attention as if Kip Thorne does. If I say "Pull the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan NOW," it will garner little attention. If the Speaker of the House were to say that, it would make headlines. And if Prez Dubya did it, all our jaws would drop. The same statement has different import in different mouths.

Why would anyone expect this to be less true when it comes to something as intangible as artistic merit?

Dear Lars,

You could be right, but it's not a new phenomenon. It goes back to at least the Renaissance (my art history is weak before that). In broad strokes, it works like this:

Art has no intrinsic or durable value or merit). For artists to prosper, they depend upon the kindness of strangers... rich ones, that is. And the rich have foibles, fancies and fads just like the rest of us.

More significantly, they define the playing field. Important Art is art that is declared important by Important People. There is no other mechanism for validation.

Often history proves them right, often not.

But either way, the art you are likely to get exposed to is the subset of the Once-Important Art that current sensibilities deem meritworthy. There's a lot of real crap in the classical collections. You don't often see it. So you're left with an inflated impression of the average quality.

Kind of the way the unknowledgeable think most classical music was good (it wasn't) or the way we Americans have this idea that British television is a zillion times better than ours because what gets imported (especially by PBS) is the cream skimmed off the schedule.

And, yes, much art mania is just tulip bulbs. But that's the way it's always been, and absent an objective arbiter of taste, that's the only way it can be.

pax / Ctein

Robert wrote: "If someone did compose a 5'12" silent piece, could Cage sue, do you think?"

The answer is yes:


The comments to this entry are closed.