the aesthetics of silence by susan sontag


” How literally can the notion of silence be used with respect to art? Silence exists as a decision — in the exemplary suicide of the artist (Kleist, Lautreamont), who thereby testifies that he has gone “too far”; and in such model renunciations by the artist of his vocation already cited. Silence also exists as a punishment — self-punishment, in the exemplary madness of
artists (Holderlin, Artaud) who demonstrate that one’s very sanity may be the price of trespassing the accepted frontiers of consciousness; and, of course, in penalties (ranging from
censorship and physical destruction of art-works to fines, exile, prison for the artist) meted out by “society” for the artist’s spiritual nonconformity or for subversion of the group sensibility. 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. But this can’t happen or be induced programmatically. 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 (misled by restrictive ideas about what would be a “relevant” response). 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 — even of works like Duchamp’s readymades or Cage’s 4’33”, in which the artist has ostentatiously done no more to satisfy any established criteria of art than set the object in a gallery or situate the performance on a concert stage. 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. (Put otherwise: if a work exists at all, its silence is only one element in it.) Instead of raw or achieved silence, one finds various moves in the direction of an ever-receding horizon of silence — moves which, by definition, can’t ever be fully consummated. One result is a type of art which many people characterize pejoratively as dumb, depressed, acquiescent, cold. But these privative qualities exist in a context of the artist’s objective intention, which is always discernible. 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. And, finally, 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.” (Cage has described how, even in a soundless chamber, he still heard at least two things: his heartbeat and the coursing of the blood in his head). Similarly, there is no such thing as empty space. As long as a human eye is looking there is always something to see. To look at something that’s “empty” is still to be looking, still to be seeing something — if only the ghosts of one’s own expectations. 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. (In Through the Looking Glass,Alice comes upon a shop “that seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded full as they could hold.”)
“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. (Thus, much of the beauty of Harpo Marx’s muteness derives from his being surrounded by manic talkers.)

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. “

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