It might be worth knowing, since trivia are always the best corrective to a lull in conversation, that one of the final recordings made by Frank Zappa - the songwriter and recording artist behind such ironic classics as Baby, Take Your Teeth Out - was John Cage’s 4’33”, the iconic “silent piece” from 1952 in which the musician makes no intentional sound.
While 4’33” is arguably the best-known example, there are many other works in diverse art forms in which the focus or raw material is, literally, nothing - an example, if you will, of the principle that absence makes the art go wander. Robert Rauschenberg took a pencil drawing by Willem de Kooning and erased it; Nam June Paik made an hour-long film without images. Such works are the focus of Craig Dworkin’s No Medium: “clear film, smooth phonograph discs, erased texts, blank compact disks, white canvases, silent music”.
In every corner of culture (and science too), those who make it into the textbooks clearly stand on the shoulders of others. The Bachs and Beethovens are the ones we hear about, but a deeper trawl reveals countless contemporaries toiling away at, say, the question of when modulation to the submediant might be a handy solution to the problems of sonata form.
Likewise, when we think of art as absence we know of the Cages and Rauschenbergs, but the revelation of Dworkin’s book is just how many artists have done absolutely nothing: Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Barry, Maurice Fombeure, Tom Friedman, Daniel Spoerri and all.
What also makes No Medium invaluable is that the author’s immersion in the field permits him to highlight the qualities distinguishing the works with a connoisseur’s appreciation. Some would interpret Cage’s “silent piece” as a spiritual testament; for others, it seems Romantic. Clearly, however, it differs from the Apollonian precision of Friedman’s 11 x 22 x 0.005, “a blank sheet of paper partitioned by two symmetrical folds and suspended vertically”. This, in turn, contrasts with the conceptualism evinced by Barry’s Space Between Pages 29 and 30, a text that appeared (or not) in the July 1969 issue of the journal 0 to 9 - “the roughly one-tenth of one millimeter of pressed pulp that separates the last page of…’Proposition for a Play’ (page 29) and…’Eisenhower and the Hippies’…(page 30)”.
If there might be a flaw here, it is the intrusive inessentiality of the theorising. “The face,” we learn, “is the authoritarian system of convention by which an inscription can function as a signifier.” The reason why bad poststructuralist things happen to good people, when you think about it, is that they are not using such terms simply to explore a topic with technical precision. Talk of inscriptions and signifiers is, rather, a way to successfully pass yourself off as a member of a particular subculture. It’s a shame; it amounts to noise that distracts from the substance.
There is no imperative to like artworks such as these (the idea that we “should” enjoy “serious” sculpture or music is one of the most pernicious prejudices of art appreciation). The question simply is, does it strike a chord or set us thinking? Essentially, you either “get” it (conceptually, intellectually, emotionally) or you don’t, just as one might recognise Shakespeare as a great playwright but find that his works leave you cold. However we feel about them, though, Austrian artist Heinz Gappmayr’s two books of blank pages are an extreme incarnation of the proposition (so easily overlooked in these STEM-obsessed days) that “everybody knows that the useful is useful, but the useless is useful too”: the watchword of every art.
By Craig Dworkin
MIT Press, 224pp, £15.95
Published 5 April 2013