The Unradicality of Art

Self-centring Artists, Mediarised Crackpots & Alchemical Conductors

published in the Column No.2 - 2008 Biennale of Sydney Critical Response, Artspace, Sydney, 2008
Jean Tinguely - Study For An End Of The World No.2(1962)

Upfront disclaimer: I have no interest in any claims that art can be subversive, radical or revolutionary under any terms whatsoever. Nor am I attracted to any re-cloaking of the political through the guise of the theatrical jokester, the social fool or the maverick outsider. And if you’re shopping around the idea of the personal being re-invented as the political, than pass me by. So if those things matter to you – in art, in life, wherever – what follows may not.

For this essay, only two works will be discussed from the 2008 Biennale of Sydney – arguably in more detail than either the original works or their curatorial posture enables. Here, very little care will be shown for the authorial dribbling (and scribbling) which artists cough up as signs of either their social commitment or their professional practice. This critical posting runs far away from (to cite a couple of the surveyor’s posts from the Biennale) the delusional self-mythologizing babble of Joseph Beuys and his supremacist envisioning of faux-liberating societal reconstructions, and even further from the spiteful bluntness of Guy Debord’s affected allergy to spectacularism and his critique of consumerist entropy. Ignoring that terrain, this slight and slippery essay will dive into two canonical avant-garde works and follow the lateral transcultural arcs released not by their creation but by their production.

Specifically, the two works to be discussed are not the products of artists per se. The first is the David Brinkley’s Journal television segment from 1963 which documented the on-site making and site-specific presentation of Jean Tinguely’s Study For An End Of The World No.2 (1962). The second is the BBC televised recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2004 performance of John Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952). It is in the interlocution of these works’ textual sanctity through their mediarization that their ‘production of cultural meaning’ (to invoke the classical political lexicon) is generated and dispersed with far greater force and momentum than via the vaporous smokescreen of artistic intent which has buffeted these artworks across the currents of modern art history. Furthermore, these works grant denser receptivity through their distortion and corruption by ulterior (and in some ways, superior) media channels than by their self-centred and self-centring placement in something like a contemporary art biennale.

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As Jean Tinguely arrives in the Nevada Desert with fellow artist Niki de Saint Phalle, a few things become apparent about this televisual documentation. Firstly, everything is staged; embarrassingly so. Tinguely moves like one of his own desultory puppets, set up to flip and flop according to the vagaries of external pressure. In this case, the grainy 16mm footage forces him into scenarios typical of 60s documentary orthodoxy, wherein he is posed as being documented in denial of his being staged. His ‘surprise’ in finding different components in the trash yard is so scripted one can almost hear the director off-camera cajoling him like a silent-cinema actor. Which brings us to the second appearency: the soundtrack is mostly post-dubbed, save for occasional scenes where ambient noise was minimal enough to facilitate clear recording while the camera rolled (e.g., the small store shopping scene, the public viewing the construction site near his hotel, etc.). But in this trash yard scene, all sound is fabricated via a series of Foley bangs and crashes as he rummages through the plastic and metallic refuse. Its unintentional musique concrete psychoacoustically enforces a palpable ‘aural proscenium arch’ over and above the visual language of film editing and framing. It is the sonic key for unravelling this document, for in the disjuncture between staged visuals and fabricated sounds, Tinguely’s project is simultaneously defined and undermined.

Jean Tinguely - Study For An End Of The World No.2(1962)

Artists – scopic beasts that they be despite their ‘mixed media’ claims to the contrary – are just as deaf as filmmakers. And artists are just as fraudulent as documentarians with their fabrications, despite artists’ lofty claims to allow ‘the real’, ‘the everyday’ and ‘the social’ to modulate their grand praxis. Watching and listening to this TV documentary is painful if one is conscious of its base audiovisual operations. Yes – Tinguely does look slightly uncomfortable at being in this situation, and yes – one can infer the precise praxis he is politically allowing through his participatory collusion in engineering the means to document the creation and destruction of this version of End Of The World. But the audiovisual substance of the resulting document shatters the silent hermetic world that, for example, allows Pollock’s similarly self-conscious performance for Hans Namuth’s filmic documentation appear mystical through its inaudible momentum. Or consider Yves Klein’s wholly compromised placement (purportedly sought out by him) in Paolo Cavara & Gualtiero Jacopetti’s seminal shockumentary Mondo Cane (1962): Klein thought his Monotone Symphony would accompany the documentation of one of his Anthropometry performances. The final edit and mix slapped the film’s chintzy theme ("More" by Nino Oliviero) across the gallery performance footage, leaving Klein to appear like a wacko performing to a cocktail lounge gathering.

But, hey, that was the 60s it seems. Post-war American media particularly thrived on the wacko appeal of the Modern artist. From Dali to Pollock to Warhol, conservative organs like Life magazine appeared to be as sought after for market awareness by the cult of the self-promoting artist as were the sell-out solo shows deemed to follow suit. And as the smarmy sound byte-theatrics of the Koons and Kostabis through to the Hirsts and Chapmans prove, artists continue to mediarise themselves by saying dumb things, looking dumb, and appealing to the dumb – all the while inferring dumbness is not where their interest lies. Not surprisingly – and too often neglected by art criticism intent on filtering out this mediarised noise of artistic endeavour – this creates circulatory loops of exchange, where artists and their media personae generate a type of authorial chimera whose voice is multiplied, atomised and diffused in the conceptual sonorum of public statement. Fortuitously for the artists, they can embrace their own undermining, which largely remains uncritiqued at the precise level of how their mediarization is audiovisually and televisually shaped. Following Tinguely’s infamous (and greatly mythologized) Homage To New York (1960), Hollywood spun a version of the crazy artist bent on destruction by pulping the chauvinism of Pollock with the comedia dell’arte of Tinguely in J. Lee Thompson’s film What A Way To Go (1964). Paul Newman plays modern artist Larry Flint who invents a machine that paints ‘abstract paintings’. The gag arrives when the machine gets out of control and accidentally kills him, leaving Shirley Maclaine a very rich widow (possibly a distasteful allusion to Lee Krasner’s role in the Pollock estate following Pollock’s death in 1956).

BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2004 performance of John Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952)

To a cine-literate viewer, the 60s grain of the David Brinkley programme documentation is archly historicist. The persistent un-feminist close-ups of Niki de Saint Phalle silently beaming as Tinguely’s muse; the pseudo-Nouvelle Vague ambling of their guileless enterprise; the upholding of Las Vegas as ground zero of American capitalism; the forced positioning of the European artists as ‘voices of poetic dissent’ against the consumer-duped average American Joes to whom modern art is little more than a bemusing diversion – these are the clichéd countercultural trappings of an oft cited ‘independent’ spirit in American filmmaking throughout the 60s. To a fine art aficionado, the same 60s theatricality is likely to frame the work with a modernist public-performance post-object histoire – which crops up in art writing these days like parents being proud when their kids discover The Grateful Dead. Herein lies the conflicting mediated readings of a document like the David Brinkley programme: the latter interpretation which orients Tinguely as being relevant to critical/curatorial currencies is counter-weighted by the former interpretation which projects Tinguely as being overwhelmed by self-promotional exigencies. Tinguely is an undeniable figure in the evaluation of destruction as part of the post-war creative impulse. But the point here is how we precisely evaluate the positioning and contextualization of such a consensus in the face of his self-insertion and self-ensnarement within the social media sphere of which he desires communion.

For Tinguely – like so many aggressively conceptual post WWII artists – is neither solipsistic nor nihilistic. His neo-Dadaist mockery of the insanity of unstoppable destructive willpower during the Cold War synchronises with the socially responsible dogma of intelligentsia discourse at the time (a grab-bag of doom-fearing rationalist exclamations which are echoed today in way too many contemporary art critiques of ‘global issues’). The whole shtick of playing the political jester was and is tiresome: Tinguely’s droll delivery of how he is going to “blow up the world” with a big “bang” like “the atom bomb” crackles on the soundtrack for art-goers in the know, tittering inside at the average Joes outside Tinguely’s Nevada hotel who quizzically attempt to comprehend the what and why of this crazy Frenchman.

While Tinguely’s deeper intentions are not openly stated in this documentary (just as it is unclear who courted whom for its making), one might lend credence to him for staging The End Of The World in Yucca Flats, famed site of atomic and nuclear detonation blasts from 1951 to 1962. Maybe the state of Nevada had no problem with anyone for whatever reason blowing up junk out in the desert. Or maybe in a pre-Terrorist era, the crackpot assemblage Tinguely constructs was deemed no threat to anyone anyway. Whatever the case, Nevada’s mushroom-caped desertscapes had for the preceding decade fuelled and fanned the media imagination of the Red Scare. Such media penetration did not require post-war artists to postulate a critique of the atomic age. Indeed, key abstract painters of the time seemed disempowered by the bomb, yet artist and curators have persistently implied that artists are especially capable of critiquing such power structures. By contestation, popular culture far more potently makes the point. A whole slew of American B-grade monster movies addresses the effects of atomic radiation and nuclear mutation in corny but nonetheless disquieting ways via their suppressed guilt at having unleashed the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To presume that a ‘de-authorialised’ movie like Coleman Francis’ The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) is unconscious of its social commentary is as dumb as believing that Tinguely’s voice (or the bulk of artists’ declamatory missives in the 2008 Biennale of Sydney) is capable of centralising its politicised commentary, especially through a mediarised documentation like the David Brinkley programme.

Tellingly, the occasional snippets of music used in the TV documentary orient the semiotic specificity of a media-staged artwork like End of The World. A singular scant passage from Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897) is used maybe three times. This ‘cue’ relates to the folkloric narrative where the Sorcerer displays his alchemical power by conjuring forth life from elemental materials. This passage’s purpose has been musicologically enshrined through its visualisation in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1941), visibly depicting the sorcerer as a patriarchal mystic capable of godlike animation while Mickey (as the Apprentice) spies on him with awe. The theoretical investment of artists with alchemical power is a bankrupt allusion (on par with rock musicians being ‘shamans’). The ‘artist-as-alchemist’ has been historically forged from the Romantic ethos through to the unstoppable feting of conceptual artists who magically conjure forth meaning and substance from their ‘post-object’ materiality. When Duchamp claimed alchemical meaning in The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (Even) (1912) he did so through an invented aracana of language and symbolism, obfuscating his objects and their arrangement in order to code meaning at a sub-hieroglyphic strata. Conversely, the Cold War rush of conceptual artists like Tinguely employ a like strategy yet infer a contract with socio-political engagement. Irregardless, the internationalist edicts of contemporary art persists in according artists with some sort of ‘inalienable right’ to authorial presence in the very situations where they are least empowered. When the agency of political economy is mentioned in contemporary art, it is likely to be an instance of ‘political alchemy’.

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The alchemist is semiotically conjured forth in the second artwork to be discussed here: the BBC televised documentation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2004 performance of John Cage’s 4’33” (1959), under conductor Lawrence Foster. Far more than the artist, it is the conductor who is most appropriately aligned with the alchemist. The conductor cajoles and controls, beckons and beseeches his automatons to configure their harmonic alignment in accordance with the quasi-celestial scripture of the score and his baton-wielding dictatorship. True to his nomenclature, the conductor becomes a centralised node in the conduction of energies – acoustic, harmonic, psychoacoustic, psychological, performative, dramatic. He feels, interprets and relays in order to maintain the energy he perceives, shaping it through this feedback process. He is the ‘liquid guitarist’ to the air guitarist. Foster is posed archetypically in the BBC documentation. The camera is zoomed in on his upper being, flattening his countenance into a thickly formed block of impassive control, his brow furrowed and eyebrows visibly contoured to evidence his concentration in the act of conducting. It’s not a corny neo-Gothic set-up; in fact it’s quite restrained and straight forward in capturing Foster’s concentration.

BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2004 performance of John Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952)

Yet inevitably, Foster is the conductor as supremacist being. And herein lies the cracks to this canonical avant-garde treatise on post-war music. Cage’s gestural dictum in 4’33” – directing the reader of the score to visibly and performatively enact a durational structure of the score – invokes himself as simultaneously a prankster and a philosopher whose passive-aggressive crackpot presence actively problematises his mediarised work. Cage has parlayed that duplicity to anyone who would perform, enact or conduct its score. Just as Tinguely doubles himself through self-conscious duplicity in the David Brinkley Journal programme, Foster becomes a transfiguration of Cage. The BBC televisual document crystallises this transfiguration – this act of what ultimately is a re-instatement of the human through the performative act. Foster himself contributes between the first and second movement when he wipes his brow in a mock-Stokowski gesture, reminding the audience of the heroic sweat mustered by the conductor. It’s an all-knowing event for a knowing audience, now extended to the knowingness of a contemporary art traffic. Cage and his long-standing supporters can wax lyrically of the manifold ways in which his Zen-derived aphoristic playfulness ‘liberates’ the rational consciousness, but it always has and always will result from the privilege by which the human can theatrically discount control. In other words, the allowance of the world – its ‘everyday’, your ‘engagement’, our ‘life’ – into the stage of art – its perimeters, your encounter, our perception – is more of an artifice than all other theatrical discourse due to the knowingness of how utterly untransformative the entailed actions are. And that knowingness is ratified by the conceptual gesture of the artist who conducts these exchanges. Foster channels Cage for the BBC. The BBC channels Foster for the Biennale. The Biennale channels Cage for us. That’s a lot of noise for a little silence.

Of course it is well known that this channelling is primarily the means to an end: to facilitate a consciousness of the act of listening for the duration of the piece. But I question whether that ever was or ever can be possible. At the Biennale install of 4’33” at the Museum of Contemporary art, the audio was acoustically unconsidered so that all I could hear above the low key murmur of the BBC audience between the conducted movements was Guy Debord’s decollage film in an adjoining space. The work’s install was presumptuous of the televisual and audiovisual materiality of its manifestation. The implication is that Cage’s work is an act of theatre, and the BBC document is not unlike an old Fluxus photograph: verifiable as ‘something important’ yet repressive of any forensic analysis of the circumstance, context and instance of the performance. Like sound artists who present ‘field recordings’ as if the preceding half century of cinema sound design had never activated a listening to the world around us or a consciousness of the aural through transformative acts of documentation. Like visual artists doing anything that is not primarily scopic, ocular, optical, visual.

The most striking aspect of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performance of 4’33” is how it allows the work its aural and acousmatic totality by seriously being still and silent. Even the audience (their silence audible in the actual video – archived at the time at remain largely attentative. This sonorum represents the ideal for an artist’s engagement with the social – something that is at the crux of all performed music, and only aberrantly allowed in the museographic space and its attendant organa of intervention. Such an idyllicism of social engagement is gilded in contemporary art – as noted in the unending tide of both documentation and documentary that has swamped the international jetties of contemporary art over the last half decade. The BBC version of 4’33” performs similarly to the trend of re-enactment in contemporary performative art, in that there is an embrace of the knowing ineffectiveness of the pantomime being enacted, yet it resonates with a charming optimism which many artists now deploy as a reaction against the innately cynical composure of the art market and its unstoppable value-adding drive.

A semiotic reading of the BBC televising of 4’33” readily evokes the spectre of mourning, of paying respect to the departed. As with the BBC televising of its numerous national traumas from the Princess Di funeral to the events commemorating the Falklands Invasion, the notion of ‘a minute’s silence’ is televisually entwined with the requisite montage of people’s faces, deep in contemplation, thick with impassive resolve. Coming in the midst of the new millennium decade of gratuitous humanism, the BBC’s 4’33” is exempt from being sodden with the sorrowful strains of Gorecki and Part et al. The humanism of the work’s contemporaneous placement evokes these sensations, because the original articulation of 4’33” in 1952 centred on the work’s philosophical and even cosmological parameters, inviting the listener to consider their immersion in the aural cosmos of being. As such, it side-stepped any denotation of the atomic age in which it was born. And not out of any ignorance of the times: that same year (1952) as the Yucca Flats test site became ground zero for a Cold War theatre of pyrotechnics, even Life magazine featured atomic issues so openly that it proposed many abstract/formalist artists reflected the atomic age through a type of ‘explosiveness’. Cage was always one to avoid bombast of any kind, so 4’33” can be read as situated in a dialogue with the atomic age of its production, suggesting a political subtext at least in its ongoing manifestation.

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Tinguely’s End Of The World and Cage’s 4’33” each address a mode of silencing through acts of decimation. Tinguely – interred behind a wall of switches at a safe distance from his detonations – conducts his sonic booms via a circuit of wind-up contraptions timed to explode on cue like the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (1880). Cage – interred within the channelling presence of a safely spot lit Foster – conducts his sonic booms by unwiring the circuitry of the symphonic machine, disabling it to make any sound. Tinguely’s booms are no more than manifest sound effects on its televisual soundtrack – no different from the aural artifice employed for cinema. Cage’s booms become latent sound symbols, represented by the audience coughs on its televisual soundtrack. Neither Tinguely nor Cage are in control of their sounds’ placement and denouement; each conducts and directs their occurrence as the means to critique the heroic; and each enjoy the heroics of their enterprise as befits their acknowledgement in the 2008 Biennale of Sydney. This essay is directly triggered by the unradicality of those televisual soundtracks: by their status as documentation of the absence of actual engagement as well as the stake in the presence of authorial artistic figures who are held as forefathers to the post-Conceptual realm of the present. Warhol radically declared “Art is short for Artist”. A more apt claim for an unradical present would be “Artist is long for Art”.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.