Saturday, November 5, 2016

Dynasty of Dissonance: Noise and 20th Century Art

Marcel Duchamp and John Cage playing chess at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto in 1968.

In the beginning, there was chess. It was a great year. Vintage. On Tuesday, March 5, 1968, I was standing outside of the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto on the sidewalk listening to an unearthly cacophony pouring from within its walls. Inside, two of the great modernist sages, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, were playing an exhibition match of chess on an amplified board before an audience of enraptured worshippers. It was both deafening and enlightening. Sound and vision were shaking hands.

I was seventeen years old and could not get a ticket to the sold-out event, indeed I was not alone on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, for many other puzzled onlookers were keeping me company. The only difference between us, I quickly surmised, was that I realized I was observing one of the seminal moments in our contemporary culture: the virtual triumph of dissonance within the arts. Though I was not therefore able to be an eyewitness to this incredible event, appreciative as I was of the consequences of its hidden meanings for our shared global culture, that acceptance allowed me to become something perhaps even more intriguing. I was an earwitness to history’s following announcement: anything goes now, so get used to it. After all, we had certainly had a long enough time to acclimatize ourselves to the remarkable presence of disharmony and radical discontinuity in all aspects of artistic pursuit, and not just in music, but in all avenues of creative expression. Yet the challenge remained, and perhaps still remains to this day. How able were we to adapt to the fact that modernism meant that the classical rules of proportion, harmony, even presumed beauty, were being assailed from every side. And this was not new. The urge to introduce noise into the arts really began, albeit in a piecemeal fashion, ages ago, but it did pick up quite a head of collective steam in the twentieth century.

Inside the concert hall at Ryerson, Duchamp was making his last public appearance, as both himself and as a chess master. Lowell Cross, a graduate student and research associate in the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Toronto, had designed a specially fabricated chessboard with photo-resistors capable of broadcasting a range of electronic sounds and oscilloscopic images on television screens visible to the audience. Entitled Reunion, this event was the opening salvo in a festival organized by composer Udo Kasemets called Soundsystems. This classic encounter between two saints of modernism was also a celebration of their shared aesthetic of indeterminacy, an attempt to obliterate their personalities from their works and to develop what Cage liked to call “purposeful purposelessness or purposeless play.” But when did dissonance as a serious form of artistic expression, originate in our culture, and what diffuse shapes did it assume as it slowly worked its way into the fabric of our civilizations? In other words, when did aesthetic noise, in the form of radical experiments in all cultural expressions from music to literature to fashion, triumph over the time-honored traditions of harmonious proportion? That was relatively recently.

Marcel Duchamp, in precisely the same manner as Cage, but in the realms of the visual, attempted to incorporate the reality of the environment, and especially its objects, into the matrix of his art-making process. Duchamp knew, as did latter-day dissonant composers such as that camouflaged modernist, “rock star” Frank Zappa, secretly one of America’s great serious classical musicians, that we need a little bit of bemusement with our discontinuity. “Dissonance,” Zappa once said, “…when it is unresolved, is like having a headache for life. So the most interesting music, as far as I’m concerned, is when dissonance is created, sustained for the proper amount of time, and then resolved…” So too did Duchamp temper his form of dissonance with a sly charm and sexy humour. Which is why an amplified chess match with John Cage performed live in a downtown Toronto academic hall seemed like just the right thing for him to do before dying six months later. There’s something both edgy and elegiac about the whole thing. This meeting of two of the great modernists of the twentieth century, titans whose own work in their respective mediums was a hymn to the aesthetics of chance and circumstance, was easy to interpret as the coronation of the pope of anarchy and the archbishop of noise. And those who were present knew exactly what the event meant: the extremity of modernity had transformed itself into a nearly classical canon; the empire of the edge was in full swing.

Marcel Duchamp’s last work, Etant Donnes, 1946-1966.

It was after all, suddenly the Sixties! The Sixties was the party we all threw to celebrate and conceal the triumph of modernism in the marketplace. The Sixties was the spectacle of the publicity campaign for the cultural seismic shift underway since about 1848. The actual ramifications of the change, however, were far below the seething streets and utopian parties and starting to accumulate in the galleries, museums and private collections of the art world. The art that is left over is like residue from that cultural party, and it gives us the most accurate glimpse into what the whole party was about: the liberation of the libido, and the official permission to make aesthetic noise, in whatever formal art form you chose, from poetry to drama, painting to dance, music to architecture.

What both Duchamp and Cage offered to the generations of artists after them was their special permission to utilize chance, accident, and especially humour, in ways that had never before been imagined, and in a disarmingly diverse manner that seemed to tweak the nose of The Academy.
Modern society, and its embrace of dissonance, had emerged in a single revolutionary arena: the West. And it represented a systematic reversal of the values by which people in traditional societies have always lived. The art of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, along with the second, third and fourth generation conceptual artists whom they both inspired, is a veritable and virtual map of the emotional and cultural territories provoked by modernism’s precious fuel: dissonance. This is the ability of any given medium of expression to literally take itself apart by systematically investing creative energy in the examination of formal questions best explored through inverting the entire classical enterprise of harmony and proportion.

George Braque, The Portuguese, 1911.

Well-known art historian Suzie Gablik encapsulates this transformation in the following manner: “The emergence of modern art and culture during the early decades of the 20th century resulted from the coalescence of certain component ideas that form the basic structure of modern society: secularism, individualism, pluralism. These variables have formed the core of modernity.” The overarching principle of modernism is autonomy, its touchstone is individual freedom and not social authority, and that is the main reason why the private exploration of dissonance became such a public enterprise in the 20th century. It is a pivotal insight most poetically summed up by the modernist poet Yeats when he opined that “the centre cannot hold.”The consequences of which is the disruption and eventual removal of the former classical “centre” all together. The useful phrase “anxious object” was first coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg to describe the kind of modern art that makes us uneasy because of our uncertainty as to whether or not we are in the presence of a genuine work of art.

Primarily, the dynasty of dissonance has enshrined one of the most important creative aspects for most artists, the basic fact that they are indeed slaves to risk, and has made of it the sacrosanct impulse for all artists. The greater the risk, aesthetically, conceptually, even psychologically, the greater the reward waiting for those artists who can compete in this new arena of meaning. An anxious object then, according to this formula, is instantly recognizable by its subversive tendencies, and as such it can be examined in absolutely every formal medium of expression, from music and visual art to literature, theatre, film, architecture, science and even fashion. After all, W.H. Auden didn’t refer to the last century as The Age of Anxiety for nothing: it was the age when literally every single form of personal creative expression underwent a fundamental sea change and began to inspect itself from the inside out, altering forever what the accepted purpose and social function of any art might be.

Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1951.

After the inspection phase comes the crucial phase of deconstruction, the peak period in any art form when its basic meaning is turned upside down, and all its component creative parts are laid bare for all of us to plainly see, or hear. Naturally enough, given this agenda, we must also ask ourselves at some point the question for which Gablik is best known: has modernism, and the dissonance on which it is founded, succeeded or failed? But before we can approach such a question, we first need to establish a firm footing on the shaky ground of the modern and dissonant, attempting to at least understand where they came from into our lives, and how they have altered our perceptions forever.

The painter Paul Gauguin once remarked that there were only two kinds of artists in the world, revolutionaries and plagiarists. Well, yes, there are of course two kinds of people in the world: those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t. It stands to reason that the artists being explored here are of the revolutionary sort, since theirs is obviously the work that predicts, reflects and heralds major changes in the civilization’s world view. As Leonard Shlain has pointed out so astutely in his “Art and Physics,” repeatedly throughout history the artist introduces icons and symbols that in retrospect prove to have been avant-garde for the thought patterns of an age not yet born. This is the dynamic at work which critic Robert Hughes called the “avant-garde myth,” the notion that the artist is a precursor and that the truly significant work of art is the one which prepares the future. The transitional, and traditional, notion of culture, on the other hand, tends to present the living artist as the culmination of the past.

We definitely need to look at the “avant-garde”, and modernism in general, as well as the embrace of accident, chance, disorder, noise, discontinuity, and in some cases even apparent “ugliness,” from a retrospective point of view. Especially now that the 20th century, the dynasty of dissonance, has ended and we have all inherited the raw riches of its passage. Whether we want them or not. But no matter how far we move away from that century, it will always be a special one, a period during which we all collectively, whether we liked it or not, whether we even knew it or not, were captivated and entranced by what I like to call art of the recent future: art, that is, which is so radically new that it remains permanently futuristic. How and when did all this disconcerting shift in values begin? From around 1880 to the outbreak of World War I, a series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing both time and space. Technological developments and innovations such as the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile and airplane established the material foundation for this re-orientation. Independent cultural developments such as the stream-of-consciousness novel, psychoanalysis, Cubism and the theory of relativity appeared to shape consciousness itself directly.

The result was a transformation of virtually all the dimensions of life and thought. In a very real way, this article is about the manner in which Europe and America, and finally the entire world, began to conceive of and experience time and space, and of course, all the art forms which exist within their grasp, in a brand-new way. This is far from being a justification for or rationalization of the dissonant in the arts, and is rather a straightforward attempt to help explain it and them, as well as to clarify that we are all living now in a global theatre largely created from the modernist assault on classical harmony, whether we like it or not. Learning how to like it and how to learn from it, however, is also one of the key sub-texts here, or else there would be no purpose in trying to explain it in the first place. Curiously enough, the 20th-century age of anxiety which is under study was also one that contained an energy crisis, but it was an energy crisis of a different order from the one we currently encounter. For theirs (and ours) was a crisis of abundance, other-worldly and nearly opulent abundance, providing the crucial groundwork from which a re-evaluation of all values needed to be launched. Ironically, we had to have everything we needed before we could question the values attached to what we had learned to live with and work for. That questioning process may proceed for quite a long while into the near future, if only as an attempt to fully comprehend if and where we went wrong in our choices.

Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky.

The generally accepted notion promoted by the avant-garde mythology is roughly that whenever the current state of art is perceived as either decadent, expired, or entropic, then a new avant-garde is destined to arise. From their ashes, as it were. Therefore, since the turn of the last century, most art forms (whether they are popular or the so-called high-cultural forms) have vastly expanded their material and scope. Totally abstract or non-objective painting and sculpture, unheard of in 1900, is practiced by many major artists of today, as are non-programmatic music, dance and theater. Composers tend to discard traditional Western scales and harmonies, and atonal music is relatively common, the most camouflaged version of which is the rock music that evolved in the late 1950’s and mid-1960’s, and which since then has assumed a permanent position in the cultural landscape. Poetry has abandoned rhyme, meter and syntax. The centre cannot hold. The how and why of this happening, as a reinvention of the very foundations of what art is and does, is almost as compelling as the who, when and where.

One of our greatest historians of the modern impulse and its attachment to dissonance, to what I have termed aesthetic noise, Richard Kostelanetz, summed it up perfectly a few years ago: one reason why avant-garde works should be initially hard to comprehend is not that they are intrinsically inscrutable or hermetic but that they defy, or challenge as they defy, the perceptual procedures of artistically educated people. They forbid easy access or easy acceptance, as an audience perceives them as inexplicably different, if not forbiddingly revolutionary. In order to begin to comprehend them, people must work and think in unfamiliar ways. Nevertheless, if an audience learns to accept innovative work, it will stretch their perceptual capabilities, affording them kinds of aesthetic experiences previously unknown to them. We need to explore the foundations of modernism’s most important concept: discontinuity. Especially in light of the era after modernism, in which we are supposedly living. But you see, there is nothing after modernism; there is only late and later modernism.

One thing is certain: the paradox of discontinuity is that even it occurs in a manner which strikes us as being synchronistic. For example, the following unrelated but integrally influential facts: in the year that the famous French post-impressionist Georges Seurat died, 1891, early-modernist pioneer Henri Matisse switched careers and began to study painting, and Thomas Edison patented the kinetograph movie camera, the pertinence of which lies in its triumphant foregrounding of discontinuity: sixteen photographic images a second, later to be twenty-four frames, interpreted by the eye as movement. Noise interrupts visual art. Dissonance invades literatures as well. Kenner has observed, “Discontinuity was coming to reign in every department of human activity.” By 1905, the “quantum of light” was preoccupying Albert Einstein, who declared a scintillating connection among matter, energy, time and consciousness. The individual relative and subjective mind was king. Or so the art and music, literature and poetry, culture and design of the dynasty of dissonance appear to boldly declare. Picasso led to Duchamp, Duchamp led to Pollock and Pollock led to Warhol, not directly but by a circuitous circumnavigation of dissonance.

It would not be until roughly 1964, with the ascendency of Andy Warhol and others, followed rapidly by the purveyors of both conceptual and minimalist art, that something even stranger called postmodernism would overtake the global culture. It lingers with us today. It has not replaced modernism but has matured it, strengthened it like a balsamic reduction. But that is another story, for another day.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the forthcoming book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016) available in November. In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008.

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