“I knew nihilism, and my friend, you’re no nihilist.”
In my art History class we just finished the 20th century. My students’ lives barely skimmed the top of that century, while I lived completely immersed in half of it. I remember the horror of the photos from the Pacific war in books my father brought home. I remember the sound of the sirens in a film about the quiet hiding annex of Anne Frank’s family. True, I only experienced these from the safety of distance, but the horror entered my soul and has never left. The image linked here (at the MOMA in NYC) is typical of the art that emerged out of Europe after that time. On this side of the ocean, the work was much more confident, though the thinkers were not. I grew up on this side of the pond, pondering Abstract Expressionism, and Matisse’s effort at order with his cutouts. I looked and then lost interest in Warhol’s reproductions, his 15 minutes of fame. It’s been said that Warhol killed art, and philosophically that case can be made. If a pianist can go on stage, dressed for performance, sit down and then 4’33” later, no finger on the keys, stand and walk away, we are done. We might as well go home. But wait. . .where is home now, maybe that no longer exists as well?
That silence (the pianist would later need to explain) was the real piece. The awaited anticipation of the unsuspecting audience, filled with nervous coughs was the real work, he would tell us. The duration was the real ‘music’ and it was indeterminate. We just needed to take his word for it.
“When I hear what we call music”, John Cage (the pianist) later explained, “it seems to me that someone is talking”. . . “I don’t need sound to talk to me”. . . “it doesn’t have to mean anything”
He spent many meaningful words trying convince us of this.
But the immense problem is that we do not want to live this way, indeterminably. After the high brow concert we still want to go home. It was nice for a time, that silence; souls do love quiet. But quiet is only satisfying in a world where things will eventually make some sense. If indeterminate quiet is all we really have, we are completely un-done.
We raise our kids, and plan our days trusting that certain things will emerge, that important things do have meaning. Cage informed us otherwise, then needed to elaborate. He had to explain because we rubes need meaning. He looked down his nose at us, even as he had to add some kind of sense to his idea. Now we are all looking beyond him.
And artists are still making work after Wahol. If all is meaningless, then why make work? Marcel Duchamp admitted this, spending the rest of his life after rocking the art establishment, by just turning his back on it all and playing chess.
The nihilists are vacant, being challenged by some great work going on now with integrity and intelligence. There is also a lot of meaningless work. One of my students has decided that the work he wants to do “needs to have meaning”.