The Aesthetics of Silence (Sontag)

Excerpts from "The Aesthetics of Silence", in "Styles of Radical Will", 1994 (coincidentally this year was the apex of CCC, when more films really started to take off). Read the whole text at UbuWeb. Titles added are mine.

The newer myth, derived from a post-psychological conception of consciousness, installs within the activity of art many of the paradoxes involved in attaining an absolute state of being described by the great religious mystics. As the activity of the mystic must end in a via negative, a theology of God's absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the "subject" (the "object," the "image"), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence. [..]
Practiced in a world furnished with second-hand perceptions, and specifically confounded by the treachery of words, the activity of the artist is cursed with mediacy. Art becomes the enemy of the artist, for it denies him the realization, the transcendence, he desires.

Though no longer a confession, art is more than ever a deliverance, an exercise in asceticism. Through it, the artist becomes purified — of himself and, eventually, of his art, The artist (if not art itself) is still engaged in a progress toward "the good." But formerly, the artist's good was mastery of and fulfillment in his art. Now it's suggested that the highest good for the artist is to reach that point where those goals of excellence become insignificant to him, emotionally and ethically, and he is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a voice in art. Silence in this sense, as termination, proposes a mood of ultimacy antithetical to the mood informing the self-conscious artist's traditional serious use of silence: as a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal which ends in gaining the right to speak. (Cf. Valery, Rilke)

POSITIVITY OF A NEGATIVE (related : Negative wording in CCC reviews)
Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist's inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence. The sensory or conceptual gap between the artist and his audience, the space of the missing or ruptured dialogue, can also constitute the grounds for an ascetic affirmation. Samuel Beckett speaks of "my dream of an art unresentful of its insuperable indigence and too proud for the farce of giving and receiving." But there is no abolishing a minimal transaction, a minimal exchange of gifts, just as there is no talented and rigorous asceticism that doesn't produce a gain (rather than a loss) in the capacity for pleasure.
And none of the aggressions committed intentionally or inadvertently by modern artists have succeeded in either abolishing the audience or transforming it into something else. (A community engaged in a common activity?) They cannot. As long as art is understood and valued as an "absolute" activity, it will be a separate, elitist one. Elites presuppose masses. So far as the best art defines itself by essentially "priestly" aims, it presupposes and confirms the existence of a relatively passive, never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity which is regularly convoked to watch, listen, read, or hear — and then sent away.


The systematic violation of older formal conventions practiced by modern artists gives their work a certain aura of the unspeakable — for instance, as the audience uneasily senses the negative presence of what else could be, but isn't being, said; and as any "statement" made in an aggressively new or difficult form tends to seem equivocal or merely vacant. But these features of ineffability must not be acknowledged at the expense of one's awareness of the positivity of the work of art. Contemporary art, no matter how much it's defined itself by a taste for negation, can still be analyzed as a set of assertions, of a formal kind.

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.

[..] 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. [..]

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.

POSITIVE SILENCE (related : Negative wording in CCC reviews)
In my opinion, the myths of silence and emptiness are about as nourishing and viable as one could hope to see devised in an "unwholesome" time — which is, of necessity, a time in which "unwholesome" psychic states furnish the energies for most superior work in the arts today. At the same time, one can't deny the pathos of these myths.
This pathos arises from the fact that the idea of silence allows, essentially, only two types of valuable development. Either it is taken to the point of utter self-negation (as art) or else practiced in a form that is heroically, ingeniously inconsistent.

Since the artist can't embrace silence literally and remain an artist, what the rhetoric of silence indicates is a determination to pursue his activity more deviously than ever before. One way is indicated by Breton's notion of the "full margin." The artist is enjoined to devote himself to filling up the periphery of the art-space, leaving the central area of usage blank. Art becomes privative, anemic — as suggested by the title of Duchamp's only effort at film making, "Anemic Cinema," a work from the period 1924-26. [..] But these programs for art's impoverishment must not be understood simply as terroristic admonitions to audiences, but as strategies for improving the audience's experience. The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc. — specifically, either for having a more immediate, sensuous experience of art or for confronting the art work in a more conscious, conceptual way.

Perhaps the quality of the attention we bring to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted) the less we are offered. Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with its inevitable distortions of experience. Ideally, one should be able to pay attention to everything.

Language seems a privileged metaphor for expressing the mediated character of art-making and the art-work. On the one hand, speech is both an immaterial medium (compared with, say, images) and a human activity with an apparently essential stake in the project of transcendence, of moving beyond the singular and contingent (all words being abstractions, only roughly based on or making reference to concrete particulars). But, on the other hand, language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made.

Consider the difference between "looking" and "staring." A look is (at least, in part) voluntary; it is also mobile, rising and falling in intensity as its foci of interest are taken up and then exhausted. A stare has, essentially, the character of a compulsion; it is steady, unmodulated, "fixed."
Traditional art invites a look. Art that's silent engenders a stare. In silent art, there is (at least in principle) no release from attention, because there has never, in principle, been any soliciting of it. A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get.

CONTEMPLATION (related: What is Contemplating Cinema?)
Silence is a metaphor for a cleansed, noninterfering vision, in which one might envisage the making of art-works that are unresponsive before being seen, unviolable in their essential integrity by human scrutiny. The spectator would approach art as he does a landscape. A landscape doesn't demand from the spectator his "understanding," his imputations of significance, his anxieties and sympathies; it demands, rather, his absence, that he not add anything to it. Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject.
It is to such an ideal plenitude to which the audience can add nothing, analogous to the aesthetic relation to "nature," that a great deal of contemporary art aspires — through. various strategies of blandness, of reduction, of deindividuation, of alogicality. In principle, the audience may not even add its thought. All objects, so conceived, are truly full. [..]
Plenitude — experiencing all the space as filled, so that ideas cannot enter — means impenetrability, opaqueness. For a person to become silent is to become opaque for the other; somebody's silence opens up an array of possibilities for interpreting that silence, for imputing speech to it.

Behind the appeals for silence lies the wish for a perceptual and cultural clean slate. And, in its most hortatory and ambitious version, the advocacy of silence expresses a mythic project of total liberation. What's envisaged is nothing less than the liberation of the artist from himself, of art from the particular art work, of art from history, of spirit from matter, of the mind from its perceptual and intellectual limitations.

A good deal of contemporary art is moved by this quest for a consciousness purified of contaminated language and, in some versions, of the distortions produced by conceiving the world exclusively in conventional verbal (in their debased sense, "rational" or "logical") terms. Art itself becomes a kind of counter-violence, seeking to loosen the grip upon consciousness of the habits of lifeless, static verbalization, presenting models of "sensual speech."
[..] It's not just that words, ultimately, won't do for the highest aims of consciousness; or even that they get in the way. Art expresses a double discontent. We lack words, and we have too many of them. It reflects a double complaint. Words are crude, and they're also too busy — inviting a hyperactivity of consciousness which is not only dysfunctional, in terms of human capacities of feeling and acting, but which actively deadens the mind and blunts the senses.

The function of art isn't to promote any specific experience, except the state of being open to the multiplicity of experience, which ends in practice by a decided stress on things usually considered trivial or unimportant.

Such art could also be described as establishing great "distance" (between spectator and art object, between the spectator and his emotions). But, psychologically, distance often is involved with the most intense state of feeling, in which the distance or coolness or impersonality with which something is treated measures the insatiable interest that thing has for us. The distance that a great deal of "anti-humanist" art proposes is actually equivalent to obsession — an aspect of the involvement in "things" of which the "humanist" nominalism of Rilke has no intimation.

This tenacious concept of art as "expression" is what gives rise to one common, but dubious, version of the notion of silence, which invokes the idea of "the ineffable." The theory supposes that the province of art is "the beautiful," which implies effects of unspeakableness, indescribability, ineffability.