Art: It’s about whatever you can get away with

Some conceptual art defies description

Modern Art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves that they have a better idea.

— John Ciardi

 Call me a Philistine, but I believe Mister Ciardi had a point. Too bad the American poet died about 25 years ago — he could have stuck around and died laughing at the antics of the contemporary British artist Agnieszka Kurant. 

Near as I can tell, Ms. Kurant doesn’t pay the rent by selling paintings from her studio or through a gallery; she does it by submitting ‘conceptual pieces’ to organizations like The Arts Council of England. By ‘conceptual’ I mean Ms. Kurant makes a living selling works of art that do not physically exist. 

Recently Ms. Kurant approached Arts Council England with her most recent work.

A blank canvas.

Not just a blank canvas. Stapled to the canvas was a ‘notice of intention’ from Ms. Kurant indicating that she “plans to paint something on it in the future.”

This a school of artistic philosophy Ms. Kurant is exploring — call it the ‘less is more, nothing is everything’ school. Her sales pitch also offered a ‘sculpture’ that has not actually been sculpted and a movie she had produced, directed, performed in and filmed. We’d have to take her word on that too — because she deliberately shot it with no film in her camera.

Lame? You betcha — but it worked. Arts Council England ponied up the equivalent of $2,300.

Not only is Ms Kurant’s work lame, it’s not even original.  

The American composer John Cage beat her out by more than half a century with his seminal musical composition called Four, thirty-three.

It is a three-movement piece composed by Cage back in 1952.  He insisted it was suitable for any instrument or combination of instruments. Its execution is always exactly, precisely the same: the first movement lasts 30 seconds, the second movement is two minutes, twenty-three seconds; the final movement, one minute and forty seconds.

The result? Cage’s masterpiece, aka 4’33” (do the math).  Four minutes and thirty-three seconds. 

Of silence. Or rather, not silence, but random noises — a truck horn, someone coughing, a fly buzzing, the rustle of the musical score as the performer slides through the movements — whatever noise happens while Cage’s composition is (not) being played.

For that was Cage’s point (as much as he had a point) — that true art should be free from the influence of composer and performer, consisting entirely of what the audience experiences.

Which is pretty much the mirror opposite of what most people think of as art. You don’t listen to a recording of Pablo Casals to hear traffic noises, go to an art gallery to see blank walls or attend a ballet to stare at an empty stage.

Or am I wrong? Is ‘art’, as we know it dead? In 2004, Cage’s Four, thirty-three was voted 40th place in ABC radio’s Classic 100 all time great piano pieces.   Think about that: four minutes and change of random noise was judged to be superior to works by Beethoven, Bach and Brahms.

Or is it all a shuck, a hustle?  

“Art,” John Cage once said, “is anything you can get away with.” 

The pop musician Frank Zappa had a more thoughtful take. 

“The most important thing in art,” opined Zappa, “is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively — because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a ‘box’ around it because otherwise, what is that s—t on the wall?”

Good point, Frank. 

Good question, too.