Any artist today has heard the claim: There are no rules in art anymore. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp premiered Bicycle Wheel, now known as his first “readymade” sculpture. The readymades were existing objects (often commonplace items, like bicycle wheels and urinals) that the artist signed, thereby making them “art.” The American composer John Cage followed in a similar vein with his piece 4’33” (1952), a solo piano piece where the pianist plays not a single note. Instead, the audience hears the sounds of the concert hall: people coughing, the creaks of the heating vents, nervous shuffling in the audience. These two events mark the artistic revolution that occurred in the twentieth century. If a completely “silent” piece (an appraisal that Cage refuted, as there was sound involved) is music, then anything can be music. If a signed urinal can be art, then anything can be art. Needless to say, Duchamp and Cage were not the only artists engaging in this type of practice: there were also the White Paintings of Rauschenberg, the text pieces of Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros, and the “noise” symphonies of Luigi Russolo, among others. However, these pieces often act as flash points when discussing the upending of the artistic establishment in the twentieth century. This shift abolished the relevance of any established “rules” in music and art—one need not be concerned with eighteenth-century counterpoint or figure drawing if they do not feel so obliged. However, this deconstruction has left us with a climate of uncertainty and passiveness: If anything can be art, how do we judge the quality of our work and the work of others?
One response to this problem has been to treat the arts, specifically music, as a type of science. The New Complexity movement in acoustic composition and the Acousmatic genre of electronic music both advocate for a sort of musical objectivity. In these genres, composers may manipulate series of notes representing the atomic density of various gasses, produce pieces structured by mathematical functions, and trigger sounds at the tempo of a certain country’s birth rate. Every musical decision must be supported by something factual and leave little room for any type of subjective critique: It doesn’t matter that the piece doesn’t sound interesting—here are all of my mathematical calculations that back up its validity, the composer would respond. In electronic music, the technology used to produce the musical object often supersedes the object itself. In fact, the piece tends to act almost solely as a “proof of concept,” or a demonstration of the capabilities of the technology; think of a trade show, where the salesperson shows you all the sounds you can make by pressing different buttons on a device. One can quickly see that this type of rigor does nothing to further the creation of quality work. Art is not a science: One cannot force objectivity onto something inherently subjective. Rather, art should be treated as its own distinct field with a unique system of rigor reflecting this subjective nature.
Another response to the problem of rigor in art is to act as if it is impossible to produce poor quality work. If everything is art, then there can be no bad art. This, again, is a weak solution. Under these constraints, artists find themselves becoming lazy and apathetic: If there is no way to do art badly, why put in the effort to make it good?
None of this is to say that the events of the twentieth century have doomed contemporary artists to obsolescence. Rather, they have freed us from various rules based in systemic oppression. Most “classical music” rules are based on the practices of white, European men, and are often used to invalidate the works of composers not fitting these specifications. Ridding the music world of these constraints benefits marginalized artists and forces diversification in the art world. Now, without institutional rules dictating what constitutes “good art,” we can create systems of quality that reflect us, our positionalities, and our metrics of quality.
What would a new system of rigor look like? It certainly must rely on self-determined metrics of quality—our art should reflect what we believe quality art to be—rather than universally defined ones. Here, Cage can provide us with a basic framework on which to build. He defines music as consisting of four components: structure, method, material, and form. These components are defined as follows:
Structure: the division of music into parts, from phrases to long sections
Method: the movement from note to note
Material: sound or silence
Form: the continuity from start to finish
Cage’s definitions reside in the music sphere, but they can be abstracted easily and applied to other art forms. In writing, structure can be viewed as the division of text into sentences and paragraphs, method as the syntax of the sentence, material as the words and punctuation, and form as the narrative arc. Likewise, in visual art, structure can be the groupings of figures; method, the connection between these; material, pigment or negative space; and form, the overall layout of the piece.
Cage places these components on a spectrum between mind (head) and heart, and it is this spectrum that provides the foundation for a newly defined rigorous art.
Any creation of art consists of a series of decisions: What note should be played by which instrument and when? How loud should it be? Where should the artist place a line on a canvas? How long and bold should it be, and what color? Which words should a sentence contain? Which synonym should be used to best communicate the author’s intent? Each of these decisions tend to originate from either an analytical (head-based) place, or an intuitive (heart-based) one. Art requires both technical proficiency of some sort (can you program the computer to make the sound you want?) and creative proficiency (do you like how your music sounds?). Thus, each compositional decision must satisfy both these requirements—if a decision stems from the head, does it please the heart? If the decision is intuitive, does it make sense within the analytic structure of the piece? This is our system of rigor: Each decision must be considered and judged as to its quality from both an analytic and intuitive perspective.
While such a system of rigor may prove more viable than the existing ones, its execution can be exhausting. Constantly checking and double-checking your work can lead to a place of artistic paralysis: What if one small decision isn’t good enough? This is where play enters the process. Art is an inherently human act, a fact that the artist cannot forget. Cage captures this sentiment when he defines the purpose of music: “Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the gatherer-together of the disparate elements (Meister Eckhart), and its work fills one with peace and love” (Cage, Forerunners of Modern Music).
This concept is exemplified best by the works of Yoko Ono. Her text pieces, such as the one found in Grapefruit (below), prompt performers to reorient their mindsets and play with the material presented by their surroundings.
It is critical to play with your material, to fuss with it and tease out delightful deviations and mutations. Remembering this aspect isn’t only for the artist’s health; joy has a strange way of manifesting in your work, and its absence is perceptible.
However, the mind cannot simultaneously exist in a state of rigor and a state of play. It is hard to both edit and write at the same time. As artists in an academic environment, we often feel pressure to perform our practices in line with institutional and class requirements. Yet in order to produce effective work, we must remember to keep our own definitions of quality in mind and resist the urge to academicize our output instead of playing with our material. We must exist in a constant state of flux, oscillating between reckless experimentation and elegant, level-headed analysis. It is only then that we can capture those intangible subconscious whispers and force them into exquisite earthly manifestations.