How Can We Perceive Sound as Art?
It is directly related to sound recording, that is, to the transcription of tones, Klänge, and noises that was made possible by the invention of the phonograph, and which – as Douglas Kahn has shown – is what first turned them into a unified field of audible phenomena. Any attempt to establish a hierarchy among them that would privilege the human voice or pleasant instruments and thus ultimately music as a whole loses all validity in the presence of the recording device. Everything that rings, jingles, hisses, crashes or creaks can be recorded. Animal and natural sounds no less than street and machine noise, karaoke and symphony orchestras. Thus the phonographic reproduction medium has become the actual production medium of modernity. It has turned everyday sounds into a provocation for music and art, and conversely – in the case of John Cage – it has also brought music without sound into the realm of the conceivable. This has not only given rise to a reflexive and conceptual type of composing; it has also brought us closer than ever before to conceiving of music as we do objects in a museum – as the embodiment of a substantial conception of art.
The crucial question is: What is the significance of these now transformed auditory and visual cultures and the media that helped to transform them for our understanding of art? The answer to this question will determine how we experience sound in the museum, and what we actually experience when we do so.
According to one common answer, we are witnessing the end of traditional art and the establishment of a new media art. If that were the case, however, we would experience the more or less successful creative use of ‘new media’ as art. This view sees the transformation in question as taking place entirely within the realm of cultural and technological innovation, not within art, since art is not at issue. The imperative on which this argument is based – that ‘art’ must concern itself with the latest technological and media developments – underestimates the special historical conditions that are operative in this area: art is precisely no longer directly implicated or affected by these developments. It also ignores the specific aesthetic methods that have developed under these conditions. Provided these two differences are recognized – that art is not a direct participant in technological and medial modernity, and that its methods do not purely lie in the shaping or fashioning dimension of given tasks, apparatus or media – the above imperative doesn’t seem to me to be entirely false. It goes without saying that for art’s working methods, new technologies and media formats are important new realities with which to engage. However, special attention must be given to how, specifically, those new realities interact with the modern conditions of art before the special challenge that technologies and media constitute for art can be addressed.
A second answer sees popular culture as the specifically contemporary form of art (as Erwin Panofsky did with film when he compared it to the cathedrals of the Middle Ages) or additionally the sciences – as when present-day software
programs or aspects of the neurosciences and biotechnology are described as what ‘really’ constitutes art today. This response represents a generalized rejection of the distinction between culture and art, which is central to modernity, and thus indirectly of modern art itself, since it draws the criteria for the new from the old, that is, from a premodern conception of art that can actually be found in popular culture and the sciences. At the same time, it also excludes all of the categories that make it possible to speak about art in the modern sense – the categories of autonomy, the artwork, authorship and experience, Thus it is no wonder that such arguments are lacking in even the most basic attempt to formulate specific aesthetic criteria. Arguments like these are not only unhistorical in the extreme: they also overlook their own dependence on the very conception of art they purport to transgress or overcome. After all, it is a hallmark of precisely that conception of art that, in the contest to define its true, intrinsic nature, it frequently imagines itself as extsting beyond its own borders.
A third answer might be seen in the view of the avant-garde that has become increasingly widespread since the 1930s. According to this conception, the avant- garde saw itself as a ‘project’ directed both against the ‘kitsch’ of popular culture as well as against traditional art. In this conception, the specifically artistic is taken extremely seriously, so seriously that it is credited with the ability to provide immunity against the media and popular culture. However, this position is only to be had by pushing the theory of alienation to an extreme in which the whole of modern culture is denounced as scandalous, while ‘art’ is touted as the instrument of its redemption.
All three of these arguments, in my view, fail to capture the specific factors that actually make the phenomenon of sound as art interesting. In all of them, the elements of the medial, the cultural and the artistic are played off against each other – instead of being placed in relation. Sound, however, it seems to me, can only be grasped as an exemplary category of mediation. As a notion that encompasses all things audible, it mediates between music and noise and hence, in the traditional sense, between art and everyday life. This notion of the audible in turn has medial preconditions, so that sound has always moved within the tension between technological media and the modern culture based on them. This compound and internally complex phenomenon – the sonic culture of modernity – was already recognized early on as a fertile subject for a non- traditional or avant-gardist conception of art, from the direct incorporation of noise by the Futurists and Productivists all the way to the reflexive uses of sound in contemporary art. The shift that separates today’s positions from the avant- gardist approach and its heroic embrace of din consists above all in the fact that in the interim, the immediate experience of hearing has increasingly been replaced by the code of the museum. Instead of true ‘concrete hearing’ to do here too with a mediation, in this case between the various aspects of the sonic material and the fact that that material is exhibited in a museum, in other words, its exhibition value [Ausstellungswert].
Thus the question of what we can actually hear implies assumptions about the relationship between concrete hearing and contextual or reflexive perception. If we regard the codes of sound and museum as a kind of background system of metaphors that primarily concerns the semantic dimensions of the institutional or discursive setting, then they cannot be ideas or myths; they cannot be something detachable from experience itself that could thus be rejected, overcome or ‘sublated’ [aufgehoben] in the Hegelian sense. On the contrary, this system of metaphors reaches into experience and is impiicated even in its ‘immediacy’. From this perspective, the immediacy of hearing is actually the outcome of a complex process of mediation between music and noise, medium and culture, culture and the conception of art. For this same reason, it would also be completely mistaken to regard sound as noise in Jacques Attali’s sense, that is, as pure rustling and as a fundamental interruption of the code of social exploitation. On the contrary, even noise can only be grasped as the code of a sound that in turn is dependent on a medium and a context in order to communicate itself. What is interesting, however, about the established view of noise is that it is associated with the notion of interruption and hence with a political dimension of sound, even if in my view that polltical dimension is mistakenly identified with a realm beyond mediation.
Thus the questions raised by sound in the museum are also of relevance to the social dimension of sound. Not merely in the sense of a museumification of pop cultural and media formats as new forms of the utilization of bourgeois representation, but also with respect to the criteria according to which sound can be aesthetically and politically evaluated at all. For what is at stake here is uitimately nothing less than how exactly the concrete experiences of hearing and perceiving interact with the cultural codes that structure and presuppose them but which those experiences can also call into question time and again. It is precisely the room between medium and code, sound and museum, that matters from a practical perspective and in terms of the process of reception.It must be possible to distinguish the codes and the media of sound both from each other as well as from the code of the museum and the medium of the exhibition. The social, aesthetic and technical aspects of mediality must be differentiated, and the cultural and institutional aspects of the code must be reflected. For unlike music, sound possesses no internal Materialstand, or historical state of the material – it does not develop. It can only be placed in concrete situations again and again, each time afresh, and addressed in such a way that visual and acoustic, aesthetic and institutional space can be distinguished and then, in this
distinctness, related again. Thus, the history of the relations between music and the visual arts since John Cage cannot be read as one of fusion in the sense of the total artwork, nor in terms of synaesthetic phantasmagoria, but rather as the history of a shift in the direction of the fields of sound and museality. The individual practices position themselves within these fields through links and borrowings: they are no longer music or paintlng but art in general, refracted through medium and code. It is equally possible for the medium of sound to be called into question by the code of exhibition value or for the code of sound to be placed in question by the medium of the exhibition.
In historical terms. Fluxus was surely the first movement to situate itself within these fields, even if its tendency to conceive of itself as a flowing intermediality does not entirely capture the main point. Even what flows needs poles between which to move. These poles no longer represent the old spatial and temporal artforms of painting/sculpture and music, but rather the media and institutions of modern culture. In retrospect, what calls out for explanation is no longer the gesture of border-crossing or transgression, that is, what made sound, as a processual phenomenon, of interest to the static arts, but rather what sound could possibly want from art. One answer may be that ‘art’ is so institutionalized that it is easier to address the mediated character of sound in its name than it is in other contexts. Thus, sound as art can speak at once from the vantage point of the medium as well as from that of the institution: as a result, it is able to thematize the tensions in their relationship with each other.
Helmut Draxler, extract from ‘How Can We Perceive Sound as Art? The Medium and Code of the Audible in Museum Environments’, in See This Sound (Linz: Kunstmuseum/Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2009) 28–31 [footnotes not included].
How Can We Perceive Sound as Art?//2009