The Aesthetics of Silence

10Apr16

by susan sontag

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. This is what Cage must mean when, right after explaining that there is no such thing as silence because something is always happening that makes a sound, he says “No one can have an idea once he starts really listening.”

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.

The ways in which this opaqueness induces anxiety, spiritual vertigo, is the theme of Bergman’s Persona. The theme is reinforced by the two principal attributions one is invited to make of the actress’ deliberate silence. Considered as a decision relating to herself, it is apparently the way she has chosen to give form to the wish for ethical purity; but it is also, as behavior, a means of power, a species of sadism, a virtually inviolable position of strength from which to manipulate and confound her nurse-companion, who is charged with the burden of talking.

But it’s possible to conceive of the opaqueness of silence more positively, free from anxiety. For Keats, the silence of the Grecian urn is a locus for spiritual nourishment: “unheard” melodies endure, whereas those that pipe to “the sensual ear” decay. Silence is equated with arresting time (“slow time”). One can stare endlessly at the Grecian urn. Eternity, in the argument of Keats’ poem, is the only interesting stimulus to thought and also presents us with the sole occasion for coming to the end of mental activity, which means endless, unanswered questions (“Thou, silent form, cost tease us out of thought/As cloth eternity”), so that one can arrive at a final equation of ideas (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) which is both absolutely vacuous and completely full. Keats’ poem quite logically ends in a statement that will seem, if one hasn’t followed his argument, like empty wisdom, like banality. Time, or history, becomes the medium of definite, determinate thought. The silence of eternity prepares for a thought beyond thought, which must appear from the perspective of traditional thinking and the familiar uses of the mind as no thought at all — though it may rather be an emblem of new, “difficult” thinking.

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.

What a few people know now is that there are ways of thinking that we don’t yet know about. Nothing could be more important or precious than that knowledge, however unborn. The sense of urgency, the spiritual restlessness it engenders cannot be appeased. Surely, it’s some of that energy which has spilled over into the radical art of this century. Through its advocacy of silence, reduction, etc., art commits an act of violence upon itself, turning art into a species of auto-manipulation, of conjuring — trying to help bring these new ways of thinking to birth.

Silence is a strategy for the transvaluation of art, art itself being the herald of an anticipated radical transvaluation of human values. But the success of this strategy must mean its eventual abandonment, or at least its significant modification.

Silence is a prophecy, one which the artist’s actions can be understood as attempting to fulfill and to reverse.

As language always points to its own transcendence in silence, silence always points to its own transcendence — to a speech beyond silence.

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