Fifty years ago, The Aesthetics of Silence was published in the multimedia magazine Aspen. In her essay, the writer, teacher, and political activist Susan Sontag examined the myths of silence and emptiness, questioning their creative and generative role. She wrote about a new myth in art: that of art as an antidote to consciousness itself. This, she explains, leads to a tendency towards ‘anti-art’, characterised by works with no apparent subject or image, and those which pursue silence.
Sontag was writing at a time when conceptual art was taking off in a myriad of directions, but a key concern in the late 60s was that of the relationship between art and language, between image and text. Today’s myth of art must surely be affected by our living in a world profoundly influenced by social media, a noisy hub of words, images, and videos. These platforms are host to whole swathes of pseudo-journalism, running alongside the increase of fraudulent, mendacious politics that we have seen and heard following the Brexit referendum, and the first turbulent weeks of Trump’s presidency.
A key part of language, silence is as dark is to light, as up is to down, as left is to right; one cannot exist without the other.
This move into silence that Sontag saw in artists at that time was partly driven by a desire to sever the dialogue with the audience. This is only one definition of silence: the quietening of the conversation between the maker and spectator. But this does not acknowledge that an audience is always capable of a response of some description. For we never really experience silence: even in the quietest and barest of spaces, there is no such thing as silence. Sontag writes about her contemporary, the composer and artist John Cage, most famous for his performance piece 4’,33” which involves a musician or orchestra performing a ‘silent’ score. Yet the piece is not silent, for each time that it is performed it is unique: incidental noises produced by the audience, or ambient sounds from outside of the physical setting, are specific to each time and space of performance. Cage, keenly concerned with the idea of an experience of silence, recounts how in a soundless chamber, he could still hear the beating of his heart and the blood rushing through his ears. To experience utter silence, emptiness, or nothingness would be to not feel, to not live. As sentient beings, we cannot but have a response, however wordless, however intangible.
Silence, too, implies that which it is not, calling for attention to the thing that is not there, to the missing element. A key part of language, it is as dark is to light, as up is to down, as left is to right; one cannot exist without the other.
We can, as living creatures, make a noise – and as supposedly cultured beings, we can make a noise that might find a home in the mind of another, a mind open to receive these fragments of sounds and patch them into something recognisable.
We can post a Facebook status, or a Tweet; we can upload videos to YouTube; we can rant or enthuse on blogs. But do we give enough precedence to silence, in times such as these? So much of the words on these platforms are a shout in the dark, not fully utilising the tools that we have in language. And beyond the smaller circle of personal diatribes, we now have alternative facts, littering the spoken and written word.
Susan Sontag Foundation
Sontag saw that public language was experiencing what she deemed a degeneration, coming about especially through the language of politics, advertising, and entertainment. The proliferation of speech and images from these can only have increased in the fifty years after the essay was written, with the rapidity at which they are disseminated contributing to the inundation of the channels of both electronic and societal communication. These factors, Sontag believed, were, and likely still are, leading in part to a devaluation of language among what sociologists call modern mass society. But the key point here is this: as the prestige of language falls, that of silence rises.
Certainly, we must not stay mute, feeling powerless and immobilised, but neither can we let this clamouring for attention cloud our sense of proportion, opinion, and fact. There is a sense that we are so wound up in making noisy appeals to be heard, saying anything at all, that we neglect to listen even to ourselves, let alone to other voices which might give some clarity. Looking and listening closely entails being in the world more fully; to be silent is not necessarily to retreat from the world, or for artists to retreat from their audience. It opens up a space in which an interconnected, participatory consciousness is possible. Through this, we may start to weave a new myth of art and society to guide us before this post-truth condition is accepted as a new kind of authenticity.