Did you hear that? It was art or What was that I can’t hear you over all the stamping of feet!
There has been a bit of chatter especially in experimental music circles around an article that appeared in the New York Times related to the show Soundings at MoMA (or should I say a lot of stamping of feet and gnashing of teeth). Most foot stamping is directed at two parts of the article, the lack of musical reference and the use of ‘honk tweeter’ as a description of a style of sound art (I’m not going to discuss the latter, it’s not my term to defend). I am more interested here in the reactions to the article than the article itself.
Up front I strongly believe that the term sound art is pointless and worse creates confusion and division. Sound art describes two distinct fields and its meaning changes based on who you are talking to and even in the midst of a single conversion. For me sound art should only be used in relation to art, that’s why it has ‘art’ at the end of it. It is art that employs sound as a material element of the practice (note sound does not have to be music, it can be art, literature, theatre, poetry etc). As such sound art is most strongly connected to historical threads associated with art (and as such open to be discussed in the manner of art criticism or art history), while being strongly influenced by music, especially Cage, Neuhaus, Young, Oliveros, Lucier (plus others too long to list). The other strain of sound art is actually music. I wish that someone had coined the term ‘sound music’, it would make things much easier. There are numerous historical reasons for music to adopt art as a reference (i’ve discussed this elsewhere) but I wish that musicians and the music institutions would simply own and use music. Disagree as you might, this is the approach and understanding taken by me to what follows.
As the title suggests the NYT article was an article about art. It was not just about any old art but art that is about to open in an exhibition at one of the most well known art museums in the world, MoMA. Even though this was clearly an article about art the protests about music came thick and fast. Many demanded more music history. This to me is strange and comparable to requiring an article on music to include historical reference to Pollock; ‘How dare you write about music without referencing abstract expressionism!’ As much as music might like to lay claim on all sound in this case the focus is art that employs sound. Surely of more interest would have been the judgements made by the author, or even hidden right at the very bottom by me. The author picked up something I said in an extensive interview. For the most part the interview covered things I have printed numerous times in the past. Near the end I contended that the artists working with sound that will be remembered are those who work well beyond the small area of sound art and work in the wider area of (contemporary) art. Most obvious is Christian Marclay. Without a doubt Marclay is the artist who has had the longest on-going public engagement with sound and art. His work continues to engage with popular media and his practice is far beyond being associated with sound art (for more on Marclay’s music and art see Cracked Media). Now of course this is open to debate and it’s just my opinion! I’m happy to hear cogent arguments to the contrary and I am yet to see them appear in blogs or other social media.
Please note, I am not defending the article, what I am criticizing is the disparate attacks on what in the end is a newspaper article – an article about art, not about music.