The Lack of Blank Spaces: Cage’s 4’33” and Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings”

Well, that didn’t work. I intended to leave this post blank — thirty empty lines followed by the “more” function (“Read the rest of the entry”), then two hundred and sixty three blank lines, another “more,” and one hundred sixty lines, each line representing a second of silence in John Cage’s famous song  “4’33,” three movements of no music totaling four minutes and thirty three seconds, composed for any instrument or combination of instruments. However, WordPress will not allow any blank lines. Although cyberspace is relatively cheap and there is an apparently limitless supply of it, the program edits out the empty spaces. On WordPress, I can write anything I want, except nothing. So, I will have to break the silence Cage created.

“4’33” is a metasong because it breaks a fundamental assumption we have about music, which is that there will be music involved. But must there be music in music? To decide that, we must define music itself. For Cage, any type of sound could be musical; therefore, he incorporated many strange sounds into his works. He also realizsed, that every time a song is performed, the audience adds sounds: rustlings, creaking chairs, and coughs.

Did I say silent? “4’33” is not silent. The ambient sounds become the music, as Cage asks us not to listen to the music the performers are performing, but the sounds the musicians and audience members are making unintentionally while trying to keep quiet. Cage’s own self-declared masterpiece becomes a song about listening to music, since that is what we become aware of, our presence as we listen and try to hold still. Why not listen to a full orchestra performing the song conducted by Lawrence Foster now: 4:33? Or better yet, pick up an instrument — any instrument — and play the three movements yourself. (That’s not as easy as it sounds; you have to sit still and listen for a very long time.)

Similarly, Robert Rauschenberg’s infamous white paintings, divided into three canvasses, challenge the very concept of paintings, which is that paintings must include an image. These paintings are just as controversial today as they were in 1951 when they were first hung. Go to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and stand in a corner of the room and listen to what people say. Some laugh; others shake their heads. Many get angry and declare, “This isn’t art! This is an insult to me and the museum and our culture and God!”

Some scratch their heads and ask, “What does it mean?” But why does a painting have to mean anything? Why is meaning the most important question we ask of art? Does an abstract expressionist painting mean anything?No, it expresses. Rauschenberg is suggesting here that art does not even need to express anything.

Did I say there was no image? Rauschenberg’s white paintings do show images: the shadows of the viewers on the canvas. This exposes the viewers to their own presence as they look at the painting. (You, sitting before your computer, will see a shadowy reflection of yourself as you look at the white paintings on your screen.) Did I say there was no meaning? The white paintings represent the act of looking at paintings.

The paintings, by the way, have to be repainted from time to time to keep them pristinely white. In other words, Rauschenberg didn’t even paint the paintings in the MOMA, challenging another assumption that the painter must paint his or her own work. Andy Warhol also questioned the assumption that an artist must paint his own work. Warhol signed works done by others, for instance his piss paintings. That ain’t Warhol’s pee.

I know that type of art still pisses you off. And it should, but it should also make you think about what art is. When you say, “That isn’t art!” you are answering the very question Cage, Rauschenberg and Warhol wanted you to ask.

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(Read more about meta-paintings in my posts Las Meninas: A Meta-Paining, Abstract Paintings are Meta-PaintingsIf Not a Pipe, Then What? Magritte’s Meta-painting, and Halfway: A Meta-Painting by Tofu St. John.

Read about meta-murals in these posts: The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City: Diego Rivera’s Meta-Mural, A Meta-Mural on Clarion Alley: Lo Llevas por Dentro by Jet Martinez, Repainting the Tenderloin: Mona Caron’s Meta-Mural “Windows Into the Tenderloin.”

Read about meta-paintings in these excellent posts from Museo del Prado: Meta-Painting: A Journey to the Idea of Art and Steffan Shaffeld: Part Three: Exercises 3.3: Meta-Pictures and the book The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting.)

9 thoughts on “The Lack of Blank Spaces: Cage’s 4’33” and Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings””

  1. I am teaching a class tomorrow on White. As a collage artist and collage teacher I will get my students to experiment in mixing up different shades of White and then they will make collages with them. I like to teach this class because I think the collages open up space and breath. It is like doing a day of yoga; it creates space. I make sure to keep the room quiet and tomorrow I have asked a Chinese friend to come and take the class for free in exchange for talking to us about the role White plays in Chinese painting and culture. After reading about Rauschenberg and Cage I may do an exercise where I ask the class to listen to ‘silence’ for several minutes. Thank you, A.Sheldon

  2. I am an art history grad student working on the White Paintings and the repainting — could you possibly direct me to sources that indicate they were repainted? I keep hearing this story that Rauschenberg told Betty Parsons to repaint them herself when they became scuffed — but cannot find a text to prove it. Ideas? Thanks!

  3. Hi Nicole, I actually don’t have a source on the repainting. I am going on what I’ve heard. I recommend that you contact the Museum of Modern Art directly to see if it’s true. You could email or write them. Let me know when you find out! Ron

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