Surprised By Art

The talented musician Lance Crane started a blog last week. The first post reflects on a piece of music, 4’33” by John Cage. You can read the post yourself, but in summary Lance tells of being provoked by a piece that initially evoked laughter and scorn. Now I share my similar experience of the same composer through a different piece: Organ2ASLAP.

In Minneapolis I lived two blocks from my parish, the remarkable Basilica of St. Mary. One Sunday the bulletin advertised an upcoming organ performance. I didn’t read carefully before inviting my friend Hannah. She didn’t think twice before agreeing to come.

We arrived to the Basilica ready to appreciate what beauty we could. Our first surprise came when we walked into the church a couple minutes before the start time: We were two of nine in attendance. Because the other attendees were scattered throughout the church, we sat near the front so the organist could see an audience.

Without time to skim our programs, the organist struck the first note. Instead of moving past it, it stayed struck, and it stayed struck… Thirty or forty seconds passed before the sound changed. Was he warming up? Do organists need to warm up? Confused, we looked at each other and then at the program. The ASLAP in Organ2ASLAP stood for “As SLow As Possible.” We were hearing the 70-minute version; sometimes it lasted only 20 minutes. We looked at each other again and, because we were sitting up front, held our laughter.

Whispering, we discussed how it would be rude to leave right away, especially from the front row. We would give the performance fifteen minutes before making an exit As DIscrete As Possible. So we sat and listened. As each new note came, stayed, stayed, stayed, and went, something happened. We were really listening. We noticed the music. Each shift from one note to the next was something significant, an event in itself. As a musical layman, I had never listened to music with such attention nor anticipation.

At the end of our 15-minute captivity, one of us said to the other, “I don’t think I want to leave.” The other replied, “OK, good, neither do I.” We stayed for the whole 70-minute performance of John Cage’s Organ2ASLAP. You can go to Halberstadt, Germany to hear the 639-year version. 

There I saw that the pace of life causes the significant, like a changing note, to seem mundane. This led me to a change of perspective, summarized in part below:

First, art that does not use aesthetically pleasing means of expression is not necessarily “not art” nor incapable of communicating something true. I wouldn’t call Organ2ASLAP “beautiful” in the sense that it evokes the reverence due to Bach. The sounds themselves do not cause sensual delight. But the sounds provoked me to listen differently, and now perceive a bit differently. Art can take its viewer to something true without using a means that is beautiful in se. Suddenly a whole word of “ugly art” had possibility for me.

John Cage (1912-1992)

John Cage (1912-1992)

Second, the value drawn from appreciating art does not have to be the value intended by the artist. I have no idea whether Cage wanted me to hear what I heard. I don’t pretend to. Art interacts with the individual and produces unique result each time it is taken in. Much of today’s art conveys something confused, or perhaps even objectionable. That does not preclude the possibility of being provoked to see something true about the world, our culture, or even God. Of course, I stop short of feigning appreciation of gratuitous violence, vulgarity, or deliberate attempts to offend, for such attempts are violence. And plenty is wholly lost on me, like Cage playing amplified cacti.

I’m grateful to John Cage for helping me, hopefully, to be less likely to dismiss what doesn’t fit my preconceived categories and preferences in life. Life’s a bit more interesting now.