Aesthetics of Silence
Years ago, when I began my dalliance with painting, I began by just painting self-portraits and then portraits of friends and family. When I developed enough confidence, I showed these first few naïve pieces to an artist friend of mine named Sherry Kerlin. “You need to add things”, she advised me. “Symbols, artifacts, you’re just painting these static portraits of people; you have to devise a way to allow the audience in”. My next painting was a self-portrait of me, on a couch, embracing a skeleton who had its bony fingers down the front of my underwear. “Ah!”, Sherry exclaimed, “much better”. I had thought long and hard about this first symbolic piece: I had thought about sexual abuse, oppression, repression, and sexual death. I had found a stream of consciousness that allowed the audience in.
Yet, Susan Sontag, in her writing, “Aesthetics of Silence”, describes how the modern artist is looking to turn away from her audience and the idea of the consciousness—a “self-estrangement” that is actually an “antidote” to the consciousness (that thing which artists of yesteryear sought to tap into and speak to) (2).
What’s interesting is the idea that, no matter how discordant to the audience and the consciousness the artist’s attempts to be, in time, his art (or silence) connects with the masses, is understood by them, and can even begin to reshape the way they think or see or conceptualize communication. I am thinking of artists like Picasso and his move to cubism. To the masses, it must have seemed bold, yes. And new. And exciting. But strange and discordant. It must have been a lot of work to connect to the first waves of abstraction outside of its exterior, aesthetically pleasing qualities.
Yet, in time, we see cubism, abstraction, and less-figurative works as connected to how we think. Where once, through art, our minds thought through concrete, figurative images, it is no stretch to say that the more modern art enthusiast can just as easily think in terms of shapes, overlap, splashes of paint (indeed, this relative chaos may be more akin to how the human mind works than actual, neat, photo-real figuration).
Either way, the question that comes to mind is, does the silence and attempts at discord from the consciousness actually matter when your art is at the mercy of interpretation? I am reminded of a Literary Theory class I took in grad school; the professor was promoting the idea that once an author has published a work, the interpretation of that work is no longer in his sole possession. It is at the mercy of queer theory, feminist theory, et.al. Conceivably straight characters can be (with shockingly apt textual evidence) proven gay. Heroes can be proven misogynists.
This said, the artist’s attempt at negation of the consciousness and silence and severance cannot, ultimately work. Sontag states that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech and an element in a dialogue” and I argue that silence is, in fact—because of the very workings and interpretations of the viewer—never actually silence (10). The silence is filled by interpretation.
Further along, Sontag states that “in silent art, there is no release from attention, because there has never been any soliciting of it (15)”. So, is this the goal of modern art? An attempt at creating a work without meaning? To create with the intention of not wanting attention? An attempt to create a work that asks the audience to add nothing and only stare?
Currently, I have gone back to painting static portraits. I paint people live and truly believe that something in our exchange can be interpreted through the finished piece. But it is nothing I am forcing. As such, I am working as the modern artist (according to Sontag) should; I am working without the goal of interpretation or solicitation of attention (to symbols of the consciousness or visual statements on the human condition).
The other night, I had a friend in my home sitting for me. She was situated in a way where she was forced to stare at the portrait with the skeleton and the underwear. After some time, she broke down and asked, “Peter, what does that painting mean?” “Sexual abuse, sexual oppression, sexual repression, sexual death”, I replied.
“No”, she stated, “it’s a man who lost his lover and wants him back”.
When she left, I thought about her interpretation, looked at the piece, and wept.