Robert Morris on Silence

Morris, Duck-Rabbit with Body

Robert Morris’s art is an essential part of every major museum collection on the planet, and the catalogue for his latest drawing show in Valencia, Spain is as large as a telephone book.  In the following, he urges all of us to STFU.

Looking For Silence

R. Morris   2011

As my hearing continues to deteriorate I look forward to complete deafness with calm anticipation and no regrets.  The diminution of the aural has taught me that much of what is said to one does not need to be heard.  In the early stages of my disability I often said “what?”  Finally my wife insisted that I get a hearing aid.  But now that I have the device I almost never wear it, and when I do attempt to do so I invariably loose the tiny batteries that make it operate.  I have come to realize that most of what is said to one has nothing to do with communication.[1]  Most of the time others talk “at” me and not “to” me.  I appear in their presence and they express themselves to me with little regard for my response.  And mostly I no longer say “what?” but adopt a neutral expression which they sometimes continue to address, or more precisely point their words at.  It is a wonderful relief not to have to hear them.   Much of what passes for conversation involves a more or less contentless social ritual.  One can do without hearing these formulaic recitations.  Of course when “pass the salt,” or “give me the keys” comes my way, and my response is to stare dumbfoundedly, others might take me for the autistic type; and I do admit that even in my earlier days of more acute audial perception I more often than not preferred that others not talk to me.  Now this insulation of near silence that surrounds me offers a kind of soft cushion against the blab.  Talk—either listening to it or responding to it—I can do without.  Compared to sign language speech seems to me highly regressive.  I once passed a group of people standing on the steps of a large NYC church.  I had nearly walked past the crowd in my preoccupied state before I realized that complete silence prevailed over the group.  Everyone on the steps was signing with the hand movements of the deaf.  Stopping to watch the crowd arrayed on the broad staircase and signing to one another in animated silence held all the beauty of being in the presence of a large waterfall with the sound turned off.  One of the delights of deafness is that one does not have to listen to the blather of the ubiquitous cell phone addict.  Is there a more American image than that of an obese body walking a city street, one hand stuffing a slice of greasy, dripping pizza into the mouth, the other arm permanently crooked around the device and yammering away in a loud voice into the cell phone?  Multitasking at its most grotesque.  (I can hear the objection that the more quintessential American image is that of the silent killer drone drifting high above the mountainous Afhghan-Pakistan border).  I suppose the argument could be made that today, when it comes to the offensive and the grotesque, there is as much one would prefer not to see as to hear.   Still, my preference is to endure the visually nauseating and erase the talking.  For so many years I was intimidated into talking.  Unless declared certifiably deaf the young child is defenseless against the verbal drivel of teachers and other authority figures.  My younger years were filled with the oppressive burden of not only having to listen to the talk, but of being reminded constantly to “pay attention” since I so often did not.  Once the child learns to read doesn’t the constant, unrelenting talking at it border on child abuse?  It is only now, late in life, that I have some relief from the oppression of talk by virtue of being unable to hear it, and this has the double benefit of exempting me from participating in it.

One of the more inexcusable forms of talking comes in the form of those cultural events called art symposiums.  Now that the role of curator in museums has metastasized to truly horrifying dimensions, it is necessary to keep these culture mavens busy by having them dream up completely irrelevant culture fests.  As an aging artist I am still on occasion invited to these stupid shindigs.  For years I made up excuses for not showing up.  But now I have fashioned an all-purpose document of reply, which goes like this:

I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made half a century ago.  Minimalism does not need to hear from me.  I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made yesterday.  Contemporary art is making enough noise without me.  I do not want to be filmed in my studio pretending to be working.  I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art—either mine or others past or present–which are labored and disguised performances.  I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, aesthetes, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists or art historians about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, future artists.  A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of speaking.  It is possible that I was led into art making because talking and being in the presence of another person were not requirements.  I do not want to be asked my reasons for not having worked in just one style, or reasons for any of the art that got made (the reason being that there are no reasons in art).  I do not want to answer questions about why I used plywood, felt, steam, dirt, grease, lead, wax, money, trees, photographs, electroencephalograms, hot and cold, lawyers, explosions, nudity, sound, language, or drew with my eyes closed.  I do not want to tell anecdotes about my past, or stories about the people I have been close to.  The people to whom I owe so much either knew it or never will because it is too late now.  I do not want to document my starting points, turning points, high points, low points, good points, bad points, stopping points, lucky breaks, bad breaks, breaking points, dead ends, breakthroughs or breakdowns.  I do not want to talk about my methods, processes, near misses, flukes, mistakes, disappointments, setbacks, disasters, obsessions, lucky accidents, unlucky accidents, scars, insecurities, disabilities, phobias, fixations, or insomnias over posters I should never have made.   I do not want my portrait taken.  Everybody uses everybody else for their own purposes, and I am happy to be just material for somebody else so long as I can exercise my right to remain silent, immobile, possibly armed, and at a distance of several miles.

Late in life, when he was living in a loft above 6th Avenue in NYC, John Cage remarked of the noise coming into his space from the traffic below that he preferred it to formal concerts.  He said he preferred sounds that were not specifically addressed to him.   In contrast to music played at him in the concert hall he felt so much freer in the presence of random noise which left him alone.  I have much sympathy for his view.  But I would go farther than Cage in extending a dislike not only for sounds addressed to me, but other behaviors as well.  All performance art is oppressive in its imposition on one’s attention, in its demand to speak to you.  Some forms are of course much worse than others.  I think here of the terrible legacy of Houdini’s influence in inspiring something called the “endurance artist.” There is of course an endless menu of things to endure.  My favorite takes the form of the “artist” who is buried for what is supposed to be a kind of “wow” amount of time.  Will he suffocate?  Is he really down there under that mound of dirt?  Chris Burden was of course Houdini’s premier heir, being the first to capitalize on the spectacle of endurance and pain.  Many have followed in his footsteps.  “The first bad body art was the Crucifixion,” Smithson once remarked to me.  But all performance art says look at me, listen to me, feel for me, empathize with me, admire me, isn’t this scary?  Be glad you are not me, isn’t this shocking?  Aren’t I clever, etc., etc.?   All bad art is Dionysian in this sense of fashioning some contorted gesture, some shocking or surprising gambit with which to pull at the spectator.  Whatever the game it is always a “talking” directly  to the spectator, demanding the attention of the spectator, intimidating the spectator, impressing the spectator, shocking the spectator, taking away the breath of the spectator, getting the wow response from the spectator in one form or another, in one way or another.  “This is just for you, sweetheart,” performance art is saying as it grabs you by your lapels.

Nelson Goodman in his Ways of Worldmaking speaks of “rightness” over truth when it comes to making a world with the various symbol systems employed by the arts.  Things have to fit together to give this sense of belonging or rightness.  Art worlds exemplify or embody rather than state literal truths.  But what Goodman did not consider was whether “wrongness” might also have made a world by employing in one way or other the symbol systems of the arts.   Wrongness is no more subjective criterion than rightness.  An argument could be made that wrongness carries more drama and tension and raises more questions, shoves aside the easy gestalt and plows on.  Performance art, right or wrong, including the kind that relies on the linguistic symbol system of talking, hangs together, makes its world, by means of its Dionysian hook into the other.  Hegel thought that architecture was the highest art form, after which came sculpture followed by painting, music and poetry in descending order.  We could say that he knew a lot about wrongness since most everything Hegel said was wrong (with perhaps the exception of his remark that Minerva’s owl flew only at dusk), but let’s look at his hierarchy for a moment.  Anyway let’s look at the bottom part of it.  Music and poetry, at least in their performative mode of being addressed to the hearer qualify as oppressive in terms of the Cagean judgment.   My guess is that Cage would have found little to agree with in Hegel, but perhaps on this point two of the most eccentric and original minds in history might have met.  As for architecture being at the top of the heap, one only has to experience a museum by Santiago Calatrava or one by the chief lapel-grabber Frank Gehry to realize how wrong Hegel has been.  The baroque idiocy of the museums designed by these two must qualify as some of the most offensive instances of performance art.  Every form of spectacle, whatever the media, rises from the performative.

If Nelson Goodman did not go far enough who has?  Clearly Hegel did not, or went too far in the wrong directions.  But if these two didn’t ring the bell just listen to some of the other wise guys when they say:

I have never been far from the face of the earth.  I am certain that these are my hands.  Seeing as is not saying that.  He may have killed his father and wanted to kill his father and intended to kill his father, but that may not have been the reason he killed his father.  Reasons can be causes.  Our language encourages us to believe that there are events.  How do I know that he was referring to a rabbit and not a rabbit part?  The same sentence can be used to tell a lie or to make a metaphor.  There is not a lot of difference between saying that all bachelors are unmarried and that his balls turned blue.  There is no solution because there is no problem.  Bring me a slab.  One car off the assembly line does not stand for another.  If the barber shaves every man in town who does not shave himself, does he shave himself?  What most people believe is true.   Anything can stand for anything else.  Dropping a saucer of mud tonight will not be the same thing as having dropped a saucer of mud last night.  All inferences from experience are effects of custom, not of reasoning.  Well-founded belief lies on belief that is not founded.  My doubts form a system.  Like a dream or a bump on the head a metaphor can lead us to see one thing as another.  There is no such thing as a language.  My life consists in my being content to accept many things.  In order to follow a rule one must have the concept of error.  Snow is white if and only if snow is white.  Who do you want to believe me or your own eyes?  The flame burnt me in the past, but how do I know it will burn me in the future?  The world is all that is the case.  Why would an agent perform an action when he thought, all things considered, it was not the best action?  The softest rule sheathes the razor edge of error.  Watch out for emeralds observed after time t.’   I don’t interpret the rule I follow it blindly.  Does the sense lead to the reference or the reference to the sense?  I cannot know what it is like to be a bat.  If we cannot say that schemes are different neither can we say that they are one.  The earth has been here long before I existed.  All we ever do is move our bodies; the rest is up to nature.  A picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number.  The subject does not belong to the world rather it is the limit of the world.  Tell them it was a wonderful life.[2]

Of course these philosophers were not saying these things to you or me in the sense of talking to us.  They preferred the more Apollonian vehicle of writing, so valorized by Derrida, which leaves us free to take it or leave it.  The written text is the perfect vehicle not only for the deaf but for those who want to avoid the oppression of being spoken at.  I would not go so far as to say “there is nothing outside the text,” but I would say (type) that all that noise aimed at you outside the text can be avoided by turning a deaf ear.

J.L. Austin put performance together with saying.  Locutionary, pre-locutionary, illocutionary.  Take your pick.[3]  Talking was doing for Austin.  Digging a hole, crawling in and being buried is doing something too.  Performing for an audience.  Being bound and hanging upside down in front of an audience is performing.  So too is getting a tattoo (with audience), standing naked (with audience), crawling through broken glass (with audience), having a face-lifting operation (with audience).  Or just standing there blabbing to them and saying clever things.  Damn!  There went that little hearing aid battery, rolled under the chair and left me deaf as a board.  That is to say (or sign, or type) I’ve found what I was looking for.  Silence.

Morris, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (but you can’t hear it).


[1]“Language is not properly regarded as a system of communication.  It is a system for expressing thought, something quite different.  It can of course be used for communication, as can anything people do—manner of walking or style of clothes or hair, for example.  But in any useful sense of the term, communication is not the function of language…” Noam Chomsky, On Nature and Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 76.

[2] Authors quoted, misquoted, or paraphrased: David Hume, Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Donald Davidson, W.V.O. Quine, Gottlob Frege, Thomas Nagel, Nelson Goodman, Alfred Tarski, Marcel Duchamp, Chico Marx, R. Morris.

[3] See J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford, 1961).

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1 Comment

Filed under Arts

One response to “Robert Morris on Silence

  1. Lovely sentiment, a post discursive untethering. I question now whether language (spoken) and less so (written) are confining OR tethering or just an impertinence; though I am convinced the professional ACT is just that…..

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