Two days ago we celebrated the anniversary of John Cage’s 4′33″, a musical work that has often been mocked, but one that Cage considered his most important creation.

Dr. Boli agrees with John Cage in his assessment, and now he will tell you why.

If you asked a dozen art critics to name the dominant trend in art since the beginning of the twentieth century, you would get at least thirteen different answers. That is because at least one passer-by would also render an opinion. But few of them, or none, would correctly identify the dominant trend. From his uniquely long perspective, Dr. Boli is able to see that trend clearly. The dominant trend in art since 1901 has been the gradual but ultimately complete irrelevance of the work of art itself.

Before the twentieth century, what made a work art was the artist’s application of effort to it. It might be bad art or good art, but the artist had tried to make a work that embodied his ideal of what such a work should be. A portrait painter attempted to create an image that was not just a recognizable picture of a person, but also expressed the subject’s character. A composer made use of harmony, melody, polyphony, rhythm, and all the other tools of the trade to evoke a mood, or to create an impression of action, or even just to make a pleasing intellectual exercise. Artists fought vicious battles over what considerations were important in creating a work in their genres, but they were fighting on a common battlefield: namely, the idea that the work itself was the ultimate result and the focus of their efforts.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, some artists began to challenge that idea. Marcel Duchamp, with his “readymades,” threw it out the window. More and more artists in the twentieth century took up the hobby of challenging the idea of art. Andy Warhol, formerly a top commercial artist in New York, painted exact replicas of commercial products to question the distinction between “fine art” and “commercial art.” At about the same time John Cage was working on 4′33″, Robert Rauschenberg used rollers to cover canvases with white house paint. (Cage was quite taken with these works, as you can imagine.)

All these things can be found in any art history. But what few seem to notice is that because of this trend, which has been completely victorious, the work is no longer where artists put their efforts, and therefore is no longer the primary artistic product. Instead, the primary artistic product is now the explanation of why this work is art.

This is why 4′33″ is the most important work John Cage ever produced, and probably the most important one he was capable of producing. In 4′33″, the work is literally nothing. It does not exist. The art lies entirely in Cage’s explanation of why you should consider this music. Even Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings were vestigially works of art: there was a material object made of wood and canvas and paint, and you could look at it. But you cannot hear 4′33″. You can only listen to something else while it is going on. Precisely, says Cage: you are discovering that there is always sound, always music, and there will be until the moment you die. The work does not exist, but the explanation of the work does.

Today orthodox contemporary art is based entirely on the assumption that the explanation of why this work is art, rather than the work itself, is what makes a work art. But 4′33″ refined that assumption to its purest elemental form, and no work can ever go beyond it. It is the εἶδος of art in the current sense, and all other works by living artists are merely imperfect representations or instances of 4′33″.


  1. The Shadow says:

    Even 4’33” has a frame – namely the amount of time it is “performed”. The hypothetical work 1’17” would certainly be easier to sit through.

    • Maypo says:

      I skipped directly to 2’13”. It is the meat of the composition.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      It is true that there is a frame. There are even “movements.” These, and the presence of the performer at the piano, serve as an indication that art is happening. They are the equivalent of a plaque beside a blank space on the wall of an art gallery. Now we can talk about what the art means, because someone has pointed out to us that this absence of anything in particular is art.

  2. von Hindenburg says:

    How does this relate to Cultural Neoteny? Because it certainly feels like it must. Do we lose something ‘adult’ when we expect no effort or technical skill in the form of our art with which the viewer must engage to understand the artist’s purpose, rather than simply reading the purpose off of a buzzword-laden notecard?

  3. John Salmon says:

    The apotheosis of modern art is Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can images.

    Perfectly distilled cynicism: Art is Commerce, Commerce is Art. The idea of drawing a distinction between the two is now hopelessly passé. Warhol’s singularity of purpose is almost admirable. Almost.

    Though I suppose we need to see who has the publishing rights to 4’ 33”, and whether Cage’s estate is rolling in dough as a result.

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