Dreams: Unconscious Creations in Art

Hi everyone! It’s a been a while since I posted anything new and as I’ve had troubles sleeping these past couple weeks, I’ve done a lot of thinking about dreams. I have both the blessing and the curse of remembering them vividly but they rarely ever effect my daily life. It’s difficult to imagine any of these dreams changing my life in any significant way, let alone impacting the world. For many artists, their dreams do just that and in the 1960s, delving beyond the realm of consciousness appealed to many people. What I find the most inspiring about these dream-stories is, these artists don’t incorporate dreams into their philosophy and, as far as I know, practice lucid dreaming. They simply stumbled upon something beautiful and decided to use it.

“It was fairly mystical when I think about it. It was the only song I ever dreamed.”

Paul McCartney, On Yesterday

Paul McCartney

One of the greatest songs McCartney ever wrote, Yesterday, came to him in a dream and it’s such a good song, it’s almost surprising that he admits it. Apparently, he played it immediately after waking up and feared he may have remembered it from somewhere else. The lyrics took awhile longer to come to him but I personally like the original filler, “Scrambled eggs. Oh, baby how I love your legs.”

Although I’m a major Beatles fan, I have to admit they were more arrogant than other 60s Artists (they were also about ten years younger than my favorite painters and experienced a wild amount of success much earlier in life.) I don’t believe dreaming art takes away from any genius or credit someone should receive but I can understand why that’s a popular opinion. McCartney could have easily attributed it all to his own genius, and although he still told a great story, it’s one that really connects him to these visual artists who valued dreams and ideas of art outside the self ( he was friends with Richard Hamilton and probably very aware of many artistic philosophies at the time). Whether he intended it or not, I think the story speaks to his belonging as a 60s artist at heart.

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns with Flag, 1955

In 1955, Father of American Pop Art, Jasper Johns had a dream where he painted the American Flag. Soon after he awoke, he painted it in real life and it went on to become one of the post famous paintings in post WWII art. If we examine the heavy paint blotches and the slight abstractness of the flag, we see again another blending between “art and life” or, if you are new to this blog, a kind of haziness that has the appearance of something from a dream-world. Johns often uses familiar symbols in his work that are up to the interpretation of the viewer. The American flag is a familiar symbol to everyone but it does not inspire the same feelings in all of us. Johns himself claimed to be objective towards this meaning wanting the viewer to interpret it however she wishes. At the risk of over-analyzing, we can think of the symbols in our dreams the same way. They are familiar to us and they likely mean something but what do they mean? Johns, of course, wasn’t bothered by this mystery. He used it to invite us into his work thus combining “art and life.”

What I love the most about these stories are dreams coming to the artists like opportunities. Instead of attributing it all to their own genius, they take a more humble approach and focus on the art itself. As I share more about these amazing artists, I hope it becomes apparent they never relied on genius as much as an appreciation for life and were genuine, even selfless, in that way. They appreciated things for existing and were inspired by a love of life which is something I want to do more often.

The Music Of Silence

Hey everyone! It’s great to be back since I haven’t posted lately. I just finished my college finals yesterday which means I’m done writing essays (for now, at least) and I have more time to write about my interests. Today I’d like to shine the spotlight on an artist who inspired almost everyone I mentioned in writing so far. He’s a visual artist and a musician who taught at Black Mountain College and the New York School of Art; Mr. John Cage. Although his visual art is also stunning, I’d like to focus on his music for this post or more specifically his idea of silence. That’s right. He composed with silence. How is that even possible? Let’s look at his conception of silence and music first.

John Cage with popular teacher of Zen Buddhism DT Suzuki

To John  “music” is a relative term with many possible definitions. When defining it himself, he proclaims all sound is music. When defining it in terms of the larger culture, music is sound arranged in a particular pattern meant to inspire a particular emotion in the listener. Music, in the popular definition, doesn’t exist on its own. The sounds themselves don’t have meaning but we apply meaning to them. For example, a low note on the piano has no intention of sounding angry or sinister yet we attribute these emotions to it.  Is a sound not beautiful if it does not communicate with us or serve us in some way? John believed in the objective appreciation of sound and that all sounds could be enjoyed. In his own definition, any sound from the sound of traffic to rainfall to knocking on a door is music because it is potentially enjoyable so long as the listener is open to the experience. This is closely related to the Buddhist idea of mindfulness that fascinated him.

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us.  When we listen to it , we find it fascinating.”

John Cage

Of all sounds, John’s greatest fascination is silence. He describes an experience where he entered an anechoic chamber; a room designed to be as quiet as possible. In it he heard two sounds; a lower one and higher one that an engineer told him were his nervous system and circulating blood. That’s when he realized no matter how quiet our surroundings might seem, there is always a source of noise.

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

John Cage

Unable to create a true silence himself, he could discuss the concept of silence in writings and lectures and was able to indicate a silence in sheet music. During his most famous performance, 4’33, the lengthy periods of “silence”,as indicated on paper, were inevitably filled with sounds from the audience such as coughing, sighing, or shifting in their seats. This led to a new definition of silence exclusive to his performances as unintentional sound (or sound that was not controlled for). This “silence”, brought the audience into the performance as any noises coming from them became part of the composition.

By including unintentional sound, John was applying a popular technique within the avant garde performance art group Fluxus, of which he was a part, encouraging audience participation. Artists within Fluxus shared a common goal of combining “art and life”. Like 4’33, their performance art incorporated the audience through participation and even social experiments. In these situations, if the actor is seen as creating art, then the involvement of outside life, the audience, is combining “art and life”. In addition, art one participates in becomes a life experience shared with the others in attendance regardless of how inspirational it is. Anyone who witnessed 4’33 not only experienced it as a performance but contributed to the composition if they made any noise.

John Cage at his avant garde performance, Water Walk. As you can see, he had a great sense of humor.

Ideas of “art and life” were shared by Pop Artists many of whom were John’s students at Black Mountain College. Instead of inviting the audience to participate, Pop Artists used images of everyday things or everyday life, such as Campbell’s soup cans, beer bottles, cars and swimming pools to combine “art and life.” Similarly, John used everyday sounds such as water dripping, ceramic pots shattering, and the sound  of footsteps to combine “art and life.”

Not only did John inspire Fluxus, Pop Art, and even more movements I haven’t mentioned yet, but his legacy lives on in many young musicians today including Glenn Kotche, the drummer from one of my favorite bands, Wilco. I just found out last week that he’s a John Cage fan! I am over the moon about it. I’ve had their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on vinyl for some time now and although Glenn doesn’t mention it, I can definitely see the influence of anything as sound especially in the tracks Poor Places and Reservations. So I’ll leave you with a quote of his I really enjoy.

He reinvented music by communicating that music is everything — ALL sound and silence, too. And he communicated trust.He showed how to trust and learn from the world that we live in: how to trust chance and the subtle cues that surround us every day. This is what John Cage communicated. Freedom.

Glenn Kotche

Blau, M (2012). 33 Musicians on what John Cage Communicates. Internet. Available from, https://www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160327305/33-musicians-on-what-john-cage-communicates accessed: April 27 2020

Cage, J. (1961). On Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Lushetich, N. (2014) Fluxus: The Practice of Non-Duality. New York, NY: Rodopi.