By Ayse Hunt
Art is a funny thing—the same painting might be heralded as a chef-d’oeuvre by one critic, and torn to shreds by another. Avant garde, the French phrase meaning a group of people at the forefront of new developments, is a type of modern art that takes any traditional rules of what is and isn’t art and throws them out the window. But in my (albeit limited) experience as a museum goer, there have been a few avant garde pieces that have left me wondering why anyone ever regarded them as art in the first place.
I think most of us have had that experience. You’re in some fancy art museum on a school trip or with a friend, and there are a cluster of very high-brow, artsy people gesturing towards one of the pieces excitedly. So you work your way to the front of the group of people to see what you can only imagine is the next Mona Lisa, and you’re greeted with something like this Image by Dave Munger.
When faced with art that seems like something that anyone could make regardless of formal training, the inevitable question that arises is where the line between avant garde and complete randomness exists. Or, if such a line even exists in the first place.
One of the most well-known avant garde artists is the American composer John Cage. He is famous for his work 4’33’’. It is a three-movement work that instructs the performer to sit quietly without playing their instrument for a total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. As a musician, I had learned of John Cage and his infamous “silent” piece through what I heard from other people. I never took the time to read about the history of the piece and what John Cage himself had to say about his message. It wasn’t until last summer in a music history course that I learned about how essential this piece is to how we define music today.
I learned that Cage was not simply a composer with a sense of humor, but rather an innovative thinker who raised important questions about what music really is. His aim with 4’33’’ was not to have the listener sit in silence for the duration of the piece, but rather to have them realize that there is no such thing as silence. That even in the sanctity of a concert hall during performance, there is someone coughing, or shuffling their feet or even just exhaling. The lack of music was designed to call attention to the lack of silence, and in the process, Cage shook the music world to its core.
I recently had the chance to explore a new installation by Seattle-based artist Trimpin at the Olympic Sculpture Park entitled “You Are Hear”. Close to the main entrance of the park, the installation features three bright orange sets of oversized headphones and corresponding tractor seats.
Each set of headphones offers a different selection of sounds. One plays a track that sounds like a toddler banging on a toy piano, another with sounds of nature, and the final set of headphones is silent as homage to John Cage.
While the installation probably isn’t the kind of thing most people picture when they think “art”, it fulfills the working definition of art that I created after studying John Cage. I believe that art is any kind of expression that calls attention to a subject matter of the artist’s choosing. It might be as direct as a still-life oil painting calling attention to the beauty of how light falls on a bowl of fruit, or as indirect as the sounds of traffic mingling with an art exhibit to remind the viewer of their surroundings. In my opinion, there is no line where avant garde becomes too crazy to be considered art, just as there is no line where it becomes too mundane to be considered art. As long as there is someone behind the work with intention, to me, the piece is art.
“You Are Hear” will be at the Olympic Sculpture Park through October 30th. I highly recommend checking it out and experiencing its unique artistry.