Arthur Danto

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Considering the number of Americans who view the New Year's Eve ritual of merrymakers awaiting the ball's descent at Times Square, the archipelago of nondescript pedestrian islands created by the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue just north of the One Times Square tower must count among the most familiar landmarks of Manhattan. They are, for the most part, empty on New Year's Eve, as police barriers keep the crowds massed along the sidewalks; but they are largely as unoccupied as desert islands anyway, and serve mainly as pausing places for harried New Yorkers bent upon traversing the difficult intersections on the urgent missions that take them east and west. The northernmost island has a certain identify because of the TKTS pavilion, where people queue up seeking discount tickets to Broadway shows; and the southernmost island is home to an armed forces recruiting station, long a landmark of the area. The rest have some hopeful trees in wooden planters, placed there 'for the beautification of Times Square' according to bronze plaques set flush with the pavement in 1964 by the Broadway Association and the City of New York. The wedge-shaped islands are in any case sufficiently inhospitable that these efforts at aesthetic redemption are virtually invisible, unless one is paying particular attention to the sparse inventory of light poles, traffic signs, subway grates and the trees. It is altogether appropriate, in consequence, that the archipelago's most singular monument should be a work of art whose substance guarantees its invisibility, inasmuch as it is made of sound.

Once one knows this artwork exists, it is impossible, looking down upon the islands as one sees the New Year in, not to visualize it as a perfectly transparent prism of sound rising up an indeterminate height from its base, defined by the wedge-shaped grate at the north edge of the island between 45th and 46th Streets and, like Ariel on Prospero's island, 'invisible/to every eyeball'; indeed, knowing it is there, one can imagine it contributing to the midnight cacophony of hoots and toots its own vertical, unwavering sound. Still, it remains discrete and does not register upon the ear unless one walks through it, and even then one can easily fail to register it. Now and again, though, someone passing through it at some less celebratory moment of the year may wonder (if it evokes a memory of Ferdinand's words in The Tempest, 'Where should this music be? I' th'air or th'/earth?') what the noise is all about. A kind of high-pitched, unrelenting drone, it is a sound that belongs to art by contrast to the honks of passing taxis, the screech of trains underground, the mingled shouts and mutters of the passing millions. But it somehow also goes with these sounds because of its tough and uningratiating character. It would be ill suited to the context were one who walked across the grate to hear what Caliban described as 'sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not'. It does not emanate from, as Stephano put it, 'a brave kingdom … where I shall have my music for nothing'; this island is no tarrying place, and the sound is not intended to be listened to, merely heard. It really is more like the 'groans [that]/Did make wolves howl and penetrate the breasts/Of angry bears' which were emitted by poor Ariel when he was enclosed in a pine tree - perhaps similar to those in the nearby wooden planters - by the witch Sycorax, and left there until liberated by Prospero a dozen years later. This howl has been here, filling the shaft that its precisely defined space creates, since 1977. Its title, appropriately, is Times Square, and as a work of public art it is exemplary in excluding no other uses to which its island might be put, and in being, through its nature, immune to desecration by graffiti.

Times Square is by Max Neuhaus, at one point in his career, a very advanced musician, a virtuoso percussionist, in fact, who gave his final recital at Carnegie Hall in 1965 and who made his final recording for Columbia Records in the fateful year 1968. For reasons no doubt personal and conceptual, but also, given the spirit of those years, for reasons of what one might call political aesthetics, Neuhaus reconceived himself as a kind of visual artist who happens to use sounds rather than colors, but for whom shape is as central as it is for sculpture. As part of the general critique of institutions that swept popular consciousness in those years, it struck Neuhaus that the contrived production of sound was too important to be restricted to the artificial circumstances of the concert hall, while at the same time he was certain that the commonplace washes of music that we wade through in lobbies and elevators - what he terms 'decorating with sound' - belong to a practice too finally shallow to function in the way that art is supposed to in the exaltation of the human spirit. Given his musical gifts, he could, like the harpist Daphne Hellman, who gives concerts from time to time on subway platforms, set up his drums and bells on street corners and gather a crowd. But this would simply be to make the atmosphere of the concert hall portable: He would in effect generate a bubble of aesthetic space around himself, and passers-by would form themselves into an audience, which would listen, applaud and look for a tambourine in which to drop a coin. This would not constitute a true aesthetic transformation of the environment, any more than the bubbles of air that astronauts wear on moonwalks transform the Moon's atmosphere.

What Neuhaus aspired to was the enhancement of ordinary life through sound - ordinary life, as it courses along, and with whose aural surfaces he could interact rather than whose flow he might interrupt, as with music. The concert hall, like the museum, is a special precinct, with rules and conventions that define the conduct of those who enter it, and whose walls, so to speak, are like parentheses that bracket the experiences had within, and segregate these experiences from the flow of life. An analogy can be made with churches. Someone might decide to 'bring religion to the streets' by setting up a pulpit and declaiming the Gospel on busy corners. But this, in effect, would be a portable tabernacle, a bubble of sacral space encapsulated in midtown life, which flows unheedingly around it, save for those attracted as a momentary congregation. Someone whose religious mission corresponded to Neuhaus's artistic one would be concerned, rather, with what Feuerbach powerfully describes as 'sacramental celebrations of earthly truth'. Neuhaus's work, then, involves what one might think of as minimal displacements of the real rather than replacements of it through the insertion of contrived artistic entities, which carry their own imperatives and inducements.

It is central to the enterprise, accordingly, that one should merely happen upon the sounds, discover them as unexpected aural presences or - in the case I shall describe in a moment - as aural absences, when Neuhaus bestows a certain shaped silence into the flow of aural experience where it is least expected. Thus there is no plaque, at 46th Street, marking the fact that here is a work by Max Neuhaus, installed in 1977. One simply hits, as it were, an unresisting wall of sound, to which one may or may not pay attention, and which may or may not register on one's awareness. After all, the sound work does not shut out the surrounding noises, and one does not visit the island to admire the installation - not, at least, under the intended effect, which presupposes an initial unawareness of the work's existence. In the intended scenario, I suppose, the pedestrian carries away an impression of the sound life of the place having been intersected but not interrupted, as though a sound had occurred that left everything as it was and yet at the same time transfigured.

Neuhaus sees himself as something of an acoustical benefactor, and it is characteristic of his sensibility that he sees aural squalor where the rest of us merely perceive noise. Anyone who has driven city streets knows the panic of hearing a siren, knowing one should pull over to allow the emergency vehicle to pass, but not being sure it is even on the same street. The noise seems everywhere, and nowhere. We take the ambiguity of sirens as a necessary evil, as do those who drive the emergency vehicles, they being unable to hear any noise other than their own siren. (There have been, as a result, calamitous accidents between police cars whose drivers could not hear each other.) The solution is to put 'holes' in the sound, Neuhaus has told me, and then shape the siren so that its direction and velocity are clear. It has been difficult, however, to get funds for such research, since the National Science Foundation considers Neuhaus an artist and the National Endowment for the Arts does not subsidize applied science, and police departments have other priorities and are not disposed to fix what isn't broken. Neuhaus is not an artist like Christo, for whom the politics of getting his work accepted and installed is part of the artistic process. For Neuhaus, these are merely trials, even though a fair amount of his time is spent in getting support for his projects. A great deal of testing enters into the shaping of sounds, and a lot of electronic bricolage. The bills run up when art crosses the boundaries into everyday life, and it is far from plain that we shall ever get the humane sirens of Neuhaus's visionary imagination. We are fortunate to have the sound works we do have.

Times Square is the only public sound work by Neuhaus in New York at present, and one of only two of his works in the United States. The other is permanently installed in the stairwell at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where it is in aural symbiosis with ordinary building sounds like those made by elevators and air-conditioning systems. For the most part, his works are found here and there in Europe, where he resides. He did have a piece in the 1983 Whitney Biennial, and its presence there is testimony that his work shares enough boundaries with the visual arts that the ones it shares with music do not disqualify it as a kind of sculpture, inasmuch as spatial contours are part of its essence, and its shape can be diagrammed without special notation. Performed music, of course, has shape, and the design of concert halls takes into consideration the question of the ideal location for listening to it. Stereophonic emission undertakes to achieve the same effect. But traditionally, spatial factors have no presence in the score, and it is as if shape were the price that melodies pay for being heard, an artifact of our hearing apparatus having evolved in such a way that we cannot help giving sounds a location. Spatial considerations tend to define a difference between our experience of music and our musical experience, and do not strictly belong to the latter, any more than do the coughs of a concert audience, which belong to the former. But then, because spatial considerations are essential to sound works, they cannot be classed as music. Moreover, for reasons I shall come to, a sound work cannot be recorded. It has to be experienced at the site for which it was designed.

In the case of the Whitney work of 1983, the site in question was the so-called sculpture court in front of the museum, on Madison Avenue, which is transected by the familiar noises of chugging buses and slamming truck gates, urgent sirens and impatient taxis, and the amiable chatter of those waiting to enter the museum, or of schoolchildren passing by in groups. Time Piece was composed, in perhaps both senses of the term, of these live sounds, which Neuhaus then 'colored' and shifted somewhat in time, but in such a way that the slightly enhanced street noises heard by the museum visitors would have been heard as precisely those street noises and nothing more. But every quarter of an hour, the coloration ceased, leaving in its place an abruptly noticeable silence: the presence of a momentary absence. 'For the few seconds after the sound is gone', Neuhaus writes, 'what could be described as a transparent aural afterimage is superimposed on the everyday sounds of the environment'. These periodic silences he terms a 'silent alarm clock', using, in effect, the silence to awaken us to the noises of the passing world. Neuhaus has created just such a time-piece for the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland, where, on each hour and half-hour, a sound, insinuated into the flow of sounds that constitute the aural fabric of life as it flows around that institution, suddenly ceases, striking the hour and half-hour with heard silences. It is as though the ordinary world is restored to consciousness, through these silences, every thirty minutes. It is, in fact, a very poetic idea.

I have read of a lovely piece he created in Cologne, next to the de-belled church of Saint Cäcilien, now a museum for medieval arts. It is called Bell for St. Cäcilien, and it consists of a disembodied bell sound that materializes out of nowhere in the little park that the former church flanks. It is like an aural memory of the edifice's former function, and a true piece of artistic magic. It must be a perfect aural experience to hear it, rich with its associations of place, just as Times Square is rich with the associations of its very different place.

 

Arthur Danto, "Max Neuhaus: Sound Works," Nation (New York), March 4, 1991, 281-284.