94: Four Minutes and 33 Seconds.

To gain the status of an original artist is not easy, but in a society where art is revered as the highest cultural achievement, the rewards are enormous. There is, therefore, an incentive to fake it, to produce a complicit circle; the artists posing as the originators of astonishing breakthroughs, the critics posing as the penetrating judges of the true avant-garde. We observe this phenomenon in the symbiosis of Greenberg and the abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning.

Another pertinent example is the American composer John Cage. With a singular skill for self-promotion, yet no prior evidence of musical competence, Cage made his reputation with his celebrated piece 4’33” (1952) — a happening in which a pianist in concert dress sits silently at the piano for exactly four minutes and 33 seconds. On the strength of this and a few similar pranks, Cage presented himself as an original composer, ‘putting in question’ the entire tradition of Western concert music. Critics hastened to endorse his high self-opinion, hoping to share in the glory of discovering a new and original genius. The Cage phenomenon quickly became established as part of the culture, able to call upon subventions from the cultural institutions, and recruiting a raft of imitators for whom, however, it was too late to cause a stir as Cage had done, by doing nothing.

Similar episodes occurred in the visual arts, beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s urinal and passing through Andy Warhol’s silk screen portraits and Brillo boxes to the pickled sharks and cows of Damien Hirst. In each case, the critics gathered like clucking hens around the new, inscrutable egg, and the fake was projected to the public with all the apparatus required for its acceptance as the real thing. So powerful is the impetus towards the collective fake that it is now an effective requirement of finalists for the Turner Prize in Britain to produce something that nobody would think was art unless they were told it was. On the other hand, original gestures of the kind introduced by Duchamp cannot really be repeated — like jokes, they can be made only once. So we find a habit of faking that is so deeply wrapped up in its own imperatives that no judgment is certain, except the judgment that this before us is the ‘real thing’ and not a fake at all, which in turn is a fake judgment.

(Roger Scruton, “The Great Swindle,” Aeon Magazine, December 17, 2012).

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94: Four Minutes and 33 Seconds.