If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything

It is probably fair to say that, at some point in their lives, most people will have been told that if they have nothing nice to say then they shouldn’t say anything at all. The recipients of this mantra are usually children being spoken to by an authoritative figure such as their parents or a teacher, for example. This reasoning suggests a preference for passive resistance to and silent sufferance of things that are displeasing or offensive rather than more vocal expressions that can be disruptive to the status quo. Children are conditioned into accepting and praising the social and economic conditions of their existence if they wish to satisfy their desire to communicate with their peers and integrate themselves within their community, otherwise they are to be silent and reduce their impact upon others, enabling the perpetuation of the system about which they have nothing nice to say.

The distinction between displeasure and indifference resultantly becomes blurred by the ambiguity that is inherent within an individual’s silence. With the assistance of body language and gesticulations, silence can signify both shock and boredom, it can confirm or deny a proposition; silence is the voice of those who are dead and those who are in their infancy (derived from the Latin in fant which literally means “not speaking” or “one who is unable to speak”). Thus, a silent individual can signify perfect contentment and indifference or they can signify one whose opinions and observations are not deemed “nice”.

Artist Marina Abramovic is to open ‘her most ambitious artistic endeavour […] since 2010’ in London’s Serpentine Gallery in June. Her performance is to consist of “nothing”: just her and the public staring at one another for eight hours, six days a week. She told the Huffington Post that this performance will be ‘the most radical, the most pure I can do’. Her intention, she said, is ‘to prove that you can make art with nothing’.

Abramovic is not breaking new ground here. There have been a number aesthetic uses of total silence or nothingness across various media: John Cage’s “ 4’33” ”  on piano; Kazimir Malevich’s painting “White on White”; Don Paterson’s poem “On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him”, to name only a few. This minimalist mode of art attempts to passively resist interpretation by saying without saying. The art satisfies the desire to express and communicate oneself when the intended meaning must be censored in accordance with the (quasi-)parental authority that stipulates that they should not say anything at all. Displeasure therefore has to be inferred from the expressive act in much the same way that we infer an imminent visitor when the dog starts barking at the window. The bark itself is not suggestive of anything yet, upon hearing it, we infer that it must be suggestive of something. It is upon this principle that artistic communication without language or signifiers is based.

The problem, however, can be read through Walter Benjamin:

[i]n every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. […] we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding’.

Works of art are not only inviting of criticism but are critical acts in themselves. Counsel, which Benjamin later goes on to call ‘wisdom’ and ‘truth’, is completely absent from these silent works of art. Consequently, art’s obedience to a censoring authority imbues passive traits within its readers, viewers, and listeners. Where there is no story, there is also no counsel: that is, where the art does not contain any proposals regarding the human experience or the politics of civilisation, the art misses its purpose of inspiring criticism of dominant ideologies and cultural hegemony.

It is a shame, then, that when given an opportunity to freely articulate or express oneself or challenge some element of the status quo, make clear that which is obscure, alienate those who are content or indifferent, some artists choose to be silent. When given a space to utilise a voice which millions throughout history and across the world today have been denied, is it not at best a waste, or at worst, an insult not to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves? Some may say that this misses the point of modern art and that silence is sometimes far more radical than speaking out; however in times where one has nothing nice to say it is that person’s responsibility to say something, anything at all.

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