4 minutes 33 seconds of ignorance

By Taylor Burgess |

When, on Thursday morning, students in yellow t-shirts pranced, slept, wailed, drew, read, danced, made paper airplanes, took off shoes, “did disciplined actions” and, in some senses, sang on the Quad, I observed two types of reactions from passersby: either a nonplussed blankness and fear of reacting inappropriately to the absurdity, causing most to just keep walking, or jeering laughter at the “Art” school freaks and their pretentious, postmodern crap.

This is the space where I, columnist with a chip on my shoulder and a penchant for postmodern crap, could rage against all those Alabamian rubes and their constricted conceptions of music, art, politics, religion and philosophy. But that’s all trite, really, and well-tread ground for this rag; instead, I’m going to analyze a nuance by gleefully defending and encouraging at least that first reaction.

After all, for those unfamiliar with John Cage (and, more importantly, with the School of the Arts’ planned homage), the performance was probably a bit bewildering—and why should it not be? Much of the “avant-garde” (a term I use self-consciously, understanding how unqualified I am to discuss this topic in a truly learned way) is alienating; most people, myself included, prefer the satisfaction of cadence and, even more broadly, the comforts of tonal music.

But within those self-imposed limits lies the crux: namely, the recognition that there are limits to my understanding of a given field, and that they are self-imposed, applying only to me.

Unfathomable volumes of knowledge exist outside my frame of reference. When I see John Cage performed or read combinatorial theory or watch an Olympic gymnast or drink fine wine, the only appropriate reaction is to be flattened, flummoxed, paved over and humbled by the unbearable weight of all that I do not know and never will.

This may seem negative, paralyzing—but what other choice do we have? Brash idealism will only lead to disappointment when, at the end our finite lifetimes, we realize we have not absorbed all. Better to focus, to narrow, to explore a pinprick to the extent that we, as individuals, can, fueling our passion with a pragmatic awareness of all other streams of study that we must necessarily ignore.

So, I ultimately revise my sympathies with the confused on Thursday: the reaction—anxiety, shock, wonder, laughter—is justified, but the intent may not be. If the bafflement results from an uncertain curiosity, a near reflex from encountering something completely new, it is natural and healthy; however, if it is based in arrogance and a presupposition that one’s particular ideas about what, say, music can and can’t be or do or make are somehow definitive and static, then I denounce it.

I assure you: the School of the Arts’ professors and students understand John Cage’s significance much more thoroughly than you and I. Give respect where it is due, and only demand it when contextually deserved.

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