In January, St. Peter’s Church in Sussex, England, made the news by selling out its first printing of a new recording—of silence, recorded inside the church. “The Sound of Silence” may be today’s hottest inaudible hit record. But it is hardly the first. Since John Cage composed his silent work “4’33” ” in 1952, for example, it has been covered thousands of times by symphonies and rock bands including Cage Against the Machine, a supergroup convened especially to plug in and play nothing.
The genre of blankness— silent compositions, white canvases, blank books, empty pages—crops up again and again in the art world, fascinating and rankling us perhaps more than any other kind of art. “4’33” ” is Cage’s most famous composition; Robert Ryman’s all-white paintings have sold for over $1 million at auction. These works raise dizzying questions: How does not writing a poem qualify as poetry? Once one painter proffers a white canvas, how does another artist’s blank canvas add anything? If blank works look and sound the same, how can some be considered satirical, some mournful, and some exuberant?