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?
Craig Dworkin, an English professor at the University of Utah, has dedicated an entire new book to picking apart what’s going on in these works where, seemingly, nothing’s going on at all. In “No Medium,” he examines art such as Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 “Erased de Kooning Drawing”; literary works like French psychoanalyst Gérard Wajcman’s “L’interdit,” a frequently blank novel about an amnesiac; and more than 60 silent compositions, from “Blank Tapes” by an Argentinian trio called Reynols to the moment of silence in Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Bande à part.”
In the process, he aims to show how these “equally unmarked pages can enact different significances,” and to explore just why they’re so provocative. The absences in blank art, Dworkin says, have an unusual power to overturn the notion of the artist as someone with new ideas, and thus can expose political and cultural fault lines that underlie both art and authorship.
Dworkin spoke with Ideas from his home in Utah. This interview has been condensed and edited.
IDEAS: How do you begin to evaluate a blank page?
DWORKIN: Their specifics are always going to be slightly different...[and] the social context and social circumstances in which that paper is encountered. The blank sheet of typing paper handed to you as a conceptual poem seems very different than the one handed to you by the clerk at Kinko’s, even those two sheets of paper are physically identical. I definitely think some are better than others.
IDEAS: How? What makes them better?
DWORKIN: [The Russian poet Vasilisk] Gnedov’s  “The Poem of the End” [a blank poem that appeared at the end of a book]...is one of the most important blank literary pages [because] it establishes such a clear connection between the aspirations of an avant-garde, conceptual poetics and the conceptual avant-garde in the other arts....[It’s] imagining that literature could aim for a kind of radical degree zero that painting was aiming for at the time.
IDEAS: This impulse comes out of modernism, right? How did it arise?
DWORKIN: [There was] an impulse across the arts in modernism that would begin to pursue various genres of art to their most reduced essence. This is what we think of as [critic Clement] Greenberg’s insistence on the essence of the medium—the essence of sculpture is gravity, the essence of painting is the monochromatic plane of the canvas—[and] one way to think of the essence of the poem is to reduce it to it barest essence, which might be the page.
IDEAS: How have other artists received these works?
DWORKIN: Extreme or avant-garde works...[tend to] either seem momentously, deadly serious or completely goofy and hoax-like. It seems they work best in those moments when [these feelings] are unresolvable. John Cage was clearly a prankster and a Dadaist and a provocateur, but he played the role for so long that you started to believe that he was also really serious.
IDEAS: Cage’s work becomes important in the ’50s and ’60s. Why was this another boom time for blank and silent art?
DWORKIN: If you think of the post-surrealist works from the ’40s like the abstract expressionism of [Jackson] Pollock and his peers, these are big, messy canvasses that are freighted with overwrought psychological expressiveness. One of the powerful statements that someone like [Robert] Rauschenberg’s uninflected, house paint, ruler-applied white canvasses makes is [to] establish a stark contrast to the mess and splatter of all of those visceral, gestural, angst-filled paintings. All the politics around individual expression play out in contrast against quiet, minimal works.
IDEAS: What about silent compositions—what makes these interesting?
DWORKIN: In CD technology, there’s more than one value assigned to null. There are empirically, digitally, different silences encoded, so we don’t hear them exactly the same.
[But there’s] also social context. There are silences in churches that are fraught with emotional meaning, like a moment of silence. There is silent prayer, there is silence when people are bored, or simply when nobody’s there. Context makes us imagine a moment of silence in different, affective ways.
IDEAS: But the audience hears the same thing in each case. How can silent compositions evoke different emotions?
DWORKIN: “Two Minutes Silence” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono...memorializes the death of their child. It follows a track called “Baby’s Heartbeat,” which is the sound of their unborn baby’s heartbeat, and then you get two minutes of silence. I find it heartbreakingly sad.
There’s this garage punk band called the Phantom Pregnancies. When their record label, Damaged Goods, put out a compilation set, which was called “Hey Mom! The Garage Is on My Foot,” the Phantom Pregnancies just gave them a short, silent track as a statement of refusing to contribute to a digital project rather than to the analog vinyl that had made the label what it was. That silence sounds no different from Yoko Ono’s, but it’s very affectively different.
There’s a Czech composer named Ervín Schulhoff who in 1919 publishes a piece called “In Futurum,” which is entirely silent but, rather than a blank score or an empty page, is scored with all the kinds of notations for rests in music. To look at the score is not to see one stately silence, but to see the jittery, jumpy, syncopated silences that the musician is frantically counting out so the audience isn’t going to hear anything. The instructions say to always play it all the way through with feeling and expression.
IDEAS: Why do you think this sort of art bothers people so much?
DWORKIN: It has to do with the audience’s insecurity about making judgments and about evaluating work....When audiences come across something unfamiliar, there’s an impulse to think that maybe they’re being tricked, which is a version of feeling that they’re not up to what the work is demanding of them. In all fairness, sometimes the avant-garde does like to trick its audience. It’s not an unreasonably paranoid thought.