The shock value of a work of art can be notoriously fleeting. Duchamp’s signed urinal once stunned even his fellow artists, and sounded a call for rethinking the relationship of art and society. Now replicas of his porcelain provocation grace the collections of museums around the world, and sell for close to $2 million.
By comparison, John Cage’s legendary silence piece — “4’33” ” — remains controversial 60 years after its premiere, capable of inciting suspicion, resentment, or perhaps most often, simple misunderstanding. Some listeners may suspect they are the butt of a conceptualist’s joke, as they sit watching a performer doing absolutely nothing on stage for the specified duration of time. But Cage was dead serious. He was out to upend our notions of where one can find music, to open our ears to the background hum, the ambient noise, the native acoustic textures of the world around us.