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<   No. 1402   2006-11-28   >

Comic #1402

1 {silent black panel}
2 {silent black panel}
3 {silent black panel}
4 {silent black panel}

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Before launching into this annotation, I'd like you to go back and read that comic again.

Seriously. Take at least 10 seconds on each panel. I'll wait for you.

Back? Okay then...

I'll grant that this comic looks like four completely black panels (except for the faint copyright notice) and no text. Many people would say that's precisely what it is. That is not, however, all that it is.

This comic exists in a context that gives it meaning beyond the black pixels. Most of you reading this know the story of the Fantasy theme up to this point, and can interpret correctly what is being portrayed here. This is Lambert waiting in the dark for whatever fate awaits him. He's by himself, so there's no real need to talk. He may well be thinking, but I choose not to give you any insight into exactly what he is thinking.

You, the reader, can look at these four black panels and imagine for yourself what Lambert is doing, and what he is thinking.

Now if you didn't humour me the first time around, or this thought never occurred to you, I'd once more like you to go back and read the comic again. Slowly. Think for a bit on each individual panel. Again, I'll wait for you.

Done? Okay, let's continue.

This comic isn't just four black panels. It's the empty framework on which you fill in the details. Every reader will see something different in this comic. Not literally, of course, but within your imagination. And if you come back and read it again later, going through the archives or whatever, you may well see something different. Maybe by then you'll know more about Lambert and what happens subsequently in his story. That will give you more insight into what possibilities exist here. In fact, I explicitly invite you to return to this comic after you see the next strip in the Fantasy theme, and see what has changed here.

Let me tell you the story behind the creation of this strip.

This strip was inspired by the spirited discussion on the Irregular Webcomic! forums after strip #1383 appeared. One poster said that he wouldn't put it past me to actually go to the effort of taking photos in a pitch black room and use them to create the all-black panels (rather than simply make black rectangles in Photoshop). After all, he said, that's what he would have done. He then went on to give another example of something that he actually did:

In order to get a copy of composer John Cage's best-known work, 4'33", he selected a CD track of the same four-minute and thirty-three-second length, converted it to a digital file, set all the output levels to zero, and ripped the result to MP3. (For those who may not know, 4'33" is a musical composition consisting of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. More on this in a minute.) He could have gone a much more direct route to creating an MP3 track consisting of nothing but silence, but he figured John Cage would appreciate his approach.

This fired off a lengthy discussion of exactly what 4'33" was, and what the heck the whole point of it was. As noted already, 4'33" is a piece of music consisting of a precisely timed period of silence. Already that statement contains a contentious point. Is it really a piece of music? Or is it just pretentious artsy wankery?

To answer this question, you need to understand the point of 4'33". Why was it written? (And indeed it was written: Cage produced a score for it, the score consisting of three movements, each one containing nothing but the instruction "tacet", meaning "silence" in standard musical notation.) The original poster on the forums gave a reasonable summary of how he interpreted the work:

John Cage was an avant-garde composer in the middle of the last century, well known for using things like randomness and challenging the definition of music. 4'33" is one of his more famous controversial works. It consists of three movements, each having a specified length and summing to 4 minutes 33 seconds as the title suggests. The music for each movement is exactly the same, and summed up by a one word direction in the sheet music: "Tacet" (silence). Many interpretations have been given for what exactly the piece means. I see it as a recognition of the principle of Yin-Yang (John Cage is known to have been strongly influenced by Asian philosophy, he was a Zen Buddhist)... that like a house is more than the walls, but also the voids that make up the doors, rooms, and windows; a musical performance also has a mix of the intentional sounds made by the performers and the unintentional, variant sounds of the environment it's performed in. 4'33" is the ultimate statement of that distinction, as the only sounds in the piece are the sounds of the environment that it's performed in... it's a house that has no walls. A typical performance is typically done by sitting at an open piano with a watch, and closing the lid on the keys to mark each movement for its duration (for my mp3 file, I mark the durations in the note area of the ID3 tag (Mv I 30", II 2'33", III 1'40"), as I didn't want the movements split apart).
This prompted the following comment from another reader:
I did a project once in a Philosophy class where we had to design an art piece and then present it to the class in its relation to what we were studying. I chose to do modern art - but since I am no artist, I obviously made a piece-of-[rubbish]. I chose to do modern art, naturally, because modern art isn't visual art, its become so morphed that its better defined as literature. All I had to do to make my piece of [rubbish] into a work of art was put some convincing "meaning" behind it. That's what I think of your John Cage [bovine excrement].
The first poster responded:
Well, these days we live in a cynical society where such a piece would be seen as silly and a cliche of modern art and simply laughed off. Back in 1952, things were different (hindsight is 20/160). 4'33" did cause a stir and generated strong emotions in the audience (infuriation, dismay, and anger).

4'33" is important because it challenges the border of what is music by marking an extreme case. How much intentional sound is needed before something is music? 4 notes? 3? 2? 1?... what if that 1 note is 1/2 the duration? a 1/4? an 1/8? When do you cross the point between music and non-music? 4'33" clearly asks this even before it's stated, by its nature it makes the audience automatically jump to the question, "Where's the music?".

And it's because of these two things: the generation of strong emotion in its peer audience, and the fact that it unquestionably challenges the definition of music, that it is art. A college student's piece of [rubbish] that generates apathy in the audience and challenges nothing without the [bovine excrement] description from the student is something else entirely. 4'33" is simply a piece that eventually had to be written and exist because music exists. Art school pieces of [rubbish] only exist because the "artist" needs to pass the course.

And the second replied:
This is absolutely insane! I can't believe I'm actually having this discussion! Let's start with's definition, always a good place, wouldn't you say?
  1. an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.
  2. the tones or sounds employed, occurring in single line (melody) or multiple lines (harmony), and sounded or to be sounded by one or more voices or instruments, or both.
The question shouldn't be "When is something 'music'?" The question is "When is something so [gosh-darned] stupid that it ceases to be anything but ridiculous?" And that is a question that is so very, very, very easy to answer. I'm not angry because some moron decided to be "controversial" by making a piece of "music" that was, in fact, not, I'm angry because people actually pay attention to this [rubbish]! It's like going to a modern art museum and discussing the artistic values of a urinal, and how it speaks to modern society and the plight of the Africans. Give me a break! Its a urinal! I [urinate] into something just like it on occasion!

If someone can make a "song" that is in fact silence, recorded, and market it, I say more power to them. That is capitalism. But let's be honest with each other folks, the joke is on you.

At this point, a third poster put in:
When I first heard of 4'33", I thought it was just a bit of silliness. After reading this thread, though, I've changed my mind. Anything that can invoke that sort of fervid ranting with nothing but a bit of silence has got to be art.
And the discussion went on from there, with several other people proffering various opinions.

Whatever you think or say about 4'33", you can't deny that it generates opinion, thought, discussion, and sometimes argument.

All right. Now let's discuss art. What is art?

We could all probably come up with our own definitions of art, and they would vary quite a lot. For some people, art is paint on a canvas. For some people art is a means of expressing oneself. For some people art is a form of entertainment. Art is difficult to define precisely. There's a lot of wisdom in the old chestnut that, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." This sums up the difficulty that many people have in giving a precise definition of art.

You can start with a simplistic idea like, "art is a picture of something". When you start probing at that idea, you discover things about it. Does a painted picture count as art? Yes. What about a photograph? Um... maybe... if it's "artistic". What about paint on a canvas that doesn't really resemble an object or scene, is that art? Erm... it could be... it depends. What about geometric lines and shapes in primary colours? Well now you're getting weird... you mean like some red and yellow and blue squares with some black lines or something? No way, that's not art.

Except it is.

Okay, some of you may disagree at this point. You may think Piet Mondrian was a fraud who spent five minutes whacking some coloured squares on a canvas and got lucky when some idiots paid good money for it. You know what? You're entitled to that opinion.

The rest of you are happy to call Mondrian's work art. Why is that? Is it because other people call it art and you're going along with the consensus? Or have you actually thought about it and formed an opinion, perhaps discussed his work or works similar to it in an art class you took once, and decided that yes, that is art? I have no doubt there are people reading this in both camps.

When I was younger, I looked at paintings like Mondrian's, or Jackson Pollock's, and thought to myself, "A kid could have done that! How is that art?!" I saw similar thoughts echoed by some of the people around me sometimes. "Modern art is a load of rubbish." "Give me a good painting of a landscape any day."

One day I went on a trip to Canberra. Canberra is an interesting place to visit; being the capital of Australia it's full of all sorts of federal and national stuff like Parliament House and the High Court and the National Library and the National Art Gallery. I visited the National Gallery of Australia, which I highly recommend if you're ever in Canberra. I browsed around the old paintings, admiring the works of the various old European masters. Walking along, I turned a corner into another room and saw this amazing thing on the wall.

It was enormous... Taller than a person and over twice as wide, almost filling an entire wall. It was a mass of coloured lines of paint, splashed every which way, orange, red, white, yellow, blue, all splashed over the top of each other in thick ropey strands. It was simply stunning, in the literal sense that I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared at it. I walked up close to examine this work, transfixed by the shapes and colours, and the sheer size of it. Slowly, as I dissected this thing with my eyes, and tried to come to terms with it, I realised.

This was Blue Poles.

This was the painting by Jackson Pollock that the National Gallery had bought in 1973 for the jaw-dropping price of AU$1.3 million, the highest price ever paid up to then for a work of modern art, the subject of nationwide ridicule, criticism, and scorn, and believed by some to be a significant factor in the dramatic downfall of the Australian Government in 1975. I'd heard about Blue Poles while growing up. It was part of Australian folklore as a symbol of government stupidity, excess, and waste. Paying good money for a piece of junk that any kid could have done.

But when I first saw it, before I realised what I was looking at, I was gobsmacked by the visual power and intensity. After looking at European masters and Renaissance art and Monets and van Goghs all morning, I turned a corner and was completely and utterly blown away by something I never expected to appreciate. I saw a lot of art that day, a lot of very good art. And Blue Poles still stands out to this day as the most amazing and inspiring thing I saw; I hardly remember any of the rest of it at all. That moment was an epiphany. I realised then and there why modern art existed.

Blue Poles smashed my prior conceptions of what art was. It made me think about art, in a way that I had never thought about it before. It changed my opinions of art.

Blue Poles generated opinion and thought in me, and I'm sure in many other people before and since. It certainly generated discussion, and argument. Sound familiar?

Whatever you think or say about 4'33", you can't deny that it generates opinion, thought, discussion, and sometimes argument.
How would I define art? That is a difficult question. I'm sure there are people who will disagree, but here goes:

To me, art is work that has no agenda or purpose but to generate opinion, thought, discussion, and sometimes argument. The goal of art is to make people think about art. And to me, this is why works like Blue Poles, or Mondrian's Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, or John Cage's 4'33" are art.

(Aside: I don't want to get into the question of whether or not 4'33" is music. Honestly, I'm not sure about that yet. I'm still thinking about it and trying to formulate my opinion in a way that makes sense to me. But the very fact that it's making me think about it so seriously tells me that, in my mind anyway, it qualifies as art.)

So what's the point of all this discussion that you, dear reader, have diligently worked your way through?

To be frank, I'm trying to justify why I feel that I can show you four black panels with no text and not feel like I'm ripping you off. You come here every day for a comic, and I do my best to provide one. Some of you might feel that what I've offered today is not a comic. I think it is. And I'd like you to know why I think that way. (Also, this might just stop me getting a hundred e-mails from people saying, "What the??? Where's the comic??" I bet I get some anyway; ah well.)

So, when all is said and done, I hope I've given you something to think about today.

Did you go back and re-read the comic when I asked you at the beginning of this annotation? Or did you just skip through, thinking, "Yeah, I know what it looks like, I don't really need to actually go back and stare at four black panels again, I'll just pretend I did."? Maybe give it another shot now.

And if you have never visited a gallery of modern art, perhaps because you thought you would never appreciate anything in there, I beg of you to give it a try one day. Keep in mind what I've said today, and just give it a try. You never know what you might find around a corner that you never thought about before.

Douglas Hofstadter once wrote in his seminal book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid that it's difficult for an author to write something with a sudden, unexpected ending, because the fact that the reader is running out of pages makes it obvious well before the end that the ending must be coming soon. He suggested a way to prevent this. I'll discuss this in the context of a novel, just to make the concept clearer.

The idea is that you actually end the story partway through the book, so that you can't tell from how much remains how close you are to the end. Just filling the rest of the book with blank pages isn't good enough, because a reader can just turn back to the last bit of text and figure out that that's where the story ends. So when the story ends, you keep writing more of the events that happen afterwards. In this way you fill an extra 10 or 30 or 100 pages of the book, thus making it impossible for someone to tell where the actual end of the story is without reading it.

And in order to make it clear where the end of the story is to the diligent reader who works all the way through, you subtly change the writing in some way when the end occurs. You could change the mood or the writing style or the characters or the topic, in a way that marks a clear disconnect to the diligent reader. The reader will then know where the true end of the story occurs, and realise that everything that comes after it is just filler text to fool them into thinking that there was more to the story than there really is.

I think that's a pretty amazing idea. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone actually do it, though.

2016-07-02 Rerun commentary: It's difficult writing something new to follow what's already written here about this comic.

I'll just reiterate that art galleries are amazing places, and there is nothing quite like seeing works of visual art in person and up close. Seeing a famous piece of art in a book, or on a screen, cannot compare to seeing it actually in front of you. The reproductions don't capture all of the subtlety of the shapes and colours and reflectivities of the surfaces and so on. And in some cases the sheer size.

Wandering through an art gallery is an exercise in discovery, wonder, and blowing away your preconceptions. It's like lifting a veil from your eyes that have only seen some piece of art in a reproduction.

I only wish I could show you the original artwork for this comic. Wow.

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