It was a time of accidental art. Where artists let sheer happenstance paint their pictures or a throw of the dice shape their music; a deliberate effort it seemed, to avoid making decisions. An art of escape and procrastination. …
Artistic creation has probably always involved accident. A melodic fragment hit upon by chance during improvisation or a street song overheard during an evening stroll has often been turned to good purpose by composers, both past and present. The accidental mixing of colors on a palette, the unforeseen flaw in a marble block have not infrequently influenced the final form of a painter’s or a sculptor’s work. Chance has always been with the creator as a condition of his occupation; it has been a fact of life to be accepted and turned to the artist’s fine purpose. But chance had not until recently been elevated into a principle of creation.
By the 1950′s a small but influential group of artists and musicians were intentionally using accident as a way of creating works of art. Jackson Pollock allowed chance to play an important role in his technique of painting. Placing a canvas on the floor, he trickled, poured, and dripped paint onto it from above in a series of freely improvised movements. The French painter George Mathieu attacked his canvas with frenzied gestures. Paint was squirted on the canvas from the ube, thrown at it, sloshed on it, the end product of this violent assault was, to a considerable extent, the result of capricious chance.
It was suggested by apologists for the accidental in art that this seemingly spontaneous, unreflective process of creation owes little to the really accidental. Rather, it involves the use of the unconscious. Such aesthetic improvisations allowing the artist to express their innermost being; unconscious image processes free from the controlling restrictions of the ego or the superego.
The problem with this pseudo-Freudian account is that musicians, as well, were elevating chance into a principle of creation. But since it is difficult to trace tonal patterns to unconscious image processes or repressed fantasies, this did not seem a plausible explanation for the composers’ use of chance. Indeed, their dependence on accident had been so studied and blatant as to leave no doubt about their intentions in the matter.
John Cage, for instance, after assigning numbers to the tones of the scale, used the throws in a Chinese dice game-and as became apparent, it is significant that the game was Asian- to determine the succession of pitches in one of his compositions. It is hard to connect how the resulting music could in any way have expressed Cage’s unconscious. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen allowed chance, usually in the form of the whim of the performer, to determine the order in which the parts of his compositions are to be played. For instance, his composition Nr. 7 Klaverstuck XI consists of nineteen musical fragments which are to be played in a more or less random order, according to the choice of the performer.
While one might conceivably argue that the performer’s unconscious made him play one fragment rather than another, it is difficult to believe that Sockhausen’s repressed image processes were themselves involved. Other composers have used tables of random numbers or the flip of a coin to choose their tonal, rhythmic, and thematic materials. Here chance could rule directly and absolutely: the id, the ego, and the superego were in no way involved.
Can the technique of creation by chance be just confined to music and the plastic arts? Why not literature? Literature employs an artificial system of signs, whose vocabulary , grammar and syntax, are almost entirely conventional; the use of accident such
olling a dice to choose letters or words would give rise to meaningless combinations. A semblance of spelling , vocabulary and grammar , as in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, must be maintained if there is to be any communication at all. If cance enters, it can do so only on higher structural levels, such as those involving sequences of thoughts or events.
Visual and aural experience, on the other hand, can be unorganized and random and not seem totally meaningless. For one thing, the need for the human mind for order is so great that it will organize even random stimuli into some sort of pattern, if it possibly can. And in music and art, where the system of signs is less rigidly specified than in language, apparent may arise out of accidental relationships. Moreover, though not strictly speaking intelligible, random music and art could certainly be classified as “suggestive” : in much the same way that Chinese poetry may seem suggestive, though not intelligible, when heard by someone who does not understand the language.