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Sound Art at MoMA is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The Daily Pic: MoMA launches its first sound-art survey.

(Commissioned by Creative Time, Friends of the High Line and the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation; photo by Stephen Vitiello)

This is one of many bells recorded by Stephen Vitiello for his outdoor sound piece called “A Bell for Every Minute", now installed in the MoMA garden for the Aug. 10 opening of “Soundings: A Contemporary Score", the Modern’s first full survey of sonic art. My feature on the show and its artform appears in print in Sunday’s New York Times, and is online now. Among the things I didn’t have room to mention there:

– That sound is a rare medium that has managed to keep an avant-garde patina. Maybe that’s because of the recent rediscovery of the sound-art components in early Dada and abstraction, and because of the new recognition of John Cage as a seminal figure for all postwar artforms. Also and amazingly, painting and sculpture, material and commodified, still count as the artistic norm, which lets an immaterial and hard-to-sell medium like sound continue to act as the Official Opposition.

– That the best new pieces of so-called sound art are almost all representational: That is, they find new ways to present sonic “images" that we already know and care about, and to comment on them. Which means that, rather than being a new medium for art making (and when was the last time sophisticated people thought about art in medium-specific terms?), sound is merely a new subject worth exploring, in a medium that happens, not surprisingly, to be mostly sonic. (Although the great success of Christian Marclay’s phonic works comes from realizing how tightly sound and vision have been packaged together in 20th-century culture.)

– That sonic pieces have quite simply become some of the best recent works, in any medium: I mention Janet Cardiff’s “40 Part Motet" in my Times piece, but I might as well have cited the Anri Sala installation at the current Venice Biennale, Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag" and “Video Quartet" (arguably more profound than his popular “Clock"), Rineke Dijkstra’s “Buzz Club" and Bruce Nauman’s “Days".

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