Yesterday I had a session with two fifth grade classes (about 40 or so students), in which a local pianist/composer came in and performed John Cage’s 4′ 33″ to inspire a conversation about the nature of music and art. In each of these classes, I had facilitated a session within the last couple of weeks in which we talked about the nature of art, including questions about whether art must always express emotion, how we know what emotion art expresses and whether that emotion is in the work itself, in the artist, and/or in us, and what makes something a work of art.

“Can art be emotionless?” one student asked in one of the classes. All of the students who responded wanted to claim that art must express emotion.

“All art expresses some emotion,” one student argued, “even if it’s just boredom.”

“But how do we know what emotion art is expressing?” another student asked. “It could be that we see a painting and think it’s sad, but really the artist and the person in the painting were happy.”

Several students maintained that expression, color, a subject’s body language, etc. all suggest certain emotions. Some of us might see the painting as expressing an emotion that is different from the one the artist intended, which led some students to assert that really the emotion is in us, and not in the art.

“Art just triggers emotion,” one student declared, “but the emotion it triggers is in us and not in the art.”

This led us to a discussion about what makes something art. I wadded up a piece of paper and threw it onto a table. “What if I said this was a new work of art I’d just created?”

“Well,” one student responded, “that could be art if you were intending to express something.”

“Okay,” I answered, “so if I said this was my expression of how pointless life seemed, that would make this crumpled-up paper art?”

“Yes,” another student put in. “If you intended to express that, it could be art. But if I was doing my homework and crumpled up the paper I was working on because it was wrong and planned to throw it in the garbage, that wouldn’t be art.”

“So can anything be art?” I asked.

In both classes, most students seemed to think that yes, anything can be art, though some of it is “bad art.” What really matters, most suggested, is the intention of the artist.

When we came into the band room for the performance of John Cage’s piece, the students were, of course, expecting to hear a performance of a traditional music piece. They were, just as students with whom I did this last year were, completely respectful and quiet during the performance of the piece. When it ended, they applauded, and when I asked them what they had experienced, the students observed that the effect of the piece was very relaxing and peaceful. One student commented that they had all been kind of “noisy and jittery” when we all came into the room, and noted how calm and quiet the room had become. Others commented on the way that the piece had allowed them to listen to all the sounds in the room in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. We talked about Cage’s intention that the piece be a “listening experience.” Is 4’ 33” music?

Some of the ideas that came out of this conversation included the claim that for something to be music, there must be a listener, that even one note can be music, and that silence can be a kind of music. We referred back to our earlier conversation about the centrality of the artist’s intention. Cage’s intention in creating 4’ 33”, to generate in listeners a greater openness to listening to all the sounds in the world, was decisive for most students in their conclusion that the piece counts as music. I wonder if this discussion leads the students to notice more the sounds in their lives, and to explore whether all or some of these sounds are music and what makes them so.

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Great stuff. Thank you for sharing!


Thanks for posing these questions. They are fundamental to this discussion, I think. We talked in class a little about some of them, particularly "if anything can be art, then is art really nothing?" The students have been reading the blog, so I've asked them if they would post a response to these questions. We'll see what they have to say!


If anything can be art, then is art really nothing? Is art simply an intention in the mind of the artist? In which case, can an idea be art?