DJing as an Art Form (Part 1)

The concept of art is a much more abstract one than the idea of DJing.  It is a logical and factual statement to say that someone “is a saxophone player”, “is a baker”, or “is a DJ”… but to make a statement saying that any of those people are artists would seem to involve a certain level of personal opinion and emotion.  Can we make an objective statement in reference to whether or not a person is an artist simply by what they do?

Webster’s Dictionary gives quite a few definitions for the word, which is testament to its broad range of use.  For example, one of them is:

“The application of skill to the production of the beautiful by imitation or design, or an occupation in which skill is so employed, as in painting and sculpture; one of the fine arts; as, he prefers art to literature.”

Fine arts?  What does that mean?  Refined?  Perfected?  No, fine art simply refers to art forms which exist simply for their aesthetic properties or concept.  This includes visual and performance arts such as painting, sculpting, collage, musical performance, theater, poetry and dancing.  These things (typically) exist for their own sake.  This differs from the idea of applied art, which means that it serves some practical function.  Think of graphic design, fashion design, or just about anything that has the word “design” after it.  It is art that serves a specific purpose outside of the simple appreciation of itself.  Many times, pieces of applied art are collected: movie posters, advertisements, or World War II propaganda, for example.

Truthfully, the lines get pretty blurry even between different types of art.  Sometimes this is because different artforms are combined.  Think of the creation of a magazine.  You have graphic designers and photographers who apply their visual applied art, authors who perform their literary art, and so on.  Many of the things involved in the creation of a magazine involve the arts… yet very few of us consider a magazine to be a “work of art”.

Here’s another definition from Webster:

“The systematic application of knowledge or skill in effecting a desired result. Also, an occupation or business requiring such knowledge or skill.”

When you view things from this cut-and-dry perspective, it would seem difficult to deny DJing the coveted title of “artform”.  Can it be a fine art?  Well, there are plenty of people who craft mix sets simply for their own sake, and there are plenty of people who go to see DJs based on the product that will be the result of the performer’s own personal taste.  Can it be an applied art?  Well, that seems to be a no-brainer.  The wedding DJ certainly serves a purpose, as does the standard nightclub or radio DJ.  They are using the systematic application of knowledge or skill in an occupation which serves a practical function.  It could even be considered a performance art, which is any situation that involves these four elements: time, space, the performer’s body (or presence in a medium), and a relationship between performer and audience.

The Silent Treatment

In 1952, an experimental American composer named John Cage made his most famous and controversial work.  It was a three-movement composition called 4’33” (pronounced as “Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds”), written for any instrument or combination of instruments.  The score instructs the performer or performers to not play their instruments for the entire duration of the piece.  That’s right… it’s a musical number with no musical instruction written.  It is often perceived as “four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence”, but Cage’s piece actually intends to consist of the sounds of the environment that the listener hears while the composition is performed.  The premiere performance of 4’33” was given by a pianist named David Tudor at a concert hall in Woodstock, New York.  Tudor sat at the piano and closed the lid.  At the end of each movement, he would open the lid briefly to signify the beginning of a new section.

“All great art is a form of complaint.”

-John Cage

Cage considered this to be his most important work.  You see, he was a big fan of Zen Buddhism.  Cage wanted to separate the composers and the artist, as well as any social connection, from the music.  He believed that our idea of artistic expression was merely the result of a lifetime of conditioning by society… all influenced by other things we had refer to as “art” since we were born.  In this piece, neither the performer nor the composer had any control or impact on the music.  What the audience heard was a unique performance each time, based on the ambient sounds of the venue.

Seems pretty silly, right?  I’m sure there were quite a few people who thought that Cage was a pretentious jerk who was pulling a stupid stunt.  Can 4’33” be considered a piece of art?  Many people would consider it to be the absence of art.  Cage would probably argue that it was pure and truthful performance art as given by the audience of the piece.  Maybe it’s not the “music” itself, but the concept, that makes it art.  Maybe it’s not art at all, and Cage was just some prankster who made a bet with his bros that he could get people to sit attentively in a concert hall for more than four minutes in complete silence.

I’m not trying to convince DJs to walk into their next gig and stand there in complete silence with no music playing, trying to convince everyone that their drunken angry shouts are the real musical performances to be appreciated.  I only mean to show that many people have different thoughts and feelings on what “artists” and “works of art” are.  The terms are definable, yet the concepts aren’t so cut-and-dry as the concept of being a DJ is.

(Click here to check out Part 2 of this article.)