For anyone living in the West today, "background art" and music are virtually unavoidable. Public and business space are often saturated with visual and aural stimulation, yet the content of this stimulation - dilute and inoffensive by design - is bypassed by both art historical and musicological analysis. Yet to conclude that the subject is pure sociology would be to overlook some important implications for those interested and involved with the development of new creative languages. In the postmodern environment, context and subtext are all, and the manufacturers of Background product have long recognized this and used it to their own ends.
It is important to understand that "Muzak" is not simply another term for background music, but the name of an American corporation, and the indicator of something more sophisticated at work. I will consider these two then, as separate phenomena, and also introduce a third variant, Anti-Noise, which while not strictly music, also comes under the umbrella of sound designed to be heard but not listened to.
Muzak is scientifically engineered sound - functional music rather than entertainment. It affects those who hear it but does not require a conscious listening effort. The Muzak corporation call themselves "specialists in the physiological and psychological effects and applications of music", and they draw on the historical use of frequency, as well as the research work of founder Dan O'Neill, to create a "programmed environment for applications in offices, factories, banks and shops". The key to Muzak's effectiveness is "Stimulus Progression"; a system which provides people with a psychological "lift" - a subconscious sense of forward movement achieved through programming sound in fifteen minute blocks. Within each of these segments, tunes are ordered from least to most stimulating. The stimulus value of each segment is determined by factors such as tempo, rhythm, instrumentation and orchestra size. The final, brightest tune is always followed by fifteen minutes of silence, so that most employees for instance will only hear Muzak for half the time that they are working. This not only relates to attention curves, but also prevents the sound becoming the kind of imposition which could be distracting. According to the Muzak corporation's literature, music alone cannot achieve the same results as their product
"because music is art, but Muzak is science. And when you employ the science of Muzak: in an office, workers tend to get more done, more efficiently, and feel happier. In an industrial plant, people feel better and, with less fatigue and tension, their jobs seem less monotonous. In a store, people seem to shop in a more relaxed and leisurely manner. In a bank, customers are generally more calm, tellers and other personnel are more efficient. In general, people feel better about where they are; whether it's during work or leisure time. Muzak is all this and more. That's why we say Muzak is much more than music."
Obviously, the concept of attention in listening is important in both true Muzak and simple background music. Muzak is dependent on a low level of attention - more of an unconcentrated openness than anything intellectual. Background music varies in its demands, but the attention desired is usually signalled by nothing more or less than volume. If people in a restaurant did not talk over quiet background music, it would not be doing its job. Very loud background music is more often than not used simply to disguise an environment otherwise without incident or "atmosphere". In all cases however, people must not be "held" by Muzak or background music. They must not be prevented from doing other things at the same time. Pioneering studies on attention to speech have shown that when two speech messages are presented simultaneously it is possible to verbally report one of them, but that almost nothing is known about the characteristics of the other message. Thus, for instance, the non-shadowed message may change language or repeat the same phrase over and over without the subject being aware of it. These studies have been used to support the notion that our perceptual system incorporates a single, limited capacity attentional 'channel' through which only a small part of our sensory experience can pass at any one time. This mechanism operates like a 'filter' which admits only material which is defined by some distinguishing feature, such as pitch, at any one time. All other material is lost before it can reach those higher mechanisms which recognise and classify input. This might seem to suggest that Muzak and background music would either intrude completely or not be heard at all in any meaningful sense of the word, but more recent studies have challenged the "filter theory" in various ways. One alternative way of explaining attentional phenomena is that processes may take place simultaneously provided that they do not use the same kinds of cognitive mechanisms.
Anti-noise claims no connection with music at all, but is used in the same 'environmental' way as Muzak and background music. The basic principle behind anti-noise has been known for a long time. Sound is simply waves of changing air pressure, with peaks and troughs. If you can create the precise opposite of a particular sound, one that dips where the intrusive noise peaks, and fire it at the noise with a loudspeaker, the result is virtual silence. The waves cancel each other out like two sets of ripples meeting each other in a pond. A device based on this principle was patented in the Thirties by a German, Paul Lueg, who claimed that he could turn noise into silence instantaneously, but commercial applications only became feasible with the introduction of computer technology. If the anti-noise doesn't match the intrusive noise exactly, the result is more noise, so any changes in sound have to be analysed and used to "tune" the anti-noise wavelength. Now microprocessors can monitor such changes and respond within milliseconds by adjusting the mirror-image version accordingly.
Various prototype systems have been developed. Noise Cancellation Technologies, a US-based company, have created a "Silent Seat"; an executive's chair equipped with anti-noise speakers to create a quiet zone for its occupant. It won't be long before washing machines, fridges and other domestic appliances come with noise cancellers, as they are starting to do in Japan. Once we as consumers are given the option of buying quiet products however, we may find that they actually make us more sensitive to noise by forcing us to think about it. The brain's natural response to a constant, low-level noise like that produced by a fridge is to block it out after a certain period of time. Once we start thinking about noise however, it won't go away.
To understand the wider implications of Muzak, background music and anti-noise, it is necessary to return for a moment to their root - 'pure' music - and attempt a definition. According to the philosopher Susanne Langer's theory of music, the principal artistic function of music is to symbolise feelings; emotion, moods and other mental states through the organisation of sound. What music provides the listener with are not feelings - his or her own or the composer's - but insight into feelings. A given work of music is seen as a presentational symbol ("presentational" because it lacks the true vocabulary and syntax which would make it a language). However, if it is symbolic it must have a structure analogous to the structure of the phenomenon it symbolises. A work of music can do this with emotion by imitating the temporal structure of the real experience - it's patterns of tension and release, excitation, sudden change, and so on. According to Langer, music is actually better equipped to articulate feeling than language, with it's discursive nature, could ever be. "Because the forms of human feeling are much more congruent with musical forms than with the forms of language", she writes, "music can reveal the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach". She adds though, one qualification - that although music is a presentational symbol of feeling, it is also an unconsummated symbol. It represents only the morphology - the common forms of change - of emotion, and not it's complete nature.
Throughout such theory runs the idea of attention, discussed earlier. Like the falling tree in it's deserted forest, even the most considered music equals silence if no-one is listening. Is Muzak then really "more than music"? In one sense of course it is not, because causing people to stop and ponder the nature of emotion would be seen as a positive failure by it's manufacturers and users. Yet in another sense it is, because it absorbs and uses the idea of the unconsummated symbol - the impression of change - to a different end.
Muzak and background music are both caricatures. They represent music as hyper-reality; more real than the original music itself. Just as zoos are tamed, edited worlds - purporting to give visitors the experience of the wild - so Muzak and background music are both music without any of it's problems, challenges or demands. How are even musicians persuaded to accept this constant empty spoonfeeding? The principle is the same as that of the marine amphitheatre at the zoo. Trained whales are here billed as "killer whales", and probably they are very dangerous when they're hungry. Once we are convinced that they are dangerous, it is very satisfying - soothing even - to see them so obedient to orders. In the same way we are aware of the power of music, but are reassured by witnessing its (apparent) subjugation.
Still, we should not forget that Muzak has the potential to manipulate when used properly within it's own environment. Unlike adulterated music, it can become a control mechanism. There is no doubt that the body's metabolism functions primarily via a combination of electrical frequency, pulse rates, biochemical rhythms. Research findings on the physiological and psychological effects of Muzak have consistently shown that it increases the work rate of that metabolism; increasing or reducing muscular energy, fatigue and attention. For all their hyperbole about relaxation, Muzak could be accused of simply freeing corporate directors from real responsibility for their employees' conditions. Dependency is always dangerous, and it is engendered through the creation of a falsely benign object. Music has often been called a drug - but it is not addictive and it's properties are relatively transparent. Muzak and background music however, do addict in the sense that they suppress the overall potency of the metabolism they affect. In Muzak this is proven. In background music - which is less controlled - such a result might be less predictable, but equally wide-ranging in the questions it raises about the status of music in society, particularly in connection with Art or the Arts as a whole.
In our culture there exist numerous divisions and subdivisions within the Arts. Music could serve as a microcosmic model for this - with fragments corresponding to every level of critical perception from "trash" to "highbrow". Of course such boundaries, being entirely artificial, are crossed regularly. Avant-garde music can become pope just as craft can become fine art. But where do Muzak and background music fit in? Muzak remains outside categorisation because of its function and its structure. The Muzak corporation deliberately use established musics - pop, jazz and classical - because they want to produce the impression of familiarity. Familiarity is equated with friendliness and any threat is removed. So is any 'artistic' value. Background music can be any type of music, although familiarity is often put to work here too. There is even the possibility of a recording "crossing over and becoming 'visibly' popular through background play - but as with Muzak the volume and surroundings inevitably suggest that it is there to be heard but not listened to. Does this show a lack of respect for music? If Mozart is played in a supermarket has the composer been abused? Or is music a product like any other, to be bought and used freely, circumstances notwithstanding?
Similar questions rise in the consideration of background art. This is now as all-pervasive as its aural equivalent, but also needs to be understood as separate from that which gave birth to it and feeds it - in this case, painting. Background art is picture-based (ie usually painting, print or printed reproduction, only occasionally sculpture and never ephemeral or time-based work) and functions within an interior to promote a certain view of whoever owns it. Background art is to be found in the same locations as Muzak and background music, and like the former has a corporate body dedicated to its commission and manufacture. Art for Offices, a British company, promote themselves as "the complete art service" - providing "focal points" for "all categories of business, small or large, with financial options to suit the building and the budget". The concept of convenience and value are two selling points which distinguish background art from what I propose to call "gallery art". Background art is tailored art; made to fit and blend, and sometimes to approach virtual invisibility in the same way that skillful film editing is "invisible" - we notice only its effects. Gallery art demands that we make space for it. It is housed in the buildings from which it takes its name and is generally treated with reverence. Often though, this reverence is not an intention of the artist and arises from context, presentation and tradition rather than genuine appreciation of qualities within the work. Background art is the ultimate recognition of this effect. When looking at a painting supplied by Art for Offices in a work space, the viewer's appreciation of technique and subject-matter, and whether these combine to make an "effective" picture, are secondary to the semiotics of the fact of it being there at all; by what the ownership of art says about the company in question. As in the case of Muzak, the potency of human perception is suppressed. Background art encourages a brief glance but nothing more; not to question the priority it is assigned. This is reflected in the situation of artworks within - to stay with our theme - the office. To give them too great a prominence might suggest extravagance. Ideally they are present, noticeable, but not obtrusive or even striking. They are a projection of confidence to be displayed on the boardroom wall like a profits chart. "A company that believes in image needs art", reads Art for Offices' promotional brochure, "like any other product in the office, art is a true reflection of your corporate identity. Art also acts as a perfect counterbalance to the impersonal identity of technology."
In his "Rhetoric of the Image", Roland Barthes writes:
"the more technology develops the diffusion of information, and notably of images, the more it provides the means of masking the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning".
So it is that an apparently straightforward image on an office wall is subjugated by the impression it is placed to convey to competitors and the community. "Old Masters" signify wealth, success, reliability, tradition; "abstracts" signify dynamism, forward thinking, modernity.
We are here reminded of Marshall McLuhan's famous thesis that the "medium is the message". The identification of the medium with the message, the means with the content of communication, the instrument with the intention means that everything we have to say is a product of the way we express it. Sensations and ideas, feelings and thoughts, messages and commands are considered, accepted or rejected; media of expression, on the other hand, are absorbed without conscious thought. So it is that maritime oil canvasses by William James (fl 1754-1771) can hang in the boardroom of Exco International.
A friend of mine who is a practicing artist told me recently that his paintings were selling much faster since his dealer advised him to double all his prices. Obviously, this was a gamble, but it paid off because his work had acquired new status by virtue of its increased cost. Thus the "money factor is introduced. The customers of Art for Offices are not art collectors, although they may accumulate a large number of original works. They are not buying art as investment, with a view to selling it later at a profit. But still, expense can be a draw. This is particularly true of the art of the boardroom, of the director's office. Conceptual art can never be background art because it requires a certain amount of intellectual effort on the part of the viewer and aesthetics are considered insignificant. However, some Minimalist art, often considered extremely academic, is acceptable because of it's "tasteful", decorative quality. Taste is a central concern in background art, and thereby another way of distinguishing it from gallery art. Almost two hundred years ago, Wordsworth discussed Taste in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads. He was against those "who will converse with us gravely about a taste for poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for ropedancing, or Frontiniac, or Sherry." He attacked the idea of taste as "a metaphor", taken from a passive sense of the human body, and transferred to things which are in their essence not passive - to intellectual acts and operations. That is, the abstraction of a human faculty into a generalised polite attribute. Where Taste becomes a consideration in the creative process, or even the selection process, then (unless the consideration is as subject matter, ie painting about taste) the result is not painting but simulation. It has power, but that power is not under the control of the artist any more than the power of a building remains under the control of its architect.
But how much power does even the "gallery" artist enjoy? The decision as to whether a work of art is to be understood as a self-sufficient form or as the vehicle for an appeal, a thesis or a message does not necessarily depend upon the attitude of its author. In "The Sociology of Art", Arnold Hauser argues that "even the most politically, economically or morally prejudiced representation of reality can be enjoyed as pure art, as a purely formal structure, if it is aesthetically relevant at all". This gives us some hope that after background art has been deconstructed as such, we might be able to reapproach it with something like an "innocent" eye.
How then do background music and background art work together? They conspire to make us feel "at home wherever we are, to win our trust effortlessly. But an environment so smoothly constructed is bound to invite scratches. A current debate within Postmodernist art is concerned with the discourse between opposition and complicity; how to use the strategies of power structures in order to criticise them, without slipping from pastiche into reality and actually becoming part of that which is supposedly under attack. The phenomenon of the "background is at the heart of such discussion because it provides a view of "traditional arts put through the looking-glass of technologically literate Capitalism. Muzak in particular also brings to the forefront once again the idea of manipulation. A moral question then; it it ever justifiable to use manipulation towards one movement against manipulation by another? Can anti-Muzak exist just as anti-noise can? What about painting? Can installation artists find ways of embedding playful ideas within the mind of the viewer as noiselessly as Art for Offices can impressions of seriousness? A characteristic of Postmodernism is its adoption and adaption of past genres, its "creative plagiarism". In seeing only the foreground of our culture, we risk missing the chance to explore the full potential of this and future strategies.
Muzak, 915 Yale Avenue North, Seattle, WA 98109, USA.