Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On John Cage and seeing the world

Thanksgiving Leaf, aquatint, by Mark Tobey, 1971

A former professor of mine was in attendance at one of John Cage's first performances at The Brooklyn Academy of Music. He recalls it as follows: It was a warm sunny day in New York City and Cage had arranged for the windows and doors to be left open in the performance space. Cage walked in and took his place on the stage with a metronome, and as we all know, he just sat there. The metronome laid down a quiet simple rhythm. Slowly the audience became restless. Sounds of rustling and murmuring rose in the theater. Through the open doors the sounds of the street drifted in. The sounds of the brakes of a bus stopping, a horn, people laughing, a jet passing over, a cough in the audience. Then my former professor started to laugh. He suddenly got it. The sound in the room, in its entirety, was Cage's music. It was a joyful affirmation of everyday life. Life itself is the music, and once you see it this way, your view of living is changed.

Cage's goal in the middle of his own musical silence was not to draw attention to his own virtuosity, or to linguistic invention, but rather to change one's fundamental orientation to the world. His genius was in the direction of his gaze. You were not drawn to look at him, but through him and out into the world. He wanted to break the container that music had been put into and point to the music inherent in daily life. Directing our attention away from the stage and the musician, Cage drew the audience into the disorganized and perhaps disharmonic utterances of daily existence. For one who payed attention, he could restore an aesthetic appreciation of the cacophony of living. Noise became sound became music.

Most left the theater that day pissed off and feeling cheated. For the critics, Cage was branded a cynic, a snake oil salesman playing an avant-garde trick on a paying audience. They wanted to be dazzled, for the world to go away while art pushed it back for a while. Instead the world came in, on its own terms, and neither asked nor required to be listened to. In fact, it didn't seem to care one way or the other. But for those who got it, a fundamental paradigm shift had taken place. You couldn't hear the world the same. Art and the aesthetic were folded into the fabric of daily sounds.

Lewis Hyde offers an analysis of Cage's work, applying it to a visual perspective, and in Cage's own words:

The point of Cage's art, then, is not to entertain nor to enchant but to open its maker (and, perhaps, its audience) to the world. In one of his oft-repeated stories, Cage tells of a time when he had just left an exhibit of paintings by his friend Mark Tobey: "I was standing at a corner of Madison Avenue waiting for a bus and I happened to look at the pavement, and I noticed that the experience of looking at the pavement was the same as the experience of looking at the Tobey. Exactly the same. the aesthetic enjoyment was just as high." Cage is praising Tobey here, not criticizing him, for Tobey's work had opened its viewer's eyes; he could see and enjoy what previously might have been the city's dull and unregarded asphalt skin.

From The Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde, North Point Press, 1998

Hyde starts by saying that the point of Cage's work is "to open its maker (and, perhaps, its audience) to the world." This is an incredibly important sequence to understand, for it puts the value of the process first on the opening of the artist to the world, and then, without any guarantees, on the opening of the audience. The process is a profound endeavor for the maker. The making is in itself an event of intrinsic value, which has its own esoteric meanings and rewards.

I have written before here on Modernism and its relationship to esotericism. As the academy has taken over the conversation regarding art and its making, this subject has largely been dropped as a reason for practicing art. It is an unfortunate loss. A large number of modern artists in the canon would describe their process as a spiritual one.

Follow this link to see a selection of Mark Tobey's paintings and prints.

1 comment:

suttonhoo said...


great post.

too brain dead from the road to say anything intelligent -- just really, really enjoyed it. :)