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John Cage

Richard Kostelanetz:


In surveying his work in music and theater, in poetry and visual art, I have noticed that the American John Cage favored a structure that is nonfocused, nonhierarchic and nonlinear, which is to say that his works in various media consist of collections of elements presented without climax and without definite beginnings and ends. This is less a negative structure, even though I am describing it negatively, than a visionary esthetic and political alternative. In creating artistic models of diffusion and freedom, Cage is a libertarian anarchist.

What makes Cage's art special, and to my senses politically original, is that his radical politics were expressed in decisions not of content but of form. For instance, one quality of nearly all works of his for large ensembles is that they do not need a conductor. By extension, the work implies that outside of music, as well as in, it is possible to create social mechanisms that likewise can function without conductors, without chiefs. In other words, in the form of his art, in the form of performance, is a representation of an ideal polity.

It is precisely in relinquishing traditional opportunities for authority that Cage made essentially political decisions. His scores are designed to encourage a greater variety of interpretations than usual. There is no 'right way' to do them, though there are wrong ways, especially if a performer violates the instructions that are not left to chance. A second reflection of Cage's politics was writing music for an ensemble of equals, even when he was one of the performers, thereby resisting such conventional hierarchical forms as a soloist with a backup group. (The fact that this last feature was always true indicates to me that Cage subscribed to his egalitarian esthetics long before he was conscious of them.) Thirdly, the principle of equality extends to the materials of his art. Not only are all notes equal, but all instruments are equal, regardless of their rank in the musical tradition. In Credo in Us (1942), for instance, the piano has no more presence than the home radio; all are equidistant from the audience. Fourth, he performed his music in gymnasiums as well as opera houses, the assumption being that all venues are equally legitimate.

In his book 'Notations' (1968), where Cage presented in alphabetical order a single page apiece of scores chosen by contributing composers, the radical assumption is that the editor has no more authority than the reader in assigning value. Nothing is featured by being put ahead of the others, or having its name on the book's cover. The absence of hierarchy and of editorial discrimination in this book likewise reflects his politics. (A traditional editor would huffily characterize a book like 'Notations' as 'an abdication of professional responsibility.') Anyone who ever worked in theater with Cage knew that he believed every performance venue should have convenient exits so that spectators can leave whenever they wish. Capturing anyone's body was to him no more justifiable in art than in life. One truth of Cage's own functioning was that no one loses anything by relinquishing power, but the essence of his method is not to tell but to show.

With that last point in mind, it is instructive to contrast the anarchism of Cage's art with another masterpiece of anarchist art in our time, the Living Theater's production of 'Paradise Now' (1968). Those of us who saw it two decades ago will remember that 'Paradise Now' was structured as a series of sketches designed to elicit audience participation. Thus, it opened with the performers reciting testimony of their own imprisonment: 'I can't travel without a passport,' they repeatedly proclaimed, confronting and challenging the audience to respond with argument or shocked acceptance. 'I am not allowed to take off my clothes.' 'I don't know how to stop the war,' they kept on repeating. From this purgatory the performers progress to sketches of liberation, which is paradise, culminating with members of the audience being invited onstage to leap into the locked arms of male company members. Structurally, this play is dialectical, moving from antithesis to synthesis; and in this respect, it differs from Cage who hasn't presented any antitheses, as far as I can tell, in at least forty years.

Another difference is that 'Paradise Now' is preachy, Julian Beck even telling us that we've been offered glimpses of the postrevolutionary age. Cage, by contrast, shows instead of tells, for his assumption is that, in the community represented by his art, the Promised Land has come. When asked about his response to such programmatic political music as Frederic Rzewski's, he said, 'I have difficulty with it, because it's so pushy. It has precisely in it what government has in it: the desire to control; and it leaves no freedom for me. It pushes me toward its conclusion, and I'd rather be a sheep, which I'm not, than be pushed along by a piece of music. I'm just as angry, or refusing to go along with the 'Hallelujah Chorus' as I am with the Attica one [by Rzewski]. The moment I hear that kind of music I go in the opposite direction. And they use the technique of repetition, and of sequence, incessantly [as did the Living Theater, I should add]. And I can do without that.'

One thing that fascinates me about Cage is the purity of his anarchism. His perceptions are true to his politics; in neither his speech nor his behavior do you find the kinds of contradictions and compromise that some political people think are opportune for ultimate ends. He is utterly free of pretenses to superior humanity and thus false snobbism (and in these respects so utterly different from his sometime protege Morton Feldman). I've always regarded Cage as epitomizing the noncompetitive life, where no one is regarded as a threat who must be eliminated, where you can afford to be generous with your own work as well as your possessions, and to do work so extreme and idiosyncratic that plagiarism need not be feared. As he has always made a point of publishing his writings in small magazines as well as large, assuming that the putative 'reputation' of any venue affects him not, it is not surprising that his 1980s creative text on the Satie society bypassed book-publishing entirely to become available gratis, but only through the modem on your home computer. Even Cage's philosophy is true to his politics, at a time when, to paraphrase Barnett Newman, Philosophy is for the artist, especially for some painters nowadays, much as the Bible is to the minister, which is to say a respectable source that can be used to justify anything. I recently read scores of interviews with him and have never found Cage claiming anything about his art that was demonstrably false.

It is scarcely surprising that in his own professional life he has resisted not only titles and accompanying power but servility, being neither a boss nor an employee but, instead both, or more precisely a small businessman with a peripheral relation to another small business that didn't give him much power (or until recently made much money)--the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In other words, even in his own life there was an absence of antitheses. When Harvard offered him a professorship in 1988-89, giving him one of those titles purportedly raising its bearer above the nonprofessors, I warned him that, especially if you will be talking about anarchy, you must insist upon being called the Charles Eliot Norton 'Person' of Poetry. (I reminded him that England's anarchist movement went through a divisory crisis in 1953, when Herbert Read accepted a knighthood!) When I later asked him 'what it was like to be a Harvard Professor,' he replied, appropriately, 'not much different from not being a Harvard professor.'

Another quality I admired about Cage was that, especially in contrast to many post-socialists of his generation, he never doubled back. He never said that an earlier position of his was now unacceptably radical. As a result, he was never been an ex-anything in either esthetics or politics. His art, as I noted before, always displyed the anarchist characteristics defined here. I would judge that one reason for his professional confidence to the end, in politics as well as esthetics, is that he knew from the beginning that he never wrong, which I hasten to add is not the same thing, especially in politics, as being always right.

One Cagean tactic that always puzzled me in reading interviews with him is how he often rationalized an esthetic move in terms not of ideology but simply of social benefit. Let me quote an example from my book, 'Conversing with Cage' (1988, 2002), where he said of his 'Freeman Etudes' for violin: 'They are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we're now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it's just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.'

Once I recognized this tendency toward sociological rationalization in Cage's commentary, I was skeptical about it, thinking it might represent a certain opportunism; but the more often I saw it, I began to recognize Cage as someone who came of age in the 1930s, when ideas about social betterment through art were more plentiful. To me, Cage was essentially a thirties lefty, who was more interesting than others who came out of that period because he made some original perceptions not only about art but especially about the place of politics in art, and then the possible role of art for politics, all the while remaining true to the sentiment of that time. In my sense of Cage, Zen and chance and everything else came afterwards; they are merely icing on this essentially anarchist cake.


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