- Supporting the Cage
Agree or disagree with his aesthetics, his ideas, or his politics, no one seriously engaged in studying the arts of the twentieth century can afford to ignore John Cage or his wide-ranging body of work. His influence on experimental forms of music is well documented, but his achievements and influence in the fields of literature, visual arts, and film are also significant and worthy of more discussion. Writings through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art, edited by David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch, is an attempt, as Bernstein states in his introduction, to “give readers a sense of the importance of Cage’s creative activities in a variety of fields and an understanding of how much research has yet to be done” (6). It is both the book’s greatest achievement and most significant failure that it accomplishes both of these aims.
The book is an extension of the “Here Comes Everybody: The Music, Poetry, and Art of John Cage” conference, which took place at Mills College in Oakland, California in the autumn of 1995, and so “was the first international assemblage of scholars and creative artists to examine Cage’s work after his death on August 12, 1992” (1); indeed, the idea for the conference developed less than a year after Cage’s death (ix). This link between Cage’s death and the conference is carried over in the essays included in Writings, as almost all of the authors implicitly focus on the absence of John Cage, the man, either through intricately describing his working practices, relating personal anecdotes about Cage, describing what Cage meant to them and their work, or, sometimes, by mixing all three of these perspectives. For this reason, the book becomes a celebration of John Cage’s life and his art. Perhaps due to the short time that passed between Cage’s death and the germination of this project, the book is, for the most part, more of a wake for a great man than a critical examination of Cage’s works
This is not to say that there isn’t useful information in the book; each essay offers interesting facts about Cage’s creative process, the performance of his work, and the scoring of his work. The problem is that there is often a lack of critical examination of many of these facts. The result is that the essays in the book could be divided into two distinct types: those offering ideological critiques of Cage’s work and those documenting Cage’s formal procedures. The former engage intellectually with Cage’s aesthetics, his beliefs, and his politics and seek to open up ways to engage Cage’s work critically; they offer important insights into how Cage’s personal beliefs, such as his devotion to Zen, chance, and political and social anarchy, both affected his work and offer insights into the works themselves. The second type of essays, those documenting Cage’s creative process, generally avoids issues of ideology in an attempt to describe objectively how Cage created his works. These essays, it seems to me, are less valuable, precisely because they refuse to deal with the issues that Cage found so important in life and art; they focus on Cage, not on his works, and so they fail to open up avenues of investigation into Cage’s music, visual art, or literary texts.
The book starts quite strongly. The first essay, by David W. Bernstein, examines Cage’s music in relation to the large umbrella terms “avant-garde,” “modernism,” and “postmodernism.” Bernstein offers a nuanced investigation of Cage’s art and his politics in order to highlight both the experimental as well as the traditional aspects of Cage’s music. Bernstein argues against the unexamined conflation of experimentation with postmodernism and tradition with modernism, instead showing how Cage exemplified aspects of both those terms. By drawing on the influence that the early avant-garde, especially dadaism but also futurism, had on Cage, Bernstein argues persuasively that Cage’s chance-based musical works...