Saturday 24th July – Guest post by Dominic LashJuly 24, 2010
On tour with the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble last week, I took the opportunity of a gig in Newcastle to visit the exhibition of John Cage’s visual art that is currently on at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, entitledÂ Every Day is a Good Day, and which has already cropped up in these electronic pages, thanks toÂ Simon Reynell. Just outside the exhibition is a monitor showing a wonderful series of films, including footage ofÂ Variations VII, of various Merce Cunningham dance pieces, and Cage’s performance of Water Walk onÂ I’ve Got a Secret. Anybody who hasn’t seen the last of these should watch itÂ right now.
The main room of the exhibition is extraordinarily beautiful. Paintings, watercolours, prints and other artworks by Cage are arranged across the walls of the large room according to chance determined arrangements. Thus there are areas of white space; some pieces too high up to see clearly; others right next to the floor so that one has to crouch to examine them. It all beautifully subverts the historicism often inherent in the gallery format: one can only trace the chronological sequence of the works by comparing their numbers to a key. The works themselves are often astonishing, and the curatorial style enables us to perceive visual rhymes and dissonances between the works in a way which would have been impossible with a less “Cageian” style of presentation. The exhibition is touring later in the year to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and I’m very excited about seeing it again there, where the utterly different exhibition space (largely open plan interconnected but rather small spaces) should give a very different character to the exhibition. (Following this the exhibition will visit Huddersfield, Glasgow and Bexhill on Sea).
There are other accompanying spaces as well, both beautifully curated and presented: in one room the audio-visual piece HPSCHD is recreated, while in another there is a selection of more films, along with headphones on which one can listen to a selection of music from throughout Cage’s career (very well chosen indeed: the range, power, subtlety and humour of his music really struck me all over again) and, finally, some of Cage’s readings of his stories and anecdotes.
Also accompanying the exhibition is a small but exquisite catalogue. Excellent plates of the artworks are arranged in a less Cageian fashion – in chronological order, no less! I have not read all the texts (which mostly take the form of interviews), but the interviews with Kathan Brown and with Ray Kass (who ran the studios in which Cage made his visual art: Crown Point Press and the Mountain Lake Workshop, respectively) are excellent. They are full of anecdotes, interesting hints as to influence (I had not known, or had forgotten, that Cage was so interested in the work of Mark Tobey), and technical details of the procedures Cage used in producing his visual art. Kathan Brown’s point that in using chance operations, the most important thing is ‘choosing which questions to ask’ (catalogue, p. 26) is very well taken.
There are some problems, however. A few warning signs arise in Jeremy Millar’s piece: he concludes with some “paradoxes” that are rather banal and leave out the possibility that they are not paradoxes at all but that presenting them as such serves to obscure questions of comodification and power: ‘We might want to explore Cage’s personal withdrawal from his artwork, and yet in so doing make him the subject of a large-scale, monographic retrospective. Similarly, we might also want to suggest, with Cage, that beauty can really be found anywhere we might look, and yet to do so have gathered and displayed, at no little effort nor expense, an exquisite mass of works of art…’ (p. 18)
Things get rather more problematic in “How to Improve the World”, the interview with Laura Kuhn, the director of the John Cage Trust, which sets out to address such questions rather more directly. Of crucial importance, of course, is Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism. But can Cage really be said (as Kuhn quotes Roger Lipsey as saying) to have ‘brought authentic spiritual ideas … to the enterprise of Western art’ (p. 36)? Apart from the fact that Cage was hardly the first Western artist interested in Eastern thought, such a pronouncement clearly implies that Eastern thinking is more “authentic” than Western traditions of spirituality (a claim surely either meaningless or false). There is something a little troubling in the adoption of Cage as a guru figure – as Kuhn says later, Cage was someone she ‘revered more than anyone in the world as a kind of life coach’ (p. 39).
Elsewhere in the interview Kuhn relates a narrative of the roots of the United States in ‘a group of non-conformist malcontents’ heading out ‘to points west, in search, in essence, of autonomy’ (p. 37). To present such a story without any irony and without mention of the fact that there were people already living in the said western points, who were decimated by the arrival of the Easterners, is not good enough. Kuhn then paints a picture of a Cage not insensitive to politics, but overly sensitive, incapable of action in the face of the full horror of the world. Cage tended not to read newspapers, but when he decided to include extracts from them in his 1989 Harvard lectures, Kuhn once found him weeping: ‘I was alarmed, as you might imagine, and asked what in the world was wrong. ‘Oh,’ he said, terribly upset and pointing to a small article fluttering in his hand, ‘Do you know about these crack babies?’ (pp. 38-9). The story is enlightening and touching, but the John Cage constructed in relation to stories such as these I still find unsatisfactory. Kuhn says that ‘Cage did not engage in politics’ (p. 37) and that he simply ‘wanted to put something positive forward’ (p. 39). But the next text in the catalogue quotes Cage’s ‘Overpopulation and Art’, where he does propose a specific system: ‘after the / unworkability of caPitalism marxism / authOritarian socialism anarchy seems for our liberation / to be a Possibility once again’ (p. 47).
I haven’t solved these misgivings. Has anyone looked specifically and critically at this aspect of Cage without either simply trying to exonerate Cage from any criticism, or to dismiss his ideas as half-baked? Is there, for example, any discussion of Cage and Chomsky as part of 20th century American anarchism, for example, or perhaps even of Cage and Adorno, bringing together the one’s Zen abrogation of ‘concepts’ (Kuhn quotes him as saying that through Zen or through his compositional practices ‘you could come to the same conclusion: no concepts’ [p. 35]) and the other’s long struggle against the concept (as Frederic Jameson puts it in hisÂ Late Marxism, ‘if the concept is grasped as ‘the same’ … then the struggle of thought … has to undermine that logic of recurrence and of sameness in order to break through to everything that sameness excludes’ [p. 17]). I would love to read such studies if they do exist. I think Cage deserves his ideas (understood as not separable from his practices) to be taken more seriously than they often are, as much by his acolytes as by his detractors.