John Cage’s Inheritors?

photoI spent part of yesterday evening attending a listening party / lecture presented by Salon97‘s Cariwyl Hebert about John Cage at the Booksmith bookstore on Haight Street, and another part at The Hub experiencing a series of two-minute presentations given by a group of people who just won (or were finalists for) grants from The Triangle Lab to pursue a range of “artist-investigator” projects. The idea of the projects is to think of artistic process as one of “scientific” investigation and to use art as a method of inquiry rather than as a means to create tidy / fixed answers to life’s issues.

Cage was the archetypal artist-investigator. He questioned practically every premise that people in the western world held dear about the nature and function of art. The discussion at Booksmith, though quite basic, was lively in this regard, especially following our collective performance of Cage’s 4’33”. (You can see us performing the piece in the image above, with an audience member by the name of Neil conducting the three-movement mini epic.)

The conversation explored the nature of silence and how the piece illustrates Cage’s point about the impossibility of achieving an absolutely noiseless environment, as well as notions about how no two performances of any artistic work can ever be the same. Even silence is different from one performance of 4’33” to another. The more we talked, the more questions came up.

Conversely, as far as I could tell, most of the projects that have been selected for artist-investigator grants from The Triangle Lab seem to be more interested in providing answers than asking questions. Perhaps the investigatory nature of the ideas was better outlined in the grant proposals. But the presentations mostly fell short in this regard.

One or two projects, such as Michelle Wilson’s plan to “sell the animal-based carbon credits in her body in order to scrutinize and critique environmental issues, food systems, and alternate economies,” seem to be open-ended. But interestingly, the very few projects that appear to be genuinely inquisitive in purview are quite far removed from the world of art. Wilson’s is a piece of environmental activism at heart.

The majority of the winning projects take the form of artistic responses to various social ills like murder, drug abuse and racial tension in downtrodden Bay Area neighborhoods. Arielle Julia Brown, for instance, intends to use her grant money to “curate a series of site-specific performances…featuring testimonies from Bay Area mothers who have lost children to systemic violence.” This, like many of the other winning projects, sounds very socially conscious and noble, but it doesn’t strike me as being geared towards the pursuit of new knowledge.

It’s perhaps unfair of me to judge a bunch of artistic endeavors based on two-minute presentations. And perhaps the completed projects will undermine my current skepticism. Still, I think The Triangle Lab should remind themselves of Cage’s legacy when they pick their next round of awardees.

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  1. says

    I must say I disagree with your comments about the project involving interviews with mothers who have lost children to street violence. How can an artistic study of something so profoundly devastating be referred to as political correctness? I doubt that is how you actually feel, and that you perhaps misspoke. Even if we gained only a small amount of understanding about how those mothers feel, it would clearly be new knowledge.

    On the other hand, I really like this statement earlier in your report that captures Cage’s life and work in such simple and yet accurate terms: “Cage was the archetypal artist-investigator. He questioned practically every premise that people in the western world held dear about the nature and function of art.” That’s good journalism.

    The event you describe sounds wonderful and I so wish I could have been there. My kind of people.

  2. says

    Cultural historian Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) would have rejected as preposterous the idea of “think[ing] of artistic process as one of “scientific” investigation and [using] art as a method of inquiry.” In “Art and Its Tempter, Science” (‘The Use and Abuse of Art,’ 1974), he wrote as follows:

    “Read [an interview] or scan the creator’s ‘statement’ in the printed notes or program. . . . His views most often consist of jargon patterned on scientific or metaphysical discourse. It has to sound distinctive and profound, it must suggest heroic grappling with problems hitherto unimagined and now at last solved. / This scenario . . . is taken from the romance of the scientist. And so, of course, is the now accepted notion that there is such a thing as experimental art [all italics added]. The pretense is of course absurd. . . .” [pp.105-106].

    Also absurd, in my view, is the notion of John Cage as a composer and of his work as “music” (on which, see Chapter 12, “Avant-Garde Music and Dance” in ‘What Art Is’). Barzun, who knew a bit about music (see his classic work on Berlioz) would, I think, have agreed.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts), Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (2000) – /

  3. says

    People should remember to contextualize Barzun’s article with the understanding that he was addressing the scientism in art common in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, especially in new music. It was indeed excessive, and often superficial if not pseudo-intellectual.

    Outside of that context, science and art have a long history of meaningful influence on each other. The geometric beauty of the Pantheon, the theories of music developed by Pythagoras, and the engineered beauty of Roman creations such as Pantheon and even their aqueducts show how ancient this history is. And this is to say nothing of the mathematical beauty and astronomical orientation of so many Egyptian monuments. The mathematical beauty of Frank Gehry’s buildings, and the pervasive creations of digital art and computer music in our own time show the continuity of these traditions that wed mathematics, technology and art. The common ground of form and dimension place science and art hand in hand and in a continual pattern of exchange.

    Perhaps the best historical example might be Leonardo Da Vinci who created a seamless world between his scientific and artistic explorations. A good example would be the beautiful drawings of his anatomical studies, and how they added so much dimension to his paintings.

    In any case, Mr. Torres’ views are somewhat idiosyncratic. In an article by Michelle Marder Kamhi attacking public arts funding on Mr. Torres’ website I found this interestingly reductive footnote:

    “As Torres and I have noted, Cage did aspire to a musical career, but he was hampered by lack of talent and devastated by poor reviews. His failure as a composer is what led him to abandon music entirely to engage in his anti-art shenanigans.”

    And Atlas shrugged…

  4. Miguel Torres says

    Beware the self appointed fascist gatekeepers of art who name check Ayn Rand .The completely ignorant comments by Louis an William reflect their unfamiliarity with the breadth and diversity of John Cage’s career or maybe they are just jealous that for all their pretensions and cozying up to the “right” people they will never be remembered like Mr. Cage .