Technician of the Sacred

Three recent books demonstrate that John Cage is overdue for a populist revival

  • Cage’s life is a complicated tale that reads like an instructive fable about the fate of the 20th-century artist.
    Photo courtesy Siglio Press/Bob Cato
  • Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) is a collection of Cage’s journals-in-verse, dating from 1965 to 1983, a stretch of striking social, political, and cultural transformations to which Cage was subtly attuned.
    Excerpt courtesy of Siglio Press
  • A talented visual artist, Cage searched hard and wide for an art that could accommodate, as architecture does, a passion for original formations, spatially oriented presentations, and a calibrated, designed environment.
    Photo courtesy Wesleyan University Press

Silence: 50th Anniversary Edition, by John Cage (Wesleyan University Press, 2013).

Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), by John Cage (Siglio Press, 2015).

The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Laura Kuhn (Wesleyan University Press, 2016).

An obscure American artist performs on national, primetime television. In our pop-saturated present, it’s unimaginable. But in 1960, avant-garde composer and musician John Cage guested on the wildly popular CBS program I’ve Got a Secret. This would not have been as incongruous then as it would be today. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, American artists were from, time to time, accorded celebrity stature. Years earlier, Cage’s performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art garnered a profile in Life magazine, the same must-read publication that had put the Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock on its cover. As the 1960s dawned, the distinction between the “highbrow” and “lowbrow” was breaking down, opening the traditional arts to a wider public while instilling introspection and experimentation into mainstream cultural productions. The affable Cage, being both a classically trained, world-travelling musician and a Dada-inspired stuntman who invented what came to be known as “happenings,” thrived at that crossroad. Performing “Water Walk” (1959) on CBS, the tall, patrician composer—then at his creative peak—looked at ease on the makeshift soundstage. With a stopwatch in one hand, he rushed about with sprightly seriousness, bending down and reaching forward, using his free hand to generate timed noises by manipulating household objects: a bathtub filled with water, a whistle, a pressure cooker, a vase of tulips, a watering can, cocktail drink dispensers, a bucket of ice, and a piano, on the wires of which the performer had plopped a rubber fish. The bemused studio audience responded with attentive curiosity, no doubt wondering whether this bizarre act was a comic prank or some kind of genuine musical art. 

Well over a half century since that televised performance, Cage, whose thoughts about the creative process have been revered by practicing artists for generations, is overdue for a populist revival. Unlike other artists whose relevance diminishes after their death, Cage, who died in 1992 at the age of 79, remains, as he was throughout his lifetime, ahead of the curve.

Against centuries of our culture’s worshipping inspiration and artistic individuality, Cage believed that regulated and systematized chance plays a far greater role in creativity than do character and intention. He upended the very concept of modern music, by positioning noise and sound on the same plane. His aurally complex compositions prove that there is no such thing as silence per se. Not surprisingly, his legacy still generates critical unease. Contemporary biographers and journalists who revisit Cage frequently rehash the old charges of charlatanism while sidestepping the deep-seated perspectives that informed and shaped his art. A practical philosopher, he challenged foundational ideas in a voice so soft and unassuming that one could be forgiven for missing how radical it still is. A trained devotee of Zen Buddhism, he internalized its goal of breaking with attachment, selfhood, and premeditated egoism, and then he channeled these hard-earned liberations into a diligent adoption of chance as a governing principle in the creative act.

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