There is vastly more to the John Cage oeuvre than my knowledge of it, and even my slice of that pie is more than anyone wants to read in this blog, so I will limit myself to a single Cage work, 4:33.
For some people a work becomes art because of the difficulty of the craft involved in achieving that work.
“I can’t draw as well as Michelangelo, therefore, Michelangelo is a great artist.”
By this measure, work such as Jackson Pollock’s “drip” paintings, or Ellsworth Kelly’s monochromes may appear to fail to be “art.” “My 6-year-old could do that! So it’s not art!”
How are we to understand works that do not appear to require virtuosic levels of craft? Well, the answer to that is the entirety of the trajectory of art in the 20th century.
Since that would also be a rather extensive blog post, let’s take a single idea from a single artist: Allan Kaprow, the founder of the happening. (at some point I will have to write a post on Kaprow as well. The debt that my work owes to him is enormous)
When he spoke to us at the Getty Research Institute in California, Kaprow suggested that perhaps the single most important thing he learned from studying with Cage at Black Mountain was that, “anything, considered carefully enough, becomes interesting.”
There’s a story that Crown Point Press founder Kathan Brown was giving a studio tour to some nOOb unfamiliar with fine art printmaking or the working methods and ideas of the artist in residence that day: John Cage.
Brown explained the myriad aspects and techniques of intaglio printmaking and Cage to the visitor who seemed at last to understand. Then finally the newcomer sees Cage pressing his hands into a strange viscous material in a bowl and confused all over again he rushes to Brown and asks, “what’s he doing now?” Brown replies: Oh, now he’s making a loaf of bread.
For John Cage art was not separate from life. The only person I can think of who this might be more true of is… Allan Kaprow.
So, what are we to make of it when Cage composes a work that is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence? Is it some sort of Zen offer to deeply consider the world we live in?
Does anyone in the 21st century have time for Zen? Does anyone have time to ponder a Zen Garden? Does anyone have time to deeply consider every blade of grass when what you really need to do is ignore every blade of grass you pass so that you can scurry past countless blades of grass, humans, and myriad other extraordinary events in order to traverse a major university campus in under 9 minutes so you can dash into a lecture hall where you will completely ignore the lecturer for the next 50 minutes as you catch up with the many correspondences waiting on your mobile devices?
What are we to make of an artist like Cage who asks us to deeply consider the music of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence?
Is it the ultimate King’s New Clothes of foolishness as this poseur tries to convince us of the merit of his contentless work?
Or is it a sublime art experience as he invites us to explore, to deeply consider, the art all around us, in every fibre of our being, in every cell of our bodies, in every breath we take? As he invites us to deeply feel the palpable, visceral art in every glorious moment of existence?