John Cage & Zen Poetics

On Thursday, Peter Jaeger gave a lecture at Naropa on John Cage and Zen poetics. In Cage fashion, Jaeger utilized the I Ching in the production and performance of his lecture. Breaks and pauses occurred as determined by randomly generated integers. One audience member, a junior at Naropa’s School of the Arts, said, the effect was provocative because he used a technique he was describing, but the pauses themselves were annoying. ? I do not think Jaeger would disagree.

Cage’s performances frequently induced annoyance. In fact, when Cage gave a reading at Naropa in 1974 he sat for two hours with his back to the audience and was assailed with bird calls and thrown objects. Allen Ginsberg and other poets intervened to protect him. Jaeger explained that the annoyance audiences feel is a response to boredom, and Cage’s prescription for boredom was typically Zen:

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. ? -Cage

Jaeger emphasizes the aesthetics of failure in mimetic art and describes Cage’s approach to mimesis as analogous to Indra’s Jeweled Net. There is no origin, no narrative structure, nor a teleological conclusion.

Each small part is a sample of what we find elsewhere. ? -Cage

Many of Cage’s performances, such as Water Walk and Indetermancy, were overloaded with information. When asked if he would ever conduct Beethoven, Cage said he would but only if he could have nine orchestras playing nine different symphonies simultaneously. Yet, Cage’s most influential piece, 4:33, contains very little information. The pianist is instructed to open the piano, sit for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and then close the piano. That is all.

Jaeger compares the silences (that are not silent) in Cage’s music to the hole cut out of the Romanian flag that Zizek identified in 1993 as the most sublime image that emerged in the political upheaval of the last years. ? The blank space cannot be reconstituted as meaning. Without meaning, what is a symbol?

For me this recalls absolute symbolism discussed in True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art. Rather than denoting something outside of itself, such as an authority in the case of the flag or a theme in the case of art, the absolute symbol denotes itself. The silences (that are not silent) foreground the medial element–like the crackle of a PA system when the power is engaged.

My question concerns the reaction to Cage and other artists, like Marcel Duchamp, reactions that oscillate between adoration and hostility, with little in-between. Either you love it or hate it, there is no middle ground. Why is that?

It seems to me that Cage’s art engenders a narrow field of appreciation. There is a specific subject position from which one can experience the sound of traffic, for example, as art; outside that subject position one is confronted with noise. Experimenting with syntax doesn’t eradicate the authority of grammar; authority is the figure of such poetry. Pushing against the boundary of what we consider art draws our attention to this constricting field of appreciation.

Jaeger doesn’t agree with my assessment that Cage’s art had a narrow field of appreciation. He’s right. People experience his art in many different ways. The field of appreciation could include various responses from those who understand Cage to be a Buddhist, an anarchist, a charlatan, an environmentalist, or who have no particular conception of the artist at all. Also, other types of art (the Parthenon frieze, the artifacts buried at Sutton Hoo, or the Mona Lisa) might inspire feelings of hostility in some audiences; Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. suggests a certain antagonism. Giving it more thought, I reconsider the force of my previous conclusion. There is more going on in this art than rebellion or audacity.

The random pauses in Jaeger’s lecture did not annoy me. I found them welcome moments to process language dense with meaning. Cage said that the material of music is sound and silence. In the silences (that are not silent), sounds proliferate so that there is the possibility for more and more and more music. The material of a lecture, such as this one, isn’t merely ideas but also viscera.

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