Listening between the lines

Asked to do a piece on the Asheville Art Museum’s current exhibit, John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind, a writer with a broader streak of smart-ass might have felt compelled to submit a blank document to her editor. Or perhaps a single page with letters and characters scattered seemingly at random throughout.

But that kind of stunt would simply add to the healthy collection of not-very-good John Cage jokes that already abounds in pseudo-intellectual circles. And it certainly wouldn’t pay proper homage to the real impact Cage exerted over music, art and even thought in the 20th century — or to the Asheville Art Museum’s coup in bringing an exhibit of his visual work to town and to our attention.

Still pissed off

Cage, who lived from 1912 to 1992, is the guy who composed “4’33” — the piano arrangement where the pianist walks out on stage, sits down at the bench, and starts a stopwatch. After four minutes and 33 seconds — during which time s/he may turn the pages of the score and lift or lower the piano’s lid to signal the beginning or ending of a movement — the pianist exits the stage, without having produced a single note. The End.

According to at least one account, many of the folks who experienced the first performance of “4’33” in 1952 are still pissed off. Was Cage mocking them? Was he crazy? What was that about, anyway?

What it was about was the same thing all of Cage’s art came to be about: quieting and sobering the mind in preparation for divine influence. And to quiet and sober the mind, for Cage, meant removing his likes and dislikes — his ego — from the act of composition. Cage — a student of Zen Buddhism — believed, as he once told a friend, that “you can become narrow-minded, literally, by only liking certain things and disliking others, but you can become open-minded, literally, by giving up your likes and dislikes and becoming interested in things.”

He also believed that “sounds should be honored, rather than enslaved.” With “4’33”, Cage honored the ambient noise in the performance hall: shifting bodies, rustling papers, discreet coughs, confused whispers, the wind in the trees outside. By placing these random noises in the context of a piano performance — albeit a piano performance without the actual sound of a piano — Cage essentially put a frame around them, drew the attention of his audience to them, made them into capital-a Art. It’s a concept he’d been exploring for at least a few years.

In 1950, he argued to his friend, painter Willem de Kooning, that putting a frame around a scattering of bread crumbs transformed the bread crumbs into art. “He [de Kooning] was saying that it [didn’t], because he connects art with his activity — he connects himself as an artist, whereas I would want art to slip out of us into the world in which we live,” Cage explained in a 1978 interview.

Cage met de Kooning during the summer of 1948 when both men were teaching at Black Mountain College here in Western North Carolina. The school, which operated from 1933 to 1953, strove to integrate students and faculty in and out of the classroom. Founded by students of Germany’s Bauhaus school, Black Mountain College became nationally and internationally known as a unique learning environment where the liberal arts and the fine arts were taught simultaneously and with great success.

It was a heavy-hitting kind of place where heavy-hitting art, thinking and music went on; guys like Albert Einstein and William Carlos Williams sat on the college’s board. The artistic and intellectual chemistry brewed up in Black Mountain during those years spawned arguably some of the most important movements in 20th-century art.

A chance encounter

In the summer of 1952, Cage, with input and inspiration from his colleagues Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, M.C. Richards and David Tudor, staged what may have been the first “happening” there. (Happenings, staples of 1960s performance art, are spontaneous, plot-free theatrical events where the audience and the backstage are as much a part of the production as the performers.) And during the winter months (which he spent in New York City) between his 1948, 1951 and 1952 summer sessions at Black Mountain, Cage began working with what he called “chance operations” — artistic decisions based on chance. In an autobiographical statement (the full text of which is available at []), Cage says, “My work became an exploration of non-intention.” Using the ancient Chinese oracular work I Ching as a guide, Cage “[made] my responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices.”

Cage will probably always be best known for his musical compositions — most of which are actually intentionally “played” on “instruments” ranging from kitchen appliances to radios tuned to randomly selected stations to pianos with strings equipped with rubber bands and paper clips for a percussive effect. But during the second half of the century, Cage focused his work with chance operations more and more on visual pieces. In 1977, Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press in San Francisco invited Cage to come to the press and make etchings. Every year for the next 15 years until his death in 1992, Cage spent one or two weeks at Crown Point creating etchings and prints using ideas of chance operations derived primarily from the I Ching.

In some, he takes sketches from Henry David Thoreau’s journal and turns them into musical scores. In others, he traces around a series of stones on a pre-determined grid, placing the stones, determining their orientation and selecting the pressure at which to trace with the guidance of the I Ching. All this is done in the name of removing his ego, his intent from the work.

The process by which Cage created his art may very well have offered him an avenue for clearing his mind: The series of questions, the complex tables of answers derived from the mystical I Ching, the careful application of answers to materials, the highly developed routine, has the feel of a meditative practice — a spiritual discipline.

Regardless of the manner in which an artist arrives at the finished piece, however, the viewer’s eyes and mind immediately begin to try to make sense of the images and their placement. The viewer isn’t freed from thought and prejudice merely by viewing the work. The mind wants to catalog and judge and rationalize, even — or perhaps especially — when it sees random patterns.

Walking through John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind, there are moments when you can almost sense Cage’s genius shimmering in the bizarrely attractive prints and handmade papers, the latter of which he made in 1991 — using elements from his macrobiotic diet — in Beverly Plummer’s Celo, N.C. studio.

You think you’ve almost got it, Cage’s weird talent. Then it slips away and you’re left looking at smoked paper on which a man has dropped pieces of string to determine the paths of lines. That’s when you question once again whether this is really art, whether the Emperor really is wearing new clothes.

John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind is on display now through June 30 at the Asheville Art Museum, located downtown at Pack Place. The museum is presenting a series of events in conjunction with the exhibit, including the screening of the videos Cage/Cunningham and From Zero: John Cage at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through June 30. On Friday, June 7, Robin Dreyer will perform a selection from Cage’s spoken-word piece, Indeterminancy. All events are included in the price of museum admission: $6/adults, $5/seniors, students with ID, and children 4-15. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. on Sunday. The exhibit has been organized by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco with additions by the Asheville Art Museum.


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