Quote of the Week: The Illogic of Cage

New Yorker critic and The Rest Is Noise author Alex Ross visits the John Cage exhibit currently at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, and writes, in part:

    The great oddity of twentieth-century art history is that while Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and other radical postwar painters are almost universally hailed as masters, their works drawing huge crowds in museums, Cage is still often treated as a freak or a charlatan. The distinction makes no intellectual sense, but there it is.

The conclusion that Ross draws has its parallel in the argument that is the substance of David Stubbs‘s recent book, Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko but Don’t Get Stockhausen. The photo of Cage, above, circa 1958, by Aram Avakian, is taken from the free downloadable brochure for the exhibit (PDF). Cage had his own battery of defenses, and one such axiomatic comment opens the PDF: “If this word, music, is sacred ”¦ we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.”

Full Ross post: newyorker.com. More on the exhibit at the museum’s website: macba.cat.

6 thoughts on “Quote of the Week: The Illogic of Cage

  1. My wife wonders why painters & visual artists tend to get along and musicians don’t so much. And to be fair to all involved, she’s basing this in part on the “I love/hate so-and-so” partisan stance of letters printed in Guitar Player magazine.

    My simple lay noisemaker take on things is that music listening takes more time than art viewing. And it takes more territory (or more discretion via headphones or more tolerance/appreciation via open awareness).

    Even a person who complains their “5 year old could’ve painted that” could go into a room full of visual art and by a turn of the head choose what paintings to look at or not. And if that room were a well presented selection of many eras and styles of art, anyone could likely find and view a favorite without spending much time on anything else. While prolonged viewing & appreciation would be possible, a viewer could quickly scan through the art presented to get some first impression at least of what’s there.

    Now, with no more than open air speakers or live bandstands for presentation, how would a room full of different, simultaneous pieces of music compare? The differences are part of what make people harder on Cage than Pollock et al.

    Music takes more time and space–two things people can get really grouchy about when in short supply. Then on top you can toss in the hows & whys of parochialism.

    Sorry for the long comment. Thanks for your blog.

  2. Thanks for the comment — length is good; we are talking about patience and attention here, I suppose.

    I’m not sure I agree with your wife about the differences between paints/visual artists and musicians. Broadly speaking, it’s musicians who tend to work in groups. Also, while even the largest, most prominent of bands is likely to have an opening act, in the art world the “solo” show means just that: no one else.

    But if she means from the standpoint of fans, not the musicians/artists themselves, there may be a point there, and I think you’re right — there is a very big difference between how people consume visual art and how they consume music. People can get up in arms about Picasso or Kandinsky, but music’s emotional pull is more widespread, which allows for bigger tribes, and more tension between tribes. I also think there’s simply something more intimate about having your ears excited than your eyes, and that may play into people’s emotional associations.

    This review of the Stubbs book mentioned above is pretty self-satisfied and short-sighted, but the comments in response include some well-considered explanations for the differences between consumption of music and visual art:


  3. Thanks, went over & read the Prospect article. (And some of the comments. If only the biggest fault of Mao had been to encourage musical elitism . . . jeez, guys, perspective.)

    Reviews (and comments more so) are a tough spot for really digging into the nuances of different media and differing styles (designations that themselves are portrait photos taken from outer space). I need to read Stubbs.

    The muso vs. visual artist thing may be unfair. Your tribalism point works here (as well as the archetype of the player-hater). We the fanboy/musicians have used much usenet bandwidth on say whether Neil Young plays good lead guitar on “Cinnamon Girl” (me & mine say yes) or conversely if a true blue post-punk heir should like Steely Dan (ummm, silly & doctrinaire).

    Music is that very emotional access of which you speak. And gets some strong and often overly objectified personal responses.

    The eclectic’s and the post-Cagean’s point of honor is in keeping an open ear. Were the music itself no sort of boon, that point of view (or hearing) would still be. Cage and Duchamp are the fellow travelers toward that “indifferent taste” and give us latitude to find a whole world at play.

    To say as the reviewer did that some part of that play is not “actual music” but sound art is very tricky both in intent and demarcation. There is sound art & there are sound artists. But who would want to do more than simply constellate modern classical music composers & musicians with their aesthetic neighbors? To shunt off wholesale an unpopular era of the European art music tradition seems very very suspect. And, well, creepy.

    Love it, hate it–hey, any sound framed or organized by awareness is music. Here it comes now at Mach 1.

    Okay: less blather, more reading & listening. Thanks again.

  4. The trouble with Stubbs’ argument (and with the similarity from Ross) is the assumption that musical modernism and visual modernism are at all the same. For whatever reason, the fundamental moves of these two modernisms are divergent. There isn’t necessarily a reason to compare Rothko and Cage. Why not Rothko and Glass? They at least share minimalism (in a broad sense) and mainstream popularity.

    And, if you want to talk “self-satisfied and short-sighted,” Stubbs’ book isn’t a bad place to start.

  5. I believe at their core, both visual and musical modernism shared a fundamental interest in essentialism. Cage produced work that was at the far extreme of both conceptual art and music. Like painting of it’s day, the work reached a breaking point, where on some level, the medium could be stripped down no further. Painting eventually evolved to be about the act and result of painting, no longer representative or symbolic. The canvas became a document of a singular moment in time or the embodiment of an endgame formalist concept. Similarly, Cage’s music reached out to the outer limits of what might be considered music or “organized sound”. An anti-aesthetic, his focus was at times completely disinterested in historical notions of beauty. Not always the easiest or most accessible sound to listen to. But unlike painting, sound is intangible and ephemeral. Nothing left to hold onto other than the memory or recording of a passing experience.

  6. maybe it’s out of context, but it seems a pretty ridiculous statement by ross. pollock and rauchenberg are not universally hailed by anyone other than the artworld, and cage’s stature within the music world is certainly that of a superstar. yes, he’s controversial within that community, more so than pollock is at this point in time, but pollock was certainly controversial as a painter even after he died…(and yes, the “My kid could do that” description still exists for many). but if cage is treated as a charlatan at times, part of that was his own doing (as i believe he relished such responses), and in the visual world at the same time, people certainly had a mistrust of warhol, fluxus, happenings, etc. (and while all of those artists have a good deal of stature in relation to history, their “universal popularity” would not be exactly huge outside the artworld). there have always been successful contemporary artists who “push buttons” and get viewed as offering the emperor’s new clothes (remember the mapplethorpe show in cincinnati… that’s not ART!). do we really want to get into a discussion of why u2 is more popular than ‘the fall’?

    rather than making broad generalizations about art culture and music culture, ross should’ve mentioned that cage is one of the most underrated VISUAL artist of the last century, and his paintings, drawings, and monotypes are incredibly under appreciated – and much less known than they should be. his visual experiments surpass many things that have gotten much more attention because the artworld tends to ghetto-ize people outside of its own community (both schoenberg and strindberg made great paintings, which are viewed as “naive” by the artworld).

    the distinction between pollock and cage’s success might not make sense intellectually to ross, but culturally there are a zillion reasons why more people would rather spend a day at moma or the met, as opposed to going to a concert hall to hear a cage performance (at probably 2 – 3 times the price), not to mention one is an object that exists in space, while the other is a performance that exists in time. intellectually that’s a huge difference.

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