Un-Caged: On John Cage, Art, and the FLUX of Life

On John Cage, and Art.

In response to a friend’s posting of a cartoon referencing the work of John Cage, I wrote and shared the following comments. Cage’s work purposefully introduces ambiguity, chance, and uncertainty to both performers and audience alike. The choreography of his partner and collaborator Merce Cunningham, as I was fortunate to observe one fine day, did not rely at all on the sonic or temporal cues of Cage’s soundtrack. Cunningham set his own internal order and constraints for his dancers. So too with life in organizations, as we work in complex situations.


Me: I had an appointment once to do a DOL investigation at McCarter Theater, the famous venue in Princeton. When I entered the lobby, I heard unusual sounds from the theater. I went in, and it was Merce Cunningham rehearsing with his group, and John Cage sitting in the front discussing his random soundtrack. I quickly got my phone, called the theater office downstairs to say I had been “unavoidably detained” and sat in the back row alone watching these geniuses for an hour.

Them: Honestly, I consider Cage, et. al. to have participated in perpetrating a massive hoax on the public – convincing them that if you don’t understand it, it must be great art. Art, by definition, must communicate something. All too much “art” these days communicates nothing more than, “Ha, ha, ha – look how stupid you are to buy this!”

Me: I must respectfully disagree. Art communicates some variations of what the artist intended, and what the viewer/listener experiences and decides it means to them. In Cage, we see an artist who purposefully introduced elements of randomness and chance into his work. His “composition” in which the pianist comes out and sits playing nothing for around four and a half minutes, works to transform what we think of as “music.” For me, such work is powerful and important, and I greatly appreciated the work of John Cage.

Them: Bruce, & I must respectfully disagree. To me, 4 mins. however many seconds is just total bullshit.

Me: All I can say is experience it as Cage intended. See and hear all that emerges around you in that time and place. Not what you expected. Other than what you may have wanted. Yet human and unique every time.

So… what do you think?

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