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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts and the black revolution

Yates, Peter
Book reviews: the question of "stasis",   pp. 333-343 PDF (8.4 MB)

Page 339

currently established modes against
any who offer what is, measured by
their habituated tastes, false art.
Some current artists and critics try to
defend themselves against assault by
calling their new works "non-art"
and denying any interest in esthetic
value; at the same time they furiously
resent the practical corollary that,
if it isn't art, the viewers or auditor can,
reasonably, dismiss it from notice.
Cage and Sister Corita believe that any
accumulation of events has instant
and unique value, that any event
is equally esthetic with any prepared
work of art. Meditatively this may be
so, but it is not for this reason that Zen
monks weed and rake their gravel
oceans or carefully place rocks [Cage
says this isn't so.] to create the
illusion of mountains or distant islands.
The koan is not any question nor
satisfied by any answer but by the
sweat of withdrawal from discursive
thought. Art is not waiting in a
place while anything happens. Art
summons attention and directs esthetic
response. I have yet to learn of any
composition by Cage which does not
summon attention, even when it
works to dissipate esthetic response.
Cage's slogan, "purposeful
purposelessness," is not helpful. When
Cage spoke of this in conversation
with Jasper Johns and myself, Jasper
answered him, "John, you are the most
highly organized seeker of chaos one
can imagine." Cage's compositions are
invariably purposeful and invite esthetic
thought, even when that is not their
purpose and one disagrees completely
with the procedure and its outcome.
He himself is not the best estimator of
what he has done: for example,
he believes that during the silent piece,
4' 33", the audience should listen
to whatever sound occurs; in fact, the
audience watches, with an anxiety of
frustrated expectation which, at least
while the piece was still unknown,
could cause hysteria. The idea is so potent
that I have many times been furiously
affronted by reasonably intelligent
persons demanding explanation who
have only heard of it - and who will not,
in some instances, be content with
any explanation. Elbert Hubbard's book
of blank pages, called Silence, did not
outrage its audience with the explosive
resonance of 4' 33" -the Sonata
appassionata of its epoch.
Professor Meyer disowns "progress"
in its meaning of "onward and upward",
yet, like most of us, he thinks progress in
the sense of "after this, what next?"
When he recognizes that certain
directions in art have gone as far as
they can go, he assumes that that is
where they must stop, to be succeeded
by an indefinite stasis. But an artist
is not bound by his esthetic philosophy,
unless he insists on being bound:
a good example would be the
composer Kaikhosru Sorabji, who for
forty years has refused to permit
performance of his immense
compositions. With Cage's records of
Cartridge Music and Variations IV,
both consisting of aimless sound without
comprehensible activity or direction, it
might be thought that Cage had reached
the end of his philosophical road or
spiritual rope. But not so. He is
working, I read in Newsweek, December
25, 1967, a handy source for
information about Cage and Sister
Corita, on a harpsichord composition
"that will range over a gamut of 50
different scales and be played on 50
separate tape recorders" . . the
compositional decisions being referred
to a computer. So the road bends.
Exciting as discovering a new
landscape, a new Beethoven opus.
Professor Meyer's problem comes to
this (p 171): "The present seems to be
aberrant, uncertain, and baffling
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