PRINT October 1992


Milarepa lived at the same time as Eckhart. He flew through the air in the form of a thistle.
—John Cage

John Cage, who died on August 12 of this year, exerted immense influence not only in the field of music but throughout Western culture. It is hardly necessary to rehearse his credentials. One could argue that the entire surprising and vital unfolding of late-Modernist and early post-Modernist culture in America sprang from the Black Mountain group of the immediate postwar period, a group in which Cage was the undoubted mastermind and free spirit. The publication of his book Silence, in 1961, marked an epochal moment in late Modernism, a heady glimpse of the possibility of overthrowing the whole karma of Western history. Can anyone deny the impact of John’s recommendation simply to ignore the music history (tacitly the history at large) of the last millennium—and of the incredible fact that people took him up on it? Over subsequent decades John did not become a mere icon or relic, not only because his ahistorical or antihistorical message still suvives as a tempting option, but also because his participation in the field of music was so precise and dynamic—and, really, so historical—as to amount to a countermessage balancing the first. We talked in his apartment on Sixth Avenue on May 29 of this year. What is hard to convey on the printed page is the pleasure of the conversation. John often laughed at something he or I had said, not because it was a punch line but simply because he was delighted by the world of ideas, at the same time that he was skeptical of it. And he exercised continually one of the highest social graces—that of being easy to be with.

Thomas McEvilley

[Traffic noise in background]

JC: There’s an idea I had in the ’40s, and now that I’m a little bit older I still have the same idea more or less: that one of the ways of saying why we make art is that it helps us in the enjoyment of life. The way of enjoying life keeps changing, because of changes in our scientific awareness. The way you enjoyed life in, say, 1200 is different from the way you enjoy it now. And that accounts for the changes in art.

I am thinking of one of Dove Bradshaw’s works which uses, I don’t know all the words, but this silver something or other that she applies, so that the surface changes and what she’s putting on the canvas is not necessarily what you’re going to see there in a few days or in a month or something. I saw a work of hers of that kind and it corresponded with my then notions of beauty, and I own it now. Since I don’t have much space, I put it in a closet. Then after a while a Jasper Johns picture went out to Europe for a year and I took Dove’s picture out. And it isn’t what it was anymore, it’s something else. Now it looks like a chessboard, but when I acquired it there was no indication of a chessboard at all.

TMcE: So it’s a real chess-game piece. It made a move on you, the grid of order rising up out of nothingness to confront you.

JC: Yes, now the order is what you see. The mystery, the sense of landscape, of biomorphic reality, of things beyond human control, all of which were there before, are gone; now it’s the presence of order. The Lord knows when it will return to my then preference. So the fact that the piece changes requires a change of attitude toward it. If I, so to speak, change with it, then I can change with the world that I’m living in, which is doing the same thing.

TMcE: So this is what you meant about art being a tool to help you enjoy life.

JC: Yes, and to not be set mad by it.

TMcE: So at first the artwork fulfilled your expectations and then it ceased to fulfill them—

JC: Now it’s teaching me something.

TMcE: Now it’s teaching you about the limits of your expectations.

JC: Yes. And that’s a situation which I think we still can’t confront in any other way than to be confused; it’s in thap confusion that we live. And to enjoy the absence of security, particularly when security raises its head—

TMcE: Its tempting, seductive head—

JC: It’s testing us in our tranquillity.

TMcE: I’m reminded of a Buddhist phrase, I think it’s in the Perfect Wisdom texts, where Subhuti, speaking of the bodhisattvas, says “They stand firmly, because they stand nowhere.”

JC: Isn’t that beautiful. Yes.

TMcE: So in your experience of the work there’s a sense that we’re standing, and the ground is underneath us; and then the rug is pulled out, and there’s this experience of free-fall, and yet both of those things are our location, both the standing and the free-fall.

JC: Yes, that’s where we are, that’s where we are. That’s the confusion in which we live. When I told Dove that the work I had liked had changed to an image that I didn’t particularly like, she offered to let me exchange it for one I did like I said, No, I want to keep the one I have. I want to continue to see what will happen in it.

[Construction crescendo threatens to engulf conversation]

TMcE: You know, I’m concerned that the noise of those machines out there, might drown out conversation the tape.

JC: Don’t be, don’t be.

TMcE: I think you once said that one should get oneself out of whatever cage one is in.

JC: Yes I did.

TMcE: Well, I would guess that for people as a group, history, however we conceive it, is our cage—

JC: Yes.

TMcE: —Or maybe our job. You know, Hegel called history Work and nature Madness.

JC: He did?

TMcE: Yeah. He thought nature did no work and had no meaning or intention, whereas history supposedly had an inner purpose. So culture felt a paranoid dread that nature would distract it from its purpose and pull it down into a swamp of meaninglessness. In Modernist terms the only intention ascribed to nature is this threat to engulf history.

JC: Yes, except that now it’s happened that many of us, not all of us but many of us, love nature.

TMcE: Yes, of course it would be perverse to call the love of nature an opposition to history. Still, it’s the decline of Modernist ways of thought such as Hegel’s that has made it possible at last to think of redeeming culture through a kind of baptismal immersion in nature.

JC: I had a friend who was a botanist, and his wife was also a botanist, and for her thesis or whatever it was, in one of the universities up in the Boston area, she took one square foot of earth and attempted to list all the evidences of life in it, and it was voluminous, you know, endless. . . . Isn’t that beautiful? Plants and animals. [Laughs].

TMcE: Gorgeous.

JC: Marcel Duchamp said, speaking of utopia, that we won’t be able to reach it till we give up the notion of possession. I look forward to our daily behavior on a global scale becoming utopian like that, where we won't have this hellish difference between rich and poor, and where ownership will quite naturally no longer be useful.

TMcE: The anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan wrote, “The human mind stands baffled before its own creation”—meaning the institution of private property.

JC: Yes [laughs], yes. I think it’s very important that we see that what we own—we don’t even know what it is. Or what aspect of nature or nonnature it’s going to reveal to us.

TMcE: Maybe we’re getting to the point where we can accept the impossibility of real ownership.

JC: Yes. Or even of fixity.

TMcE: They go together, don’t they. If things change, they can’t really be owned.

JC: They slip out of the net.

TMcE: Our idea of the fixity of the object seems the result of the desire for security that you referred to—our desire that we ourselves be fixed and defined.

JC: All of those things we need to give up. We’re being hit over the head by the need, it’s so clear. It’s like what’s said at the end of a telephone conversation, “I’ll talk to you later.” And that’s not what’s meant at all.

TMcE: Yes, there are so many things questionable about the statement—the “I,” the “you,” the “later.”

JC: Yes, and the “talk.”

TMcE: Of course it’s a Marxist idea too that the elimination of private property would function as the end of the nightmare of history.

JC: Most people now cannot believe that ownership will go.

TMcE: Much of the world is still at the beginning of the seduction of ownership.

JC: And they believe that you should own a good thing rather than a bad thing. And that just leads to more problems. They develop all these things seeking something that’s no longer spiritually available, namely fixity. But life is preparing us for both a constant loss and a constant gain, and also a not knowing whether it’s good or bad.

Nowadays when we deal with the way things change, more and more we refer to “spacetime,” and we are beginning to actually mean it. We don’t think it any longer, we experience it. When we go from New York to Chicago, it’s not only the space that changes but the time too; it’s a timespace experience, and I think this is what the work is about, preparing us for the experience of the identity, not the separateness but the identity, of time and space.

Of all the arts—certainly more than music anyway—painting is usually fixed.

TMcE: It certainly attempts to achieve an impression of fixity, a sense of essence.

JC: And that’s what makes people prefer paintings to drawings, and so on. Because they last longer and don’t even get dirty.

TMcE: I was in Amsterdam a couple of days ago and went to the Rijksmuseum and saw the big Rembrandt picture The Night Watch. A wall plaque said a number of interesting things about it: for example, the people in the painting paid a share of its cost, and these shares varied depending on whether they were in the front row or the back, the light or the shadow, and so on. The plaque also told me that this was not initially a painting of a nocturnal scene at all; it was an afternoon scene. The paint darkened. So traditional paintings are also going through this change from moment to moment, though more slowly.

JC: In the pyramid style.

TMcE: Yes, the pyramid is not eternal, anymore than the thatched hut beside it is. But its impression of fixity amounts to a claim that it transcends causality and can never be rendered obsolete.

Do you remember something you once said about cause and effect?

JC: I surprise myself and others sometimes by remembering something, but my mode of being now is not having a memory. I just don’t remember anything.

TMcE: Is that an ahistorical mode of being?

JC: I’m thinking of those little computers that you put in different modes.

TMcE: There’s a nice passage somewhere where you remark that when one says there’s no such thing as cause and effect what one means is—

JC: Everything causes everything.

TMcE: Yes. Now the idea that everything causes everything tends to reduce to absurdity the idea of history as embodying a stream of intentions. In a sense it seems obvious yet still it’s hard to live with fully. A moment ago, for example, you remarked that you look forward to a utopian condition in which the rich will no longer exploit the poor, or something like that. And there seems, in this stance of looking forward, to be an intentionality more specific and focused than the idea that everything causes everything. If everything causes everything, then effects arise unpredictably out of the tangle of things, and the idea of our looking forward to something, or having a certain will about the way we want the world to go, suggests an underlying suspicion that in fact causality runs in a thinner stream than that.

JC: Something that I learned from Zen and from the teaching of D. T. Suzuki is that the whole of creation is Mind with a big M, and each person is mind with a little m. The little m often thinks that it has purposes and senses of direction, but if it changes its direction, if it turns round or is converted, then it looks out of itself toward the big Mind, either at night through dreams or in the day through the senses. And what Zen wants is that it flow with the Big Mind. And there’s no fear of chaos.

TMcE: Yet oddly, though, a prominent aspect of Suzuki’s work is its very finely attuned historical consciousness. In his writings about Mahayana thought, and his tracing of developmental sequences from text to text, there is a finely honed appreciation for the idea of the unfolding of history with a kind of inner intentionality. In practice, in other words, he doesn’t dismiss the little-m point of view.

JC: He said so beautifully in one lecture, speaking of history, that such and such happened in the 8th century or the 9th or the 10th or the 11th—in other words he didn’t know when.

TMcE: But you can bet he had looked into it closely, and his four-century span was probably the most precise date available.

JC: Oh yes, but he was at the same time accepting uncertainty.

TMcE: Well, of course, but you don’t need Zen for that; accepting uncertainty given the limits of available evidence is just the scientific method. In this sense science and scholarship are very Zen-like, and also very much like nature rather than culture. Culture, if it’s not sure, pretends that it is.

JC: Yes, yes.

TMcE: I remember an interview with John Archibald Wheeler, the physicist, in which he was asked, When you began a certain line of investigation what were you looking for, and he said, Why, whatever I would find.

JC: Isn’t that beautiful.

TMcE: You once said that back in the ’60s, when it seemed there was such potential for social change, you had a lot of faith in the idea of socially and politically engaged art. Yet in the early Reagan years you said that you don’t believe in the efficacy of art engagé anymore.

JC: No. I don’t now, either.

TMcE: But I’m wondering, if everything causes everything, whether there’s any point to doing as Bertrand Russell did, say, and getting out in the streets demonstrating against nuclear weapons, or what Vietnamese monks did in immolating themselves. If everything causes everything then they might as well stay home and drink tea and that might cause the end of nuclear weaponry or of the Vietnam war. Even if in the grandest scale everything causes everything, still in a smaller scale some things seem to cause some other things particularly visibly. Maybe the big M and the little m should be in balance, rather than excluding or diminishing either for the sake of the other?

JC: But don’t you think that the things that are happening are all things we would have thought are impossible? I mean how is it possible that Russia has disappeared? Could we foresee that? And are we not moving in the same ignorant way into the history of the future?

[Brief dumpster crescendo]

Do you know about nanotechnology?

TMcE: Only that something called that exists.

JC: It could be a technology that Buckminster Fuller would have loved. He often spoke of a new technology, one that we don’t yet know, and advised us to save our oil in order to make the pumps go for the new technology. Nanotechnology is a microtechnology that says that we could build all the things we need out of the pollution in the air. So that after twenty years of nanotechnology we could have the environment equal say to that of 1800, without pollution. We would use it creatively rather than nearly kill ourselves with it.

And how will that come about? I don’t think that making an art that promotes nanotechnology would help.

TMcE: I don’t think the effectiveness of political art can be expected to be that direct. It’s more a matter of promoting an ambience where certain things are more likely to happen than others.

JC: I would be more inclined to donate money for it or something. The Japanese have made some buildings to study the possibility of nanotechnology. To do it. But I don’t think our social and cultural climate here conduces to intelligent action. I think our politics, our meeting as a society, is overcome by stupid intent. So that it wouldn’t know what it should do even if, it thought it should do something.

TMcE: Well, there are a lot of uncertainties, but still, there is a sense of responsibility in art that takes a focused stand within history rather attempting to escape it. The artist implicitly says, I have no pretensions to getting out of history, I am historicized being and history is my material; it is simply what I have to work with.

JC: Well, the distinction between artistic intentions, some being politically engaged and others not, makes me think of the distinction between applied and pure science.

TMcE: Yes, but you need both.

JC: I’m tempted to say something like “It takes all sorts.”

TMcE: Yes. That’s the simple point of what everyone’s been calling post-Modernism.

JC: Do you think it's taken a clear meaning yet?

TMcE: Kind of. Modernism as a view of history consisted of highly assertive ideas like possession, position, and essence, which were effective throughout the culture. Post-Modernism represents a loosening of such concepts, including the idea that relaxing and letting culture dissolve into nature might be a redemptive tactic. The flower-child movement, the ecology movement, feminist recognition of concepts like the goddess, your own championing of randomness and found sound, your concept of silence—

JC: I would just take out the word “concept”—

TMcE: —All these were signs of the loosening of the uptight dread that all our order was going to dissolve into chaos, all our chessboards were going to become fungus patterns. In late Modernism we didn't really accept that it takes all kinds.

JC: Yes, the value judgment ruled. But particularly with overpopulation, we're coming away as a people from any sense of style, and “should.”

TMcE: I hope so. But there's a visible backlash already. In the art world, for example, there's a right-wing backlash against NEA. The great issue is, Are there absolutes of value? The Modernists say without absolutes there’s no place to stand, no way to act in the world. This I don’t believe. To say that the ground is shifting under your feet doesn’t mean you can’t get anywhere. It just returns the idea of action to the only ground it can legitimately have, the dimension of personal feeling.

JC: Yes. Well, I agree that in this great confusion what is clearly viable is individual action. I think the truth that comes out of all this is that we are able as human beings to enjoy a good many points of view. Are you saying that history is burning? Well, we can take it unburned or burned.

TMcE: But at moments we might nevertheless have preferences between the burned and the unburned.

JC: I think we're being taught not to.

TMcE: I guess you're right, but then I keep remembering that a while ago you said that you look forward—

JC: Yes, but that's just me.

TMcE: Well, yes, that's what I mean. We do have preferences, but our preferences are relativized: we realize that a preference is “just me.” Rather than being taught not to have preferences, I think what we're being taught is to relativize our preferences. There's nothing wrong with having them—

JC: Mm-hmm?

TMcE: —What's wrong is to generate an idea of their absoluteness.

JC: Yes, yes, certainly. It then comes back to leaving no traces.

TMcE: Yes. Or standing nowhere.

JC: The white animal, in the snow, going into the tree to sleep in upper branches, no one can tell where he is.

[Silence with traffic sound softer and mellowed]

TMcE: We’ve had a wonderful background symphony of street sounds for our little chat.

JC: I find living on Sixth Avenue without cutting out the noise like living by a stream. It never ceases to be interesting.

TMcE: I live directly over Houston Street, and I think of it as a mighty river that flows by my window.

JC: Yes, it is, it is.

TMcE: So I’ll take this tape from your stream to my riverbank and try to edit it into something that will communicate to other people.

JC: That is one thing that maybe we don’t need anymore.

TMcE: A discourse that can be communicated?

JC: Communication.

TMcE: That’s like your famous saying years ago that we don’t need government anymore.

JC: Well, we don’t.

TMcE: Well, I think I see what you mean, a degree. I guess it’s like saying that you can acknowledge indefiniteness and still have sources of action within yourself.

JC: Exactly. That’s the confusion, really.

TMcE: Well, It seems like a simple enough thing to clear up.

[Laughter amid music of machines]

Maybe we’ve abkut said what we had to say, insofar as we could say it.

JC: I think so.

But I haven’t offered you anything to eat yet. Let’s go in the kitchen and see what there is. Shall we?

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum. His most recent book is Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, published by McPherson & Co. of Kingston, N.Y., last month.