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Artists John Cage

John Cage

American Composer, Theoretician, and Writer

Movements: Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Conceptual Art

Born: Septemer 5, 1912 - Los Angeles, California

Died: August 12, 1992 - Stony Point, New York

Quotes

"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."
John Cage
"As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency."
John Cage
"Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?"
John Cage
"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason."
John Cage

"The function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operations."

Synopsis

Working during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, John Cage honed his skills in the midst of the growing American avant garde. Neither a painter or a sculptor, Cage is best known for revolutionizing modern music through his incorporation of unconventional instrumentation and the idea of environmental music dictated by chance. His approach to composition was deeply influenced by Asian philosophies, focusing on the harmony that exists in nature, as well as elements of chance. Cage is famous not only for his radical works, like 4'33" (1952), in which the ambient noise of the recital hall created the music, but also for his innovative collaborations with artists like Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. These partnerships helped break down the divisions between the various realms of art production, such as music, performance, painting, and dance, allowing for new interdisciplinary work to be produced. Cage's influence ushered in groundbreaking stylistic developments key to contemporary art and paved the way for the postmodern artistic inquiries, which began in the late 1960s and further challenged the established definition of fine art.

Key Ideas

Cage discovered that chance was as important of a force governing a musical composition as the artist's will, and allowed it to play a central role in all of his compositions. Although each piece has a basic, composed structure, the overall effect varied with each performance as different variables like the location and audience directly affected the sounds that were produced.
By breaking with the historically determined preconception that music was made by musicians using traditional instruments to perform structured and prearranged compositions, Cage opened up a new wealth of possibilities within modern art. His revolutionary performances ushered in an era of experimentation in all media and shifted the focus away from the artist's inner psyche to the artist's contemporary environment.
Cage focused his compositional career on the incorporation of unconventional elements such as kitchen gadgets, metal sheets, various common objects, and even silence into his works to change the way modern audiences listened to music and appreciated their surroundings.

Most Important Art

Theater Piece No. 1 (1952)
Theater Piece No. 1 was one of Cage's first large scale collaborative, multimedia performances, created and performed while Cage was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Referred to by many as simply "The Event," the piece involved several simultaneous performance components - all orchestrated by Cage, where chance played a determining role in the course of the performance. Some of the components included in "The Event" were: poetry readings, music, dance, photographic slide projections, film, and the four panels of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a cross. Cage sat on a step ladder and lectured about Buddhism, or said nothing, and M.C. Richards and Charles Olson read different poems from ladders, while Rauschenberg played Edith Piaf records, Merce Cunningham danced amidst the audience (chased by a barking dog), coffee was served by four boys dressed in white, and David Tudor played improvised notes on a prepared piano, fitted with pieces of felt and wood between the strings. Cage composed the piece such that each participant did whatever they chose during assigned intervals of time and within certain parameters, but the overarching principle of chance guided the course of events. The highly involved multimedia characteristics of No. 1 are a wonderful example of the Neo-Dada movement and its incorporation of the everyday into modern art. This early proto-happening prefigured later developments in modern art, particularly the increasing focus on the outside world, as evidenced in later movements like Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, as well as performance art in general.
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Biography

Childhood

John Cage was born in Los Angeles to John Milton Cage, Sr., an inventor, and Lucretia ('Crete') Harvey, an amateur artist and occasional journalist for The Los Angeles Times. The range of his father's inventions (including a diesel-fueled submarine and electrostatic field theory), could be characterized as both revolutionary and eccentric, and certainly left an impression on the young Cage.

Cage took piano lessons as a child, beginning around age ten, and, although he enjoyed music and showed great academic standing, his first real passion was writing. Following his graduation from Los Angeles High School as valedictorian of his class, he enrolled at Pomona College, but dropped out less than two years into his studies, feeling he wasn't challenged enough as an aspiring writer.

In 1930, Cage traveled to Europe, spending several months in Paris followed by visits to cities in Germany, Spain, Capri, and Majorca. He experimented with a number of mediums while abroad, including painting, architecture, and poetry, but nothing moved him to create innovative works. However, during the latter portion of his grand tour, Cage first encountered the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in addition to contemporary composers like Igor Stravinsky, and was inspired to create his own compositions.

Early Training

By 1931, Cage had returned to the United States, initially settling in Santa Monica, not far from his childhood home. He continued to experiment with composition (often attempting things far beyond his training and skills) and worked odd jobs to make ends meet. Cage desired a more refined understanding of music composition, but was not yet fully committed to a singular artistic vocation. During this interim, he traveled to New York and began taking classes at The New School, where his instructor and friend Henry Cowell recommended Cage seek out the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, whom Cowell believed could provide the kind of instruction that Cage needed. After months of a grueling schedule honing his composition skills, Cage was secure enough in his ability to approach Schoenberg, who agreed to take him as a pupil - free of charge - on the condition that he would dedicate his life to music.

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John Cage Biography Continues

Cage spent two years training under Schoenberg at USC and UCLA, and, although Schoenberg's tutelage proved fruitful and he remained a lifelong influence on the young composer, he needed to part ways with his mentor in order to develop a completely new and innovative style of music. An oft recounted exchange between Cage and Schoenberg describes the impetus for their parting: "After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, 'In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.' I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, 'In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.'

John Cage Biography

While studying at UCLA and working at his mother's craft shop, Cage met Xenia Kashevaroff, an American-Russian artist whom he married in 1935. Following the whirlwind romance and marriage, Cage found work composing music for various choreographies at UCLA, and began the practice of incorporating non-musical elements into his work such as kitchen utensils, metal sheets, and household items. Despite several teaching engagements throughout the 1940s, including posts at Mills College in Oakland and the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, the young couple still endured regular financial hardship. However, it was at Cornish College of the Arts where Cage first met dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham - who would eventually become his life-long collaborator and partner. While at the college, Cage gained notoriety for his prepared piano - a traditional piano with objects placed amidst, under, and above the strings to alter its sound - which he invented in 1940.

The Cages moved to Chicago in 1941. A year later, after receiving a commission from CBS, Cage sought more commissions and moved to New York with Xenia. Upon arriving in New York, the Cages stayed with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim generously offered to support the couple as long as they needed and offered Cage a concert at her gallery. However, he had already been offered a performance at the Museum of Modern Art, and, when Guggenheim learned of this performance, she felt betrayed and withdrew her support, leaving the couple homeless and without any immediate income. The Cages' marriage was on the rocks and ended in divorce in 1945, after Cage became romantically involved with Merce Cunningham, who had also moved to New York.

Mature Period

In 1946, Cage began studying Indian music and philosophy from Gita Sarabhai - an Indian musician whom he was tutoring in Western music. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cage attended several lectures given by the famous Zen Buddhist, D.T. Suzuki, who would also have a large influence on his work. In 1951, he received a newly translated copy of the I-Ching - the ancient Chinese "Book of Changes" - from his pupil, and became fascinated with the text's symbol system used to identify order in chance events. This was a major breakthrough for Cage and inspired him to compose music incorporating the elements of chance and randomness as guided by the ancient Chinese text. For example, he would take a tape recording of a music performance, cut it up at random, and then consult the I-Ching for how to re-assemble the tape for a new, final composition.

By the 1950s, Cage had spent two summers as an instructor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and was in residence there in 1952, along with Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. This radical institution provided the environment for the development of the young Neo-Dada movement as well as some of Cage's most experimental and avant-garde works, including Theater Piece No. 1(1952), and 4' 33"(1952). Both works used standard musical instruments in unorthodox manners and relied heavily on aspects of chance to create the music. Cage began incorporating more non-musical elements like radios, seashells, and recordings of random events into his work. Some performances lacked any specifically created sound whatsoever.

Cage's close relationship with Cunningham - by 1954 the two were living together in Stony Point, NY - allowed the two to collaborate often, combining Cage's musical scores with Cunningham's choreography, often calling upon Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns for theater set design. Cage began teaching experimental composition at The New School in New York, where one of his students was Allan Kaprow. Kaprow applied Cage's instruction in the importance of chance to a new form of performance art that he called "happenings".

Late Years and Death

John Cage Photo

Cage was affiliated with Wesleyan University from the late 1950s through his death. In addition to his artistic and musical pursuits, Cage was also an avid mycologist throughout his life, co-founding the New York Mycological Society - a group dedicated to the scientific study and appreciation of fungi - in 1962. Until the early 1990s Cage continued composing, but due to increasing arthritis in his hands, he conducted fewer and fewer live performances. However, Cage's creative output did not slow down, even though he was obliged to rely on other performers to carry out his work. In his final years, his work had returned, in a sense, to the diverse multimedia practice that had consumed him as a young man in Europe; in addition to working on a number of operas and other musical scores, Cage practiced printmaking and watercolors. In the last five years of his life, nearly paralyzed by arthritis, a recent stroke, and other ailments, he created his lauded works, the Number Pieces, which many consider the final masterpieces from one of the twentieth century's greatest avant-gardists. In the late summer of 1992, while enjoying a quiet day at his Stony Point home with Cunningham, John Cage suffered a second stroke and succumbed the following day, less than one month shy of his 80th birthday.


Legacy

Cage's innovations with sound, instrumentation, performance, and composition all helped redefine music in the twentieth century. More specifically, his use of chance and the creative ways in which he utilized performers in his works helped inform and shape avant-garde movements like Neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Conceptual art. His innovations also had a profound influence on late twentieth-century developments in sound art and performance art, which focused increasingly on context and variability. Through his collaborations at Black Mountain College, Cage also encouraged artists such as Rauschenberg to explore visual art that incorporated chance, an element that would have a major impact on the course of modern art during the second half of the century.

Cage's radical oeuvre has encouraged many composers after him to utilize chance in their work as well, including artists like Witold Lutoslawski and Mauricio Kagel, among others. Through his unique developments in rhythm and sound elements, Cage influenced musicians like Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Steve Reich, who were inspired to pursue similar non-traditional instrumentation in their compositions. His style also deeply affected late twentieth-century rock bands like Stereolab, Radiohead, and Sonic Youth, while Aphex Twin even featured the prepared piano on one of their albums in 2001.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

John Cage
Interactive chart with John Cage's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Johann Sebastian Bach
Arnold Schoenberg

Friends

Merce Cunningham

Movements

Neo-Dada
Abstract Expressionism
John Cage
John Cage
Years Worked: 1933 - 1992

Artists

Allan Kaprow
Al Hansen
George Brecht
Jackson Mac Low

Friends

Robert Rauschenberg
Jasper Johns
Merce Cunningham

Movements

Happenings
Fluxus
Conceptual Art

Useful Resources on John Cage

Books
Websites
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage

By Kenneth Silverman

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

By Kay Larson

John Cage

By Rob Haskins

No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"

By Kyle Gann

More Interesting Books about John Cage
articles/reviews
John Cage's Greatest Hits

By Julie Coe
Departures Magazine
May/June 2012

Searching for Silence

By Alex Ross
The New Yorker
October 4, 2010

Zen Composer Meets Boombox Impresario

By Steve Smith
The New York Times
December 20, 2009

Letting John Cage Ring Out; Then Space Out

By Jeremy Eichler
The New York Times
October 29, 2003

More Interesting Resources about John Cage
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham was an American choreographer and dance instructor. He taught at Black Mountain College for several years, playing an important role in the school's interdisciplinary approach to art instruction. He founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York, and is considered one of the founders of modern dance.
Merce Cunningham
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
TheArtStory: Robert Rauschenberg
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
TheArtStory: Max Ernst
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, the neice of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was a collector, patron, and eclectic personality deeply connected to modern art. She gave important exhibitions to many Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists at her Art of This Century gallery in New York in the 1940s.
TheArtStory: Peggy Guggenheim
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
TheArtStory: Museum of Modern Art
Neo-Dada
Neo-Dada
Neo-Dada
Neo-Dada refers to works of art from the 1950s that employ popular imagery and modern materials, often resulting in something absurd. Neo-Dada is both a continuation of the earlier Dada movement and an important precursor to Pop art. Some important Neo-Dada artists include Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Robert Morris and Allan Kaprow.
TheArtStory: Neo-Dada
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory: Jasper Johns
Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow was an American painter, collagist, assemblagist and performance artist. Kaprow was best known for trailblazing the artistic concept "happenings," which were experiential artistic events rather than single works of art.
TheArtStory: Allan Kaprow
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus was an international network of artists of the 1960s who worked in fields ranging from music to performance to the visual arts. Taking their name from the Latin 'to flow,' Fluxus artists adopted an often anarchic and satirical approach to conventional forms of art, and their ideas paved the way for Conceptual art.
TheArtStory: Fluxus
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory: Conceptual Art
Philip Glass
Philip Glass
Philip Glass
Philip Glass is an American composer and one of the most influential music makers of the late twentieth century. Known for his "minimalist music," Glass focused on evolving repetitive musical structures into complex and elaborate compositions that he either performed with his group, the Philip Glass Ensemble, or composed for films, musicals, dance performances, and artistic installations. Glass is also known for his collaborations with his friends, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith.
Philip Glass
La Monte Young
La Monte Young
La Monte Young
La Monte Young is an American musical composer and a pioneer of the mediums known as drone music and musical minimalism, wherein compositions are characterized by highly complex and unusual instrumentation, and are often several hours in length. Young is also often associated with John Cage and other Fluxus artists. His best known piece is The Well Tuned Piano (1964), a sprawling and minimalist work of themed improvisation performed on a single piano.
La Monte Young
Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Steve Reich is an American composer and a pioneer of late twentieth-century minimalist music. His work is characterized by the use of repetitive rhythms, steady phrasing, and slow harmonies, as well as the incorporation of multimedia elements such as tape loops.
Steve Reich
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is among the most celebrated and proficient classical composers and musicians in all of history. Coming of age in the early eighteenth century, Bach is credited as the finest composer of the German Baroque period, and was himself a master organist, harpsichordist, and violinist. Among his most celebrated compositions are St. John Passion, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and Cello Suites, to name just a few.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian-born American composer, painter and music theorist, and is often associated with the German Expressionist movement. Schoenberg was a pioneer in modern composition, developing his "twelve-tone" technique and several innovations in atonality.
Arnold Schoenberg
Al Hansen
Al Hansen
Al Hansen
Al Hansen was a Norwegian-American artist associated with the Fluxus movement. best known for his staged Happenings and performance pieces, Hansen's most well known work was the Yoko Ono Piano Drop, in which he dropped a piano off a five-story building. Hansen was also a close friend to and colleague of such artists as John Cage, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol.
Al Hansen
George Brecht
George Brecht
George Brecht
George Brecht was an American conceptual artist and avant-garde composer as well as a professional chemist, who worked as a consultant for companies including Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, and Mobil Oil. He was a key member of, and influence on, Fluxus.
George Brecht
Jackson Mac Low
Jackson Mac Low
Jackson Mac Low
Jackson Mac Low was an experimental American composer, poet, playwright and performance artist. Working in the tradition of John Cage, Mac Low's work incorporated elements of chance, in which the eventual outcome of any piece would change each time. Arguably his greatest contribution was a form of non-intentional composition he dubbed 'diastic,' a new form of abstract poetry.
Jackson Mac Low
Happenings
Happenings
Happenings
The term "happening" was coined by artist Allan Kaprow in 1957 to decribe a series of multi-media artworks on display in a single locale. In general, a happening is an art event, often staged or pre-scripted, that requires active participation from an audience to come to full fruition. This relatively new form of artistic media could be called participatory.
TheArtStory: Happenings
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