We used to live in interesting times.

Back in the 20th century, some clever people in the artistic avant-garde proved that you could “reinvent the wheel” of an artistic tradition by pulling off a few well-publicized stunts, while some important critic provided theoretical exegesis to help the audience swallow the pill.

And if the audience got hot under the collar, the critic could always pull out a protective amulet for his artist-as-gadfly, in the form of a magic word: iconoclast!

Iconoclast! That’s the guy who breaks the rulez!

Art as theology

Sure enough, look long enough into the iconoclast game of Modern Art and you’ll begin to see the man behind the curtain.

To anybody who’s followed the various avant-garde movements in modern art, it becomes clear at some point that the game is rigged, and that the art critic is doing the rigging. After all, if you upset the apple cart on a regular-enough basis, who’s going to help people make sense of what’s going on?

Surely not the artist.

To demonstrate this sweeping assertion, I’ll share with you my all-time favorite Monty Python sketch: John Cage’s 4’33” at Barbican Hall, filmed live on BBC Four. Possibly the loudest, most vivid display of Modern Art Theology known to mankind!

Instructions: just press play. Don’t fast forward. Endure this. Just once, please!

Do it for me.

seriously, though

Perhaps the biggest joke about the avant-garde is that critics have persuaded audiences time and again to take its pranks as formal seriousness.

But just so we can live in interesting times again: shouldn’t we also tell the critics the avant-garde emperor wears no clothes?

Indeed, for 4’33” to be given a commemorative performance shows that the court jester meant no harm to the king, after all. The most telling moment for me: the audience is coughing between “movements”! The stifled atmosphere of the concert hall at its best!

agent provocateurs can be artists, too

Like a lot of the avant-garde, John Cage is famous for getting into the fight club of Hallowed Tradition to “make a point”. To me, he’s the equivalent of Marcel Duchamp and his urinal: just making sure there’s an air of ironic self-awareness wafting through art and music school lavatories.

That said, Cage seems to me more of an agent provocateur than his chess-playing mentor. At least at a deeper cultural level. Cage went further than Duchamp with the idea of playfulness and improvisation in art.

Further? Cage went fully (Zen) Buddhist. He sought to remove human agency (or “intention”, as he put it) from the creative process altogether. He wanted the universe to compose his compositions, and taught audiences sit around and simply pay attention to… to… to whatever was at hand.

‘Cause human creative tampering just messes things up with motives.

In other words, Cage’s 4’33” may be a famous stunt to some, but I’d argue that his “philosophy of creativity” has had a more enduring impact on contemporary audiences.

By making music into pure form, removing human motive, agency, intention – with his “aleatoric music” and “chance operations” – Cage would pave the way for the stochastic processes of algorithmic and computer-generating music. Thus, in a fundamental way, “processes of music” under Cage can be said to have distanced themselves from the human body.

Music could now aspire to be completely disincarnate.

And how does the body react to this? How long can we play the “interpret the concert-hall silence” game, until the (very repressed) body steps in and makes itself heard?

Cage has a point

Of course, there is a basic point to 4’33”: silence is an intrinsic part of music. Or to use the language of Gestalt psychology: silence is the assumed “ground” to the “figure” of musical awareness.

And my point is that the subliminal message of 4’33” goes even deeper: the concert-hall is more hallowed than a religious temple. It requires total bodily control, and obedience.

Got it. Got it all. Not my religion. So, can we forget Cage’s gambit now? Or at least honor his contributions… in the field of cybernetics?

Person John Cage

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