It is not easy to write an obituary for a figure in the arts whose work we do not admire. De mortuis nil nisi bonum applies even to John Cage, the American avant-garde musician (though it is not absolutely clear that the term musician applies to him) who died in August in New York at the age of seventy-nine. A laudatory New York Times obituary by Allan Kozinn, beginning on the front page and taking up most of another page, amply demonstrated just how important he was seen to be in the New York arts world; a reverent Sunday “Arts & Leisure” piece by John Rockwell, the Times’s roving European cultural correspondent, found Cage to be a hero in the thinking person’s Europe. All in all, the reaction to Cage’s death merely echoed the words of the introductory paragraph of his entry in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music: “he has had a greater impact on world music than any other American composer of the 20th century.” With only Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa to compete with in the nineteenth century, and with Aaron Copland seemingly out of the running, the compliment seems hardly to require any temporal qualification.
By now, the accomplishments of Cage’s busy and long life are well known. He wrote several hundred “compositions,” ranging from works for pianos whose sound has been altered by the insertion of foreign objects between the strings, “music” produced by the random sounds of radios playing any kind of program at all, endless assemblages of taped sounds, beautifully calligraphed manuscripts of symbols drawn from astronomical charts, and, of course, the famous 4'33", a piano piece made up not of notes played on the keyboard but of complete silence. He said he loved both silence and noise; it seems almost cruel at this moment to remark that it was only music that made him uncomfortable.
He wrote a great many words as well. Some of it was rather on the lines of concrete poetry, gaining by layout what it lost in sense; a lot of it was pure gibberish. He was a marvelous storyteller, with a curiously riveting way of pacing what he had to say. When he spoke—and when he was understandable—it was often difficult to ignore the feeling that someone’s ox was being gored; and Cage’s “someone” was always, one felt sure, a pompous upholder of the dead music and the dead thoughts that people assumed to be cultured tend to admire and even love.
And yet, as these words are being written, it is difficult to avoid a feeling of sadness. Not really for Cage, since his humor had altogether too much of an edge on it to leave behind any feeling of regret; not really for the loss of any further artistic achievement on his part, since what he did, one feels sure, will, despite all the plaudits of middle-aged avant-gardists trying to recapture their youth, form but a chapter in the long history of American eccentricity.
The sadness produced by Cage’s death is quite otherwise. It is a sadness for a world when high culture was the center of civilized life, when bootless inventions, even when dignified by the loosely applied term “art,” were on the fringe, and when a joke about art could be seen as funny. Now, alas, we can hardly indulge such luxuries. Amidst the endless trivialities and the artificial multiculturalisms, the pops concerts and the TV sitcoms, John Cage, by some weird alchemy of media hype, has become what we are told to see as high culture. In sum, what is sad about John Cage’s death is what he left behind: a legacy of mockery and disrespect for the values of aesthetic seriousness and order.
At least we still have Bach.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 2, on page 2
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