by Julia Dür

5. "If that’s art, I’m a Hottentott"(1)

“Everyone is doing something, and those who make things in a framed canvas, are called artists.” (2)-Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp was apparently interested in a general conception of art. What do we call art? Or better what is not considered as art? Can we define works of art which are not works of art--as Duchamp already questioned. Moira Roth, in relation to this wrote that “if one is Duchamp the answer is probably no, although he did ‘make’ works which were not immediately works of art.”(3) Otherwise, these questions are not easy ones to answer--on the contrary, they provoke a number of new question marks. Where is the border between art and non-art? And then--how do we define non-art?

As a historian, I was first of all interested in a definition of art. And as it turned out I had to dig a bit into philosophy. Art originally derived from Sanskrit and meant ‘making’ or ‘creating something’. Plato took up the definition and went one step further by distinguishing artists into two categories: those who are productively creating objects such as architects or carpenters and those who are restricted to the already existing or imitation (what he called Mímesis)(4). Plato honoured the craftsman more than the artist as he believed that the former was oriented at the ideas of the mind, while the latter was simply creating an imitation of the already existing. According to Plato, the painter distanced himself from the truth--in order to attain it, one has to leave all appearances behind and should not duplicate it by a sort of reflection. In the Middle Ages, art (Ars) was generally interpreted as a production and design of everyday objects. It was a skilled trade which was thus never valued under just aesthetic aspects.(5) If we strictly stick to this definition, an artist is nothing else than a workman. And as Duchamp said in an interview, everyone of us is somehow a workman(6)--in different areas of course. Artworks have not always been valued under just aesthetic characteristics--as this short historical outline teaches us.

An important milestone in so-called ‘aesthetic’ art was the beginning of the 19th century. The Impressionists’ usual subjects were landscapes or social scenes like streets and cafés. While Impressionist paintings are commonly regarded as ‘beautiful’, it is also undeniable that they helped to create and to preserve--in their depiction of the pleasures of café life, the comfortable ladies at bath--a class divided from the world in its comforts and signs of sophistication. Beauty, here, was a means of escaping from the issues and obligations of the day. Beauty separated those who appreciated it and wished to reside within its frontiers. Expressionism, on the other hand represented a move away from the Impressionist trends and was concerned with conveying the artist’s emotions as aroused by his subjects. Any painting technique that helped to express these feelings was considered a valid medium.(7)

I found it quite interesting to observe that all art movements or -Isms were somehow a response or artistic counteraction to the preceding movement. The Impressionists strongly rejected the Romantic idea that a painting should convey strong emotions. Expressionism, on the other hand, aimed at stressing the artist’s emotions, which was again in contrast to Impressionism. Duchamp lived in a time where he could choose from Abstract Expressionism, Cubism or Surrealism. However, none of the -Isms pleased him enough to get involved with it. He invented his own -Ism and it turned out to be a counteraction to all the previous art movements.

I was quite amazed by the fact that the common notion of ‘beautiful’ art had not always honoured. However, there was a long way to go between Plato and Duchamp. Duchamp’s idea of taste may be interpreted as a response to the governing taste concept since the 18th century where

“taste was centrally connected with the concept of pleasure, and pleasure itself was understood as a sensation subject to degrees of refinement. There were standards of taste, and a curriculum, in effect, of aesthetic education. Taste was not merely what this or that person preferred, all things being equal, but what any person whatever ought to prefer.”(8)

Duchamp’s taste revolution, however, cannot only be interpreted as a denial of all -Isms and taste concepts at the time, but also as a very personal decision in search for his own expression. Defining art as a concept seems like an endless enterprise--not only because every point in history offers us its own definition, but because every single artist provides us with hints of his own world.

“For us, art is that which we find under this name: something which simply is, and which doesn’t need to conform to laws in order to exist; a complicated social product.”(9)   -Robert Musil

Let us imagine a scene in a Museum of Modern Art. A rather perplexed visitor and his child critically observe a Pollock. He turns to his son and whispers, “you could have done this with your left hand, don’t you?” A scene which is so familiar to us that it almost seems like a déjà-vu. Now, fine: “Every human being is an artist”, an impressive line Beuys once mentioned. In a broad sense--if we take together all definitions art history provided us--this statement can retain validity for we all ‘make’ or produce something. The father demonstrated with his statement that in his view art must have something to do with artistic skill. And--skill usually creates an aesthetic product, however the term aesthetic is defined. Van Gogh or Monet would be generally considered as ‘beautiful’ by the majority. Yet History has taught us that every masterpiece of modern art, whether Picasso, Cage or Duchamp, was first met with an outcry of indignation: “this is not art!” (or, maybe “If that’s art I’m a Hottentott”) Art is what we or what critics call art--as different the result may be. Robert Musil’s quotation on art hits the bull’s eye. Art is too complicated to be defined - as it is the product of human beings. It is impossible to find an objective explanation for something that is the most subjective expression of a human-being. The borders between art and non-art are blurring. In my view, art could be compared to a handmade mirror made by a reflecting individual at a particular point of history--whether we find it beautiful or not is beside the point.

It may be hard to understand why Duchamp invented his readymades or why Cage first rejected harmony and welcomed noise as an artistic tool. Both, Duchamp and Cage were interested in conceptual art which means that the idea behind a work of art, in the end, was more important than the finished work itself.
Duchamp believed that there was nothing inherently sacred about an art-object. This concept is realized in Duchamp’s readymades. He believed he could elevate common, store-bought items to the status of artworks by declaring them so. Cage wished to free himself from his likes and dislikes--by asking questions instead of making choices, by using chance as a compositional tool. Both artists rejected terms like tradition and categorization and were in constant search for an individual form of expression. There is no recipe for what is beautiful or musical--after all it is up to the audience if a work of art is worth preserving or not.

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Figure 8
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912

Duchamp’s taste revolution started rather turbulently. After some years of Cézanne’s and Matisse’s influence, Duchamp soon found his own path. His famous painting Nude descending a staircase (Fig. 8) scandalised the New York art world in 1913. When he first submitted his picture for exhibition in Paris, it was rejected on the grounds that it had “too much of a literary title, in the bad sense--in a caricatural way. A nude never descends stairs--a nude reclines….”(10) Duchamp, at this point, apparently broke with all artistic conventions. He attempted to capture a figure in motion - a concept that apparently proved difficult for the audience of that time to understand. One critic wrote that this landmark painting resembled an explosion in a shingle factory.(11) When observing the Duchamp’s Nude, I was immediately struck by the  cubistic elements--because of the darkish brown and grey colours as well as the characteristic angular forms. However, the painting was far from depicting the ideas of any -Ism. The Nude was rather made by a Duchamp who once again proved to be an intelligent deceiver. As Calvin Tomkins wrote, “nudes weren’t supposed to come down stairs and paintings weren’t supposed to have their titles written on the canvas, and any artist who broke the rules in such an irreverent manner must be kidding, right?”(12) I would not say that his intention was to make fun of the Cubists--Duchamp was too much the indifferent type as to make fun of an art movement by such direct means. He did not even make efforts to explain his works of art--and if he did, he did so by making some remarks years later--as in the case of his Nude:

My aim was a static representation of movement, a static composition of indications of various positions taken by a form in movement--with no attempt to give cinema effects through painting. The reduction of a head in movement to a bare line seemed to me defensible. A form passing through space would traverse a line; and as the form moved the line it traversed would be replaced by another line--and another and another. Therefore I felt justified in reducing a figure in movement to a line rather than to a skeleton. Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought--but at the same time my aim was turning inward, rather than toward externals. And later, following this view, I came to feel that an artist might use anything--a dot, a line, the most conventional or unconventional symbol--to say what he wanted to say.”(13)

Interesting what Duchamp says about abstraction in terms of his painting. I do not believe, however, that the abstraction he mentioned carried much significance in his future career. Duchamp gave up painting altogether--as he said he tried to “unlearn to draw” in order to escape the prison of tradition.(14) Cage did not have to make efforts to forget music, as he admitted he never had a feeling for harmony. “I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schönberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ So I said, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.’”(15) Cage indeed disposed of a strong ability to assert himself. Although Duchamp and Cage apparently had different initial positions, they both landed on a similar artistic track.

“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

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Figure 9
Robert Rauschenberg, White Paintings

Let us begin from zero--silence, emptiness, nonsense.  Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (Fig. 9). Empty space--no message, no dictatorship--we are free to bring in ourselves. Empty canvas--no need for interpretation; we need not say anything about it if we don’t feel like it.  The blankness of the white paintings strongly reminded me of Cage’s silence. Rauschenberg, like Duchamp and Cage, was also interested in breaking down the barriers between art and life by using everyday artistic tools. Cage was indeed mesmerized by Rauschenberg’s empty walls. ”I responded immediately,” he said, “not as objects, but as ways of seeing. I’ve said before that they were airports for shadows and for dust, but you could also say that they were mirrors of the air.” What fascinated Cage about the White Paintings was Rauschenberg’s idea of emptiness: “A canvas is never empty”(16), Rauschenberg said; it acts as a landing-ground for dust, shadows, reflections. The White Paintings somehow gave Cage ‘permission’ to proceed with the composition of his silent pieces: “When I saw those, I said, ‘Oh yes, I must; otherwise I’m lagging, otherwise music is lagging.’”(17) “It’s out of that emptiness, and not being put off by ‘nothing’ happening--and when you see it, it really impresses you--that hearing it, hearing the emptiness becomes a possibility all over again.”(18) Rauschenberg’s white paintings greatly inspired Cage to silence in music. He was interested in a silence that was “not the absence of sound but the fact of having changed one’s mind to be interested in the sounds that there are, to hear them.”(19)

Silence turned out to be one of Cage’s central concept in his music and philosophy. He defined silence as simply the absence of intended sounds, or the turning off of our awareness. At the same time he made it clear that he believed there was no such thing as silence, defined as a total absence of sound--similar to Rauschenberg, who did not believe in emptiness in terms of an empty canvas. In 1951, he visited a sound-proof chamber at Harvard University in order to ‘hear’ silence. “I literally expected to hear nothing,” he said. Instead, he heard two sounds, one high and one low. He was told that the first was his nervous system and the other his blood circulating. This was a major revelation that was to affect his compositional philosophy from that time on. 

“The history of art is simply a history of getting rid of the ugly by entering into it, and using it. After all, the notion of something outside of us being ugly is not outside of us but inside of us. And that’s why I keep reiterating that we’re working with our minds. What we’re trying to do is to get them open so that we don’t see things as being ugly, or beautiful, but we see them just as they are.”(20) -John Cage

Cage’s taste ®evolution started rather loud and clear. In 1940, he made the Prepared Piano. Before Cage left Cornish school, he was invited to compose the music for an African dance. The only instrument available was a piano. “I knew that wouldn’t work for Bacchanale which was rather primitive, almost barbaric,”(21) Cage recalled. He finally realized that he had to change the piano. Cage tried placing objects between the strings. “The piano was transformed into a percussion orchestra having the loudness, say, of a harpsichord.”(22) Noise as a compositional tool was born….interpenetration of life and art.

“You have to remember how straight-laced everything had always been in music…Just to change one little thing in music was a life’s work. But John changed everything…John was freer than the rest of us.”(23) - Morton Feldman

When Cage was writing percussion and prepared piano pieces, he became concerned with a new change. He noticed that although he had been taught that music was a matter of communication, when he wrote a sad piece people laughed, and when he wrote a funny one they started crying. From this he concluded that people did not understand each other’s music, that “music doesn’t really communicate to people. Or if it does, it does it in very, very different ways from one person to the next.”(24) Cage said that “no one was understanding anybody else. It was clearly pointless to continue that way, so I determined to stop writing music until I found a better reason than ‘self expression’ for doing it.”(25) Cage’s reaction to ‘common composition’ is very much reminiscent of Duchamp’s rejection of what he called ‘retinal painting’. Strictly speaking, Cage stopped being a composer in the traditional sense, similar to Duchamp who refused to lead an artistic life.

“The reason I am less and less interested in music is not only that I find environmental sounds and noises more useful aesthetically than he sounds produced by the world’s musical cultures, but that, when you get right down to it, a composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do. I find this an unattractive way of getting things done. I’d like our activities to be more social and anarchically so.”(26)

Cage wanted to create music that was free of melody, harmony and musical theory. In an interview he once gave on his project Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake, Cage said that “he wanted music not to be in the sense of music, but in the sense of Finnegan’s Wake” which means that he wanted to turn away from music itself--just like Joyce turned away from conventional writing. Cage, by writing Roaratorio, actually turned literature into a piece of music. He made a text from the original and catalogued the sounds and locations mentioned in Finnegan’s Wake. All sound effects were inspired from the text and many recorded in Ireland, with traditional instruments such as flutes, pipes, fiddles and bodhrans (a special drum type).

To link up with Cage’s conception of music as an unapt means of self-expression (“when he wrote a sad piece people laughed, and when he wrote a funny one they started crying.”) - Cage had determined that the purpose of music could not be communication or self-expression. What then, was its purpose? The answer came from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”(27)Cage was tremendously struck by this. For more than a year he immersed himself in the philosophy of East and West, and began studying Zen Buddhism with Daisetz T. Suzuki, a Japanese Zen teacher who taught at Columbia University. “I had the impression that I was changing--you might say growing up. I realized that my previous understanding was that of a child.”(28) Cage was determined to find out more about the “divine influences”, Gira Sarabhai had told him about. He came to the conclusion that they were the sounds and events that were free to everyone, that is, those of our nature and environment. Buddhism also teaches the transitoriness and fugacity of all creatures and objects. Its ultimate goal is the recovery of a higher purpose which is one independent of likes and dislikes--and thus of everything that is intentional.(29)

As soon as Cage gained those insights from oriental philosophy, he introduced it into his music. A quiet mind, he determined, was one free of dislikes; but, since dislikes require likes, it must be free of both likes and dislikes. “You can become narrow minded, literally, by only liking certain things and disliking others, but you can become open-minded, literally, by giving up your likes and dislikes and becoming interested in things.”(30) Thus, Cage more and more became interested in sounds and noises. He gave up harmony, which he believed, had nothing to do with noises. “Sounds should be honoured rather than enslaved. Every creature, whether sentient (such as animals) or non-sentient (such as stones and air), is the Buddha. Each being is at the centre of the universe.”(31) This oriental insight may also express Cage’s passion for mushrooms and his belief to hear the sounds of any plant or object: “I have recently learned that plants respond to the affection you show them! They can almost tell you exactly who cares for them. And they won’t grow if they’re not loved.”(32)

In Cage’s mind, the function of music was not to entertain or communicate, but to be a process of discovery, to become aware and sensitised to the environmental sounds that are all around us, and to be free from personal taste and manipulation. The following statement by Cage summarizes this point of view:

“Art may be practiced in one way or another, so that it reinforces the ego in its likes and dislikes, or so that it opens that mind to the world outside, and outside, inside. Since the forties and through the study with D. T. Suzuki of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, I’ve thought of music as a means of changing the mind. I saw art not as something that consisted of a communication from the artist to an audience but rather as an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let the sounds be themselves. And, in being themselves, to open the minds of people who made them or listened to them to other possibilities than they had previously considered.”(33)

Thus, music lost its purpose of communication and expression. In contrast to the Western practice of making hierarchies--of separating, discriminating and dividing--Zen Buddhism suggested the opposite: no single centre (no best or least), only “an endless plurality of centres, each one world honoured.”(34)

Cage believed that emotions, like tastes and memory were too closely linked with the self and that the ego would not open the minds to noises and sounds. There was a way out--that is, Cage’s notion that art and life should no longer be separate but one and the same: “Art is not an escape from life, but rather an introduction to it.”(35) This idea led him to the concept of interpenetration. Previously, sounds that were outside the composer’s intentions were considered alien intrusions, unwelcome ‘noises’. Cage, for example, welcomed noises that were unintentionally produced by the audience--such as coughs or whispers. As a result of including sounds outside of the composer’s and performer’s intentions, Cage welcomed interpenetration.

Another important dictum which greatly inspired Cage to his new musical thought were the works of Ananda Coomaraswamy who wrote that “art is to imitate nature in her manner of operation.”(36) This idea should not be confused with imitating nature’s appearance. But how does nature operate? According to the naturalistic evolution theory and natural phenomena, they are not based upon a mechanical, deterministic model, but based on interdeterminacy and chance, such as in quantum mechanics and chaos theory. In the time of the Big Bang, there was a total chaos (a mixture of gases and other elements), and paradoxical as it may seem, this chaos was from time to time organised by chance.(37) In fact we are all existed by chance. As Cage’s works demonstrate, chaos is not really chaos, but unexpected order. I hope there are not too many critical mathematicians and physicists among you… Cage’s response to the chaos of our world was to welcome both its order and its disorder to the greatest extent possible. “Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos.”(38) Cage met this chaos by using chance operations which encouraged him to shift his focus of attention away from the making of choices to the asking of questions. Likes and dislikes became irrelevant. Cage used his aesthetic of non-intention for making music, poetry and visual art. However, he assured that he did not use it when crossing the street, playing chess, hunting for mushrooms or making love. (39)

“What his music is ‘about’ is changing the mind--creating musical situations which, being analogous to life, have the effect of returning himself and his listeners to a level of consciousness freed from intrusive preconceptions, desires and intentions, and leading them toward an unfettered experience of what is before them in the present.”(40) - Laura Kuhn

I believe that knowing about Cage’s philosophy is crucial in order to comprehend his musical pieces as serious artworks. Only then we are able to understand that his silent piece or 4’33” was not a deliberate affront or insult to the audience or the act of a fool who made a child’s play. Cage repeatedly stated that he was not interested in shocking or insulting audiences. “I have never gratuitously done anything for shock.”(41) He had no intentions to shock, but the audience did not always perceive it that way. The first performance of John Cage’s 4’33” created a scandal. Written in 1952, it is Cage’s most notorious composition, his so-called “silent piece”. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the performer plays nothing. At the premiere some listeners were unaware that they had heard anything at all. It was first performed by the young pianist David Tudor in New York, for an audience supporting contemporary art.

“Tudor placed the hand-written score, which was in conventional notation with blank measures, on the piano and sat motionless as he used a stopwatch to measure the time of each movement. The score indicated three silent movements, each of a different length, but when added together totalled four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Tudor signalled its commencement by lowering the keyboard lid of the piano. The sound of the wind in the trees entered the first movement. After thirty seconds of no action, he raised the lid of the first movement. It was then lowered for the second movement, during which raindrops pattered on the roof. The score was in several pages, so he turned the pages as time passed, yet playing nothing at all. The keyboard lid was raised and lowered again for the final movement, during which the audience whispered and muttered.” (42)

Cage said later that “people began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn’t laugh--they were just irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen and they haven’t forgotten it 30 years later; they’re still angry.”(43)

Maverick Concert Hall, the site of the first performance, was ideal in allowing the sounds of the environment to enter, because the back of the hall was open to the surrounding forest. One could hear raindrops patterning the roof --and Cage welcomed all those unexpected, natural sounds. When Tudor finished, raising the keyboard lid and himself from the piano, the audience burst into an uproar--“infuriated and dismayed”, according to the reports.(44) Even in the midst of an avant-garde concert attended by modern artists, 4’33” was considered “going too far.”(45)

As I am so eagerly writing about Cage’s discovery of Oriental philosophy, Zen Buddhism and the impact they had on his music and thinking in general, I am reminded of his mushroom passion, the macrobiotic recipes, his use of chance and I have the impression that I am writing in circles--that is, I am repeating Cage’s ideas which once again witness the unity in his philosophy as well as in all his daily activities. Cage’s interpenetration of art and life is thus also apparent in my writing--I somehow feel that my chapter mottos do not (exclusively) convey the contents of the respective chapters--everything is blurring in view to Cage’s entirety philosophy. Though a bit confusing, I believe that this is an interesting insight in view to the topic of this paper. It seems as if I am ‘experiencing’ what I am writing about.

The fact that Cage was interested in noise and sounds and consequently incorporated it into his music seemed somehow familiar to me. Yesterday I dug out the first compact disc I received from my parents around Christmas 1990. I was 14 years old by that time and a crazy Beatles fan. Up to that time I had listened to earwigs such as Let it be, Yellow submarine, Two of us or Dear Jude and eagerly tried to play them on the guitar. I can vividly remember my disappointment at first listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. The songs seemed strange to me, they sounded completely different from the cheerful songs I had listened before. At least I was compensated with When I’m sixty four and With a Little Help from my Friends, but what about songs like Within you Without you? What was George doing with his voice and with all those weird instruments? Or the church like singing of She’s Leaving Home… The cover featuring the wax figures was so queer, not to mention about the odd costumes they wore. Nevertheless, I could not stop listening to the strangeness of the music. I was listening to the songs again and again and with the time I became fascinated about the Beatles’ different music aspect. I tried hard to figure out the contents of songs like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and was wondering what Lennon wanted to tell us by ‘marmalade skies’ or ‘plasticine porters with looking glass ties’. Those mysterious songs somehow transferred me into another, mysterious world, if only for a few minutes. Maybe one’s ears slowly have to familiarise with good music.

“The Beatles insisted that everything on Sgt. Pepper had to be different,” says Emerick, “so everything was either distorted, limited, heavily compressed or treated with excessive equalisation. We had microphones right down the bells of the brass instruments and headphones turned into microphones attached to violins. We plastered vast amounts of echo onto vocals, and sent them through the circuitry of the revolving Leslie speaker inside a Hammod organ. We used giant primitive oscillators to vary the speed of instruments and vocals and we had tapes chopped to pieces and stuck together upside down and the wrong way around.” (46)

The Beatles apparently wanted to turn all musical conventions upside down when recording Sgt. Pepper. The album is seen by many people to be the Beatles’ masterpiece. It is especially denoted by its asymmetrical musical phrases and rhythms and its integrated use of electronic music techniques and Indian sitar sound. The album is very experimental. Around the time Sgt. Pepper was released, all Beatles were more or less occupied with Indian philosophy. They attended a seminar by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and learned about sublime consciousness and inner peace and these insights undoubtedly influenced their music. What struck me when I listened to songs like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was that you heard the orchestra rehearsing before the song actually started. In between you could perceive the audience laughing and applauding (although it was studio recorded). Interesting also, that some songs ‘interpenetrate’, which means that there are no pauses in between the songs. I found these impacts more than interesting after studying Cage’s understanding of music. I was struck….

“The very end of the album typifies the advanced studio trickery applied throughout Sgt. Pepper. After the last droplets of the crashing piano chord of ‘A Day in the Life’ have evaporated, come a few seconds of 15 kilocycle tone, put there --especially to annoy your dog--at the request of John Lennon (it contains a note that is so high-pitched that it is only audible to dogs ;) Then, as the coup de grace, there is a few seconds of nonsense Beatle chatter, taped, cut into several pieces and stuck back together at random so that, as George Martin says, purchasers of the vinyl album who did not have an auto return on their record player would say “What the hell’s that?” and find the curious noise going on and on ad infinitum in the concentric run-out groove.”(47)

The Beatles undoubtedly wanted to include some elements that caused some unexpected reactions by the audience. Besides applying different rhythms in one and the same song, they used everyday life sounds such as alarm ringing and someone gasping. They did not even frank us from chance--some of the recordings were stuck together by chance order. Interesting also, the topics of the songs on Sgt. Pepper which differ a great deal from the lighthearted love songs they wrote before. The Beatles were inspirited by different, daily life sources--Lennon wrote Good Morning Good Morning after he was inspired by a TV-spot on Cornflakes. McCartney sang about ”Fixing a hole where the rain gets in (…).” In A Day in the Life,  John Lennon reads a newspaper report on a fatal car accident. Harrison’s Within You Without You was inspired by Indian philosophy and turned out to be a co-project with Indian musicians--it was recorded without Lennon, McCartney and Starr. The borders between the music of Sgt. Pepper and life are blurring.

It would be interesting to find out what Cage thought about this innovative Beatles album--I can imagine he would have loved the illogical barrage of noise at the end of A Day in the Life. However, I doubt that Cage would have wanted to listen Sgt. Pepper in any recorded version. He did not even listen to the radio. “If you’re in a room and a record is playing and the window is open and there’s some breeze and a curtain is blowing, that’s sufficient, it seems to me, to produce a theatrical experience.”(48) I suppose that Cage would have enjoyed experimenting with the Beatles on the different sound effects. Once asked about popular music in general, Cage responded that

“it’s very hard for me to listen to music nowadays with a regular beat; so that I have a hard time to begin with, with most popular music. On the other hand, some of it gets free of it. Rock seems to me to get free of it, because it calls so much attention to loudness that you forget the beat.”(49)

Sgt. Pepper is of course far from popular. It is a rather a unique music experience, full of surprising sounds and noises. It allows us to dip into a different world.

“He simply found that object, gave it his name. What then did he do? He found that object, gave it his name. Identification. What then shall we do? Shall we call it by his name or by its name. It’s not a question of names.”(50) -John Cage

The last pages, besides digressing briefly on the Beatles, were dedicated to Cage’s study of Zen Buddhism and accordingly his invention of dichotomies like silence, sounds and noises in music. Although Duchamp had no direct connections with oriental thoughts, he made readymades to which said to be completely indifferent.(51) This notion has of course a lot to do with the Cage’s idea of freeing oneself from one’s likes and dislikes.

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Figure 10
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913/1961
Figure 11
Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915

In 1913, Duchamp took a bicycle wheel, turned it upside down and mounted it on a kitchen stool. The Bicycle Wheel (Fig. 10) was originally not intended to be shown, it was just for Duchamp’s own use. One year later, this wheel was the first of what came to be known as readymades, ordinary objects delocated and decontextualised. According to Duchamp, his first readymade can also be seen as a “homage to the useless aspect of something generally used to other ends”, as well as an “antidote to the habitual movement of the individual around the contemplated object.”(52) These lines clearly witness Duchamp’s anti-artistic attitude, his revolt against the tradition where museum visitors admire works of art. He stressed that his readymades were chosen on visual indifference--while, on the other hand he said that looking at the Bicycle Wheel gave him the same kind of pleasure than watching a log fire.  Calvin Tomkins’ statement on Duchamp’s first readymade reveals the erotic aspect of his work: “He found it wonderfully restful to turn the wheel and watch the spokes blur, become invisible, then slowly reappear as it slowed down; something in him responded, as he said, to the image of a circle that turns on its own axis, endlessly onanistically.”(53)

If Duchamp now found pleasure in observing his Wheel, he is clearly contradicting himself in terms of his idea of indifference. But - is it possible to completely ignore taste when choosing objects? Human-beings are subjective characters and I believe it is basically impossible to separate oneself from likes or dislikes. Our subconsciousness will not play along. However, Duchamp got quite close to the artistic realization of visual indifference. An ordinary object could after all attain the status of a readymade merely by giving it a title and signature. Duchamp’s goal of desacrificing an artwork was attained - other people could buy it and it could easily be replaced. After buying his second readymade, a snow shovel which became known as In advance of the broken arm (Fig. 11), he wrote the following lines to his sister Suzanne in Paris. In this letter he first mentioned the term readymade.

“Now, if you went up to my place you saw in my studio a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack. I had purchased this as a sculpture already made. And I have an idea concerning this bottle rack: Listen. Here in N.Y., I bought some objects in the same vein and I treat them as ‘readymade.’ You know English well enough to understand the sense of ‘ready made’ that I give these objects. I sign them and give them an English inscription. I’ll give you some examples: I have for example a large snow shovel upon which I wrote at the bottom: In advance of the broken arm, translation in French, En avance du bras cassé. Don’t try too hard to understand it in the Romantic or Impressionist or Cubist sense--that has nothing to do with it. Another ‘readymade’ is  called: Emergency in favour of twice, possible translation in French: Danger (Crise) en faveur de 2 fois. This whole preamble in order to actually say: You take for yourself this bottle rack. I will make it a ‘Readymade’ from a distance. You will have to write at the base and on the inside of the bottom ring in small letters painted with an oil-painting brush, in silver and white colour, the inscription that I will give you after this, and you will sign it in the same hand as follows: (from) Marcel Duchamp.”(54)

click to enlarge
Figure 12
Marcel Duchamp, Bottle Dryer, 1914

Duchamp had a clear notion about his readymades. Those objects he chose for readymades were easily to replace, under the premise that Duchamp signed them. Duchamp could make contracts with art dealers, authorizing them to make editions of his readymades: “10 $ for my Bottle Dryer. If you’ve lost it, maybe buy another one at the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville.”(55) Almost all original pieces actually got lost--among them the famous Bottle Rack (Fig. 12) and the Bicycle Wheel, which had been both thrown out by Duchamp’s sister. She must have decided they were useless junk.(56) A similar fate befell Joseph Beuys’ Fat Wedge which was conscientiously scrubbed by the cleaning ladies. The fusion of art and life became more and more visible.

Duchamp’s readymades were actually a denial of aesthetics and taste and had nothing to do with the artist, his consciousness or his autobiography. It was not anymore a question of visualization, but the simple fact that existed: “You don’t have to look at the readymade in order to respond to it. The readymade is practically invisible. It is a completely grey substance, anti-retinal, so to speak.”(57) Freeing oneself from likes and dislikes required an objective mind which was free from the ego. And yet, Duchamp emphasised his ego, by, for example saying that “everything in life is art. If I call it art, it’s art, or if I hang it in a museum, it’s art.”(58) It seems rather clear that Beuys, with his dictum that “Everyone is an artist” did not much sympathise with Duchamp. John Cage got closer to freeing himself from the ego by using chance operations. Moira Roth, in her essay “Marcel Duchamp in America” wrote in this respect that

“The readymades are acts of a dandy’s arrogance. He, and he alone, can point to an object and make it art. He can do what he likes. He makes his own rules. Some critics, and even some artists, might like to imagine it, but the message from Duchamp’s readymades is clear: anything and everything does not constitute art, not is anyone and everyone an artist. Duchamp makes readymades. Other people do not.” (59)

Roth’s interpretation of Duchamp’s readymades as products of a dandy’s arrogance seems to fit quite well into the whole context of Duchamp. Let us take the famous Fountain, for example. Duchamp took a porcelain urinal, turned it upside down and signed with the pseudonym - R. Mutt. The most banal of objects was made holy by a decision to place it in a museum--because HE chose it and HE signed it. Duchamp’s idea behind it was that “whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object.”(60) Duchamp’s readymades were not an expression of artistic skill but the result of the artist’s choice. The Fountain was rejected on the grounds that it was immoral. Consequently, Arensberg, one of Duchamp’s collectors and friends, responded to the sponsors by saying that “this is what the whole exhibit is about; an opportunity to allow the artist to send in anything he chooses, for the artist is to decide what is art, not someone else.”(61)

click to enlarge
Figure 13
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Duchamp’s reaction on the Fountain’s (Fig. 13) rejection was expectedly one of amusement. His urinal was out of question a deliberate provocation perfectly enacted. Duchamp attained the goal of desacrificing his works of art--however, he was far from desacrificing himself as an artist. Whereas the Fountain played a supporting role, Duchamp was the main actor. “Some contended it was immoral, vulgar. Others it was plagiarism, a piece of plumbing. Now Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, not more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows.”(62) Strictly speaking, Duchamp’s statement was indeed justified, for he had simply taken an everyday object, decontexualised it and thus gave it a new meaning. What was vulgar about a common urinal? After all, it could even suggest something aesthetic--as one of Duchamp’s art collectors and friends had proved: “Arensberg had referred to a ‘lovely form’ and it does not take much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal’s gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance Madonna or a seated Buddha (…).”(63) As a matter of fact, the Fountain as a symbol of sexuality that underlay most of Duchamp’s later work has been subject of endless speculations. The taste revolution undoubtedly reached its climax--and no one had been prepared to it already in 1917.

 I am slowly trying to get back to the starting point of this chapter where I philosophised about questions like “where is the border between art and non-art?” In the course of a historical analysis concerning the definition of art as well as my personal approach, I came to the (possibly possible ;) conclusion that the borders between art and ‘non-art’ are blurring. Both Duchamp’s and Cage’s artworks can be regarded as mirrors of a time where radical changes in all possible areas took place. This more or less universal explanation, however, is only one side of the coin. It would be rather paradoxical to find one generally valid interpretation of Duchamp’s and Cage’s highly complex as well as personal taste revolution.

 “I have never been able to do anything that was accepted straight off.” ¾Marcel Duchamp

I believe that Duchamp’s taste revolution was primarily the result of his very personal protest against almost everything connected with art as an institution. He wanted to revolutionize the common understanding of art by turning all possible artistic conventions upside down. The following interview extract is only one of Duchamp’s bitterly sarcastic statements about the (then) current state of art:

“The entire art scene is on so low a level, is so commercialised--art or anything to do with it is the lowest form of activity in this period. This century is one of the lowest points in the history of art, even lower than the 18th Century, when there was no great art, just frivolity. Twentieth century art is a mere light pastime, as though we were living in a merry period, despite all the wars we’ve had as part of the decoration. All artists since the time of Courbet had been ‘beasts’ and should be put in institutions for exaggerated egos. Why should artists’ egos be allowed to overflow and poison the atmosphere? Can’t you just smell the stench in the air?”(64)

These words speak volumes about Duchamp, the confirmed anti-artist. His cynical expression is of such intensity that the outcome is simply Duchampian--in other words, bitterly sarcastic and amusing. In order to fight the war against all retinal artists he used weapons such as sarcasm and provocation. He refused to establish any art school as he refused tradition as a doctrine. Duchamp wished to break the aesthetic predominance of the past as he believed that the distinction between beautiful and ugly simply had been acquired. For Duchamp it was important not to be stereotyped in any way. He wanted to be free of tradition and of categorisation. Duchamp’s taste revolution was the product of a thoroughly convinced protest artist. I will keep in memory Duchamp, the artistic nihilist who could not yet live without creating works of art.

Cage’s taste revolution, in contrast, was much more the product of an artist in constant search for self-expression. His life is an example of a multiplicity of interests. As a result of studying Zen Buddhism and Oriental philosophy, Cage’s work became an adventurous experience of dichotomies such as silence and sounds. Not only Zen inspired Cage to create artworks free from intention but an endless kaleidoscopic mixture of interior and exterior influences such as

DAILYLIFE Mushrooms Marcel
Duchamp..................................................................................................................... Cage’s sense of humour and openness....................................Arnold Schönberg DadaismMacrobiotics, Language, Jasper Johns, chance, Zen, Merce Cunningham, Visual Arts, Eric Satie, James Joyce...........................
Cage’s convictionoriginalityflexibilitydevotionhonestyintegrityaffability(61)......................................................Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Chess, Anarchy, Theatre, Henry David Thoreau, Dance, Pedagogy, Literature, Ludwig Wittgenstein..........................................................................................................................................................Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, White paintings, HIS Audience, Avant-garde, Bauhaus, The Large Glass......................... Architecture, the Eastern comedic view of Life, Emptiness, Emotions, I-Ching or The Book of Changes, the Magic Square, Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Henry David, Chaos Theory, Cornish School, Meister Eckhart, Etant Donnés............................. Finnegan’s Wake, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Haikus, Hermann Hesse,  Japanese culture, Marshall McLuhan, Mathematics, Number Systems, Realism, Nam June Paik, Ezra Pound, Pythagoras, Kurt Schwitters........................................................................................................ Spirituality, Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, Mark Tobey, Media, Utopianism, Surrealism, Walt Whitman, Zukofsky Paul, to name but a few
............................................................................................................................................. I guess this list could be stretched to … infinite number of pages but I do Not Intend to Waste your time any Longer.

IN case you still have some time left are warmly welcome to philosophise about this Cage quotation...................

“Which is more musical: A truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?”(66) >>Next


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1. Quotation by Harry S. Truman

2. Cabanne 11.

3. Roth, “Marcel Duchamp in America“ 27

4. Michael Hauskeller, Was ist Kunst? Positionen der Ästhetik von Platon bis Danto (München: C.H. Beck, 1998) 11.

5. Ibid. 22.

6. Fetz, Kunst in der Stadt 2 x.

7. Those insights are a derived from a mixture of sources such as Brockhampton’s Reference Dictionary of Art (London: Brockhampton Press, 1995) and Microsoft Encarta ’95.

8. Arthur C. Danto, “Marcel Duchamp and the end of taste: A defence of contemporary art” (Tout-fait The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal #3)

9. Thierry De Duve, Kant after Duchamp (London: MIT Press, 1996) 3.

10. Gough-Cooper, Ephemerides (reference to be found under 18th March 1912).

11. Tomkins 117.

12. Tomkins 117.

13. Ibid. 79.

14. Ibid. 127.

15. Cage, Quotations

16. David Revill, The Roaring Silence  (London: Bloomsbury, 1992) 164.

17. John Cage, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990) 26.

18. Joan Retallack, Musicage (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996) 91.

19. Cage, A conversation on Roaratorio (1976/79):

20. Julie Lazar, “Nothingtoseeness“ in Rolywholyover - A Circus.

21. Revill 69.

22. Ibid. 70.

23. Roth 2.  

24. Kostelanetz, 120.

25. Ibid. 215.

26. Cage, A Year from Monday ix.

27. Cage, An Autobiographical Statement 3.

28. Calvin Tomkins, The Bride & the Bachelors (New York: Penguin/Viking 1965) 100.

29. Ulrike Bischoff (Hrsg.), Kunst als Grenzbeschreitung John Cage und die Moderne (München: Richter Verlag, 1991) 89.

30. Kostelanetz 231.

31. Ibid. 232.

32. Charles, For the birds 227.

33. Charles 42.

34. Ibid. 91.

35. Kostelanetz 211.

36. Cage, A Year from Monday 31

37. Thanks to my friend who is very much into Stephen Hawking and physics. If you are interested in finding out more about the Chaos Theory, I would recommend Hawking’s well known The Illustrated Brief History of Time.

38. Cage, Silence 195. 

39. Charles, For the Birds 43.

40. Laura Kuhn, “John Cage in the Social Realm“ part of Rolywholyover

41. Richard Kostelanetz ed. John Cage (London: Penguin 1971) 117.

42. Tomkins 1965, 119.

43. Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage 66.

44. Revill 166.

45. Tomkins 1965, 119.

46. Quotation from page 1 of  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Clubs Band's cover

47. Ibid.

48. Kostelanetz 1988 101.

49. Kostelanetz 1988 225.

50. Cage, A Year from Monday 71.

51. Tomkins, Duchamp, A Biography 157.

52. Naumann, Affectionately Marcel 346.

53. Tomkins 135.

54. Naumann 44. 

55. Ibid. 359.

56. Tomkins 158.

57. Stauffer 230.

58. Tomkins 401.

59. Roth 27.

60. Tomkins 185.

61. Ibid. 182.

62. Ibid. 185.

63. Ibid. 185/186.

64. Tomkins 418/419. 

65. Don't pay attention to the anarchic writing

66. Cage, "Quotations":


Figs. 8, 10-13
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.