by Julia Dür

1. “Be your own university”— An introduction

It was last June when I decided to go for an interview in the Kunstmuseum (Museum of Art) in Vaduz in Liechtenstein. In my letter of application I mentioned the barriers between different arts as well as the resulting ‘pigeonholing’--to stress the fact that in my mind it is essential to see those barriers not in the sense of limits but rather as challenges. After all I applied for a position which is not exactly tailored to a future high school teacher of History and English. One could interpret this short ‘philosophical interval’ in my letter as a kind of justification--though this was definitely not my aim. Instead I refuse to be labelled as a Historian or English linguist when my interests are distributed among different areas.

“Art is not an escape from life, but rather an introduction to it.”(1) -John Cage

In my short introductory remark I already mentioned barriers as a central term. I am interested in barriers between different arts and disciplines not in the sense of respecting them but in the sense of blurring. Both, Duchamp and Cage offered me a lot of input through their art, music, philosophy and their blurring of the distinction between art and life. They were in search for a way to escape from traditional painting respectively music. Cage was particularly interested in Zen Buddhism and accordingly invented a new notion of music by using chance as a compositional tool. He was trying to break the traditional barriers between not only theatre, music, dance and fine arts: “I am out to blur the distinctions between art and life, as I think Duchamp was. And between teacher and student. And between performer and audience, etcetera.”(2)

Both Cage and Duchamp revolutionized the common understanding of modern art. They withdrew themselves from commitments to what I call ‘entertaining’ artists who were interested in pleasing a large audience. Duchamp, during his whole lifetime refused to be labelled an artist. “My attitude towards art is that of an atheist towards religion. I’d rather be gunned, kill myself or somebody else than creating art again.”(3) Duchamp was certainly doing art while provocatively refusing it, but here the central message was that he did not want to be categorised in any way. In an interview, he similarly remarked that “a human is a human, as an artist is an artist; only if he is categorised under a certain ‘- Ism’ he can’t be human nor artist.”(4)As I continue my lines of thought at this point it only indicates the beginning of a long walk along these (sometimes invisible) barriers. My ‘philosophical walk’ will be that of an amateur wanderer, someone who got deeply inspired by three outstanding, challenging and at the same time, enigmatic characters.

John Cage first attracted my interest at a lecture in college where our English professor acquainted us with an apparently bright and free mind. When I learned about Cage’s ideals in education I realized that this was the opposite of what we mostly experienced as college students. Reproduction of knowledge is the most common and also most uncomplicated form of assessment, while the written and oral creative output of a student, even when studying languages, lies at a minimum. However, university, as I experienced it, greatly encouraged the meeting with others. It is a place where social exchange can usually take place on a spontaneous basis.

An appealing aspect while working with Cage was the fact that his influence was not just felt in music, but also in visual arts, dance and aesthetic thought in general. He believed that art was intimately connected with our lives and thus not to the museums. Cage stressed the concepts of diversification for unification, of multiversity for university--to express the idea of bringing joy and liveliness into education. He brought into question the term ‘university’ which, he believed, was not encouraging the meeting with oneself.(5) The first rethinking process has to take place in our own minds, thus my title ‘Be your own university.’

My walk will sometimes take place on thin ground, but this interest in border areas would be also in the sense of Cage and Duchamp. Both artists were in search for means to escape tradition. Cage, by inventing compositional tools other than harmony, Duchamp by “unlearning to draw.”(6)In the course of examining those two characters I found many common elements in relation to the mentioned blurring that my final interest focused on this topic. The fact that they shared a lifetime friendship as well as their likewise, but also contrasting ideas and artistic tools represented other interesting elements when studying both characters. Duchamp, more than Cage, created a real challenge for me as his often paradoxical and ironic statements made it hard to ‘complete the puzzle.’ I decided to partly leave the puzzle unfinished--with the slight intention to let my readers finish it.

During the last 50 years, there have been numerous publications on both Duchamp and Cage. I must admit that, for some reasons I intentionally have not read many of them. One reason is that, if I would have, this paper would have ended in a life-time project. Moreover, if the information load is too heavy, one would support unconscious reproduction of different information sources. And I wanted my mind to keep a sense of freedom and space. I gained a great understanding through primary sources as interviews, lectures, texts and letters. Now and then I grabbed books which had only indirectly to do with my topic, such as Rodin’s Art or Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography….in order to keep my mind a bit detached. Thanks to technology it is not much of a problem to get a lively impression of Cage fooling around with the interviewer in a live discussion about his Roaratorio. Those conversations transported the sense of humour and lightness in Cage. I also tried to get familiar with his music--with the rhythms I have heard so much about and still could not guess how they sounded in reality. Sometimes it was indeed an adventurous listening practice and I literally had to keep in mind Cage’s quotation that “disharmony is simply harmony we are unaccustomed to.”(7)

It is worth stating at this point that this project is not intended to be a scientific text in the common sense (as some may have noticed already ;) Many art historians, at least in German, tend to write in a manner which is apparently designated for a minority target group. It is not the fact that it is impossible for someone interested to understand such a text but that it seems to be an interminable play with words. It appears that they often claim a sense of totality if not universality and thus maintain a clear distinction between art specialists and public. Both Cage and Duchamp have not left behind the impression that their ideas are not accessible to the interested public. After having read some of Cage’s interviews and quotations I almost feel that it is needless to add anything. Many quotations I will cite in the course of this paper could indeed speak for themselves. I guess I just did not have the nerve to leave the space blank in between. Now honestly - I believe that one should first of all enjoy both artists without much scholarship. Cage, in particular, strived to make his work accessible and useful.

This project is best described as an attempt to find my personal way of approaching two artists. I doubt that Duchamp or Cage can be ‘understood’ in the common sense. Duchamp rather left the door open by saying that observers complete works of art themselves. In the end it is up to the audience if a sculpture or a painting is worth  surviving. And still, there is something hermetic and mysterious about his work. I must admit that I feel no need to completely uncover its mystery as this would be in contrast to his intentions. The following text will not be scientific in the sense that I do not exclusively intend to give answers but rather challenge new questions. Cage once mentioned in an interview on Duchamp: “‘What did you have in mind when you did such and such?’ is not an interesting question, because then I have his mind rather than my own to deal with.”(8) The paper does not claim comprehensiveness as it, among other things reflects my own experience with both artists.

In order to give hints about what my chapters will be about, I used various quotations which I thought would quite well convey the central topic of the respective essay. However, I refrained from giving too much away and also deliberately missed writing summaries of my ‘essay results.’ The topic is too complex to be packed in a few words and I wanted to allow a space where some doors remain open.

The idea to partly use translucent paper originates from a quotation by John Cage. In his interview with Moira Roth he was asked if his idea of silence had anything in common with Duchamp’s. He answered:

  “Looking at the Large Glass (*which is considered to be Marcel Duchamp’s masterpiece), the thing that I like so much is that I can focus my attention wherever I wish. It helps me to blur the distinction between art and life and produces a kind of silence in the work itself. There is nothing in it that requires me to look in one place or another or, in fact, requires me to look at all.”(9)

A glass indeed does not require the spectator to observe the artwork itself, but encourages him to see the environment behind it. In my mind the notion of ‘looking beyond’, that is not being dictated to focus on the work of art itself is a wonderful idea. Through the symbolic use of translucent paper for the initial chapter pages the environment becomes visibly through the pages. As the pages are closed, one can see traces of the next page’s writing. The paper’s contents are blurring in view of the next page’s font. In case my readers believe they are not learning anything new, I invite them to skip parts of the paper.

In History seminars we were taught about the crucial objectivity of a historian. Objectivity is certainly a necessity or at least something to accomplish in this particular area, while at the same time it is almost impossible. Our personal background will, at least subconsciously, make it difficult to maintain objectivity. In view to Cage’s and Duchamp’s overwhelming philosophical input I found it hard to perpetually keep scientific objectivity. I must admit that I did not manage to repress some creative outbreaks. Regarding objectivity, Cage’s introduction to his Autobiographical Statement seems to be quite apt to end my introduction:

  “I once asked Aragon, the historian, how history was written. He said, ‘you have to invent it.’ When I wish as now to tell of critical incidents, persons and events that have influenced my life and work the true answer is all of the incidents were critical, all of the people influenced me, everything that happened and that is still happening influences me.”(10)



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1. Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988) 211.

2. Moira Roth & William Roth, “John Cage on Marcel Duchamp”, in Difference/Indifference-Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage (Amsterdam: G+B Arts, 1998) 72.

3. Serge Stauffer, Marcel Duchamp (Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1992) 29.

4. Ibid. 14.

5. I am referring here to a lecture held by Prof. Truchlar, teaching Americanliterature at the University of Salzburg--however, Cage’s ideas concerning education can be read in Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with Cage.

6. Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp, A biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1996) 127.

7. Kostelanetz 91.

8. Roth, Difference/Indifference 73.

9. Roth 80.

10. John Cage, “An Autobiographical Statement”--first appeared in the Southwest Review, 1991. I found it reprinted in the Web: