John Cage and the "Project of Modernity":

A Transformation of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde.*

David W. Bernstein, Mills College, Oakland California.

Copyright © 1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Adapted from Here Comes Everybody: The Music, Poetry, and Art of John Cage, published by the University of Chicago Press.

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"Post-Modernism," explains critic Charles Jencks, "means the continuation of Modernism and its transcendence, a double activity that acknowledges our complex relationship to the preceding paradigm and world view."[1] Jencks objects to the polarizing polemics pitting modernism against post-modernism, often expressed in lists of mutually exclusive elements of each world view such as "purpose vs. play," "design vs. chance," or "hierarchy vs. anarchy."[2] As an alternative to such reductionism he proposes that the emergence of postmodernism in the second half of the twentieth century does not entail a reversal, an abandonment of modernism. Post-modernism is "a hybridization, a complexification of modern elements with other ones"--which Jencks terms "double-coding."[3]

This perspective is especially useful for understanding John Cage's position within a broad historical context. There seems to be a consensus among literary critics that Cage played a vital role in "postmodernizing" music.[4] Similarly, in a recent essay musicologist Charles Hamm maintains that a transition from modernism to postmodernism occurred in Cage's work between the late 1930s and the 1950s.[5] These discussions certainly have merit; they have much to say about the evolution of Cage's musical style. In forcing a dichotomy between the two aesthetics, however, such accounts of Cage's work overlook his ties to a modernist project devoted to political and social change through art.

Cage's relation to what Jürgen Habermas refers to as the "project of modernity"[6] lies in his position within the most radical manifestation of modernism, the twentieth-century avant-garde. But, what is the significance of such a claim given that, for more than three decades, the phrase "the avant-garde is dead" has resounded in writings by both intellectual historians and literary critics.[7] Noting the failed political, social, and artistic programs endorsed by avant-garde movements in the twentieth century, scholars have concluded that the avant-garde is no longer viable. Today, as Andreas Huyssen has cynically observed, we may have witnessed the "fragmentation and decline of the avant-garde as a genuinely critical adversary culture."[8] This essay presents an alternative view. It traces the evolution of the avant-garde from its origins at the turn of the twentieth century to its re-emergence after the Second World War, and finally to the work of John Cage. Cage played a crucial role in the revival of avant-garde aesthetics in the post-war era, and in so doing helped continue a modernist project that began in the Enlightenment. The goal here is to show how Cage's work transformed the avant-garde and thus to question the commonly held assumption that the so-called "end-game" of avant-gardism was completed more than thirty years ago.


The historical roots of the twentieth-century avant-garde lie in the iconoclastic radical art movements known as futurism and dadaism. Both futurism and dadaism emerged from the economic, political, moral, and social upheaval surrounding the First World War. But, while dadaism was a loose international affiliation of artists, writers, and poets who were revolted by the butchery of World War I, futurism was a more insular movement that started in Italy before the war and consisted of painters, poets, writers, and musicians who were fervently nationalistic, misogynist, and pro-war. These sentiments were proclaimed by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) who established futurism with a manifesto published in the newspaper Le Figaro in 1909 when he announced that "We will glorify war--the world's only hygiene--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women."[10]

In spite of the political and national differences between the two movements, the aesthetic assumptions underlying dadaism and futurism were remarkably similar. Both endorsed a total revision of contemporary aesthetic values accompanied by radical political and social change. The futurists adamantly rejected the past and particularly its artistic institutions. In his 1909 manifesto, Marinetti even went as far as to exhort his followers to "destroy the museums, libraries, and academies of every kind."[11] Although they were usually not as belligerent, dadaist writings often echo the same disdain for the past and institutionalized art. For example, Tristan Tzara, a Rumanian artist and writer who played a major role in the Zürich dada movement, wrote that

The beginnings of dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of disgust. Disgust with the magnificence of philosophers who for three thousand years have explained everything to us (what for?), disgust with the pretensions of these artists-God's-representatives on earth, [and] disgust with the lieutenants of a mercantile art made to order according to a few infantile laws.[12]