John Cage and the "Project
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."
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."
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."
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. 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. 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
Cage's relation to what Jürgen Habermas refers to as
the "project of modernity" 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. 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."
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.
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."
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." 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.
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