The definition of artistic expression as a vehicle for self-expression, one which is soulfully created and can do nothing but point to itself and the artist, was reaching its zenith during the early 20th century. Certain groups found this notion utterly repulsive, howeve,r and set out instead to make which directed the viewer's awareness away from the image, experience, or concept being portrayed. John cage was among this group. He felt “art [needed to be] born of chance and indeterminacy”. By this he meant that in making good art, “every effort is made to extinguish the artist's own personality.” In the paragraphs to follow, I will discuss the steps he took in his artistic practice in an effort to achieve this ideal.
In his early years as a composer, Cage was deeply impressed by Luigi Russolo's Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noises, which proclaimed music could come from anything at any time. It liberated the concept of music from traditional instruments, by which Cage felt tremendously restricted. Inspired by noise, he created his first prepared piano while working at Cornish. By inserting various objects in and on the strings, the piano was transformed from a stringed instrument to a percussive one. This transformation opened up a new world of sounds and possibilities. Along with his exploration of alternative sound makers, Cage employed rigid compositional methods involving complex mathematical equations and a fixation on time. These equations were his first attempt at removing the human factor from the creative process, which he felt was a necessary step toward both creating interesting works and living an artistically cognizant life. He also adopted methods of chance, tossing coffee beans onto charts and rolling I Ching as a way of creating composition. This idea of chance as a means of reducing the artist's presence became a key feature of his work. Cage was able to embrace this method fully because he did not believe in errors as catastrophes. He felt that any “mistake” was simply an opportunity for a new direction of understanding.
This acceptance of error and reliance on chance continued to develop as he studied philosophy and studied under DT Suzuki. Cage had explored mysticism and Eastern philosophy; however, the instructional sessions lead by Suzuki validated his interest in the Zen Buddhist principles of consciousness. Consciousness emphasizes mental presence in whatever moment a person finds themselves in, which can be achieved through disciplined practice of silencing the mind and non-attachment. Non-attachment refers to the practice of relinquishing control and refusing to assign hierarchy to things, interactions, emotions, and for Cage in particular aesthetic and audio experiences. This principle is reflected in his non-hierarchical composition. It also provided another affirmation that if art is created through perception and audience participation, hierarchy of sound does not exist and shouldn't be considered. All sounds are equal and should be used.
Because of his openness to all sounds, the idea of silence perplexed him. He came to realize that total silence is a physical impossibility and what is heard in the spaces between intentional noises was equally as deserving of attention. It was also interesting to him that the presence of others greatly altered the subjective experience. He wanted people to engage with, and recognize they were collaborating in, the performance of his pieces. Before a person could understand this, they had to be able to set aside their preconceptions of how things should sound and look. Knowledge was a blinder for authentic experience which the audience could remove through no-mindedness - or, what is understood today as “mindfulness”, the practice of being aware of the internal and external realms, while interacting with and appreciating both as a passing moment.
John Cage deeply wanted people to appreciate the rich theatre and robust orchestra of everywhere on Earth, at any time at all. For him, individual perception is what made art and music happen. The artist's job was only to facilitate a cognitive transformation from the perception of noise to music. This, he believed, could be done by presenting the audience and performers with psychic riddles and reminders of the diversity of sound in everyday life. Through his compositions he asks us to “live in a climate of agreement” with the moment and environment we find ourselves in.
Out of his passion for chance, simultaneity in performance, noise, and silence, he began teaching a course on Experimental Composition at the New School for Social Research. While there he propagated his idea that “art should imitate nature in its manner of operation”, which he understood as related to non-intentionality (meaning, if you have no intention to begin with, all things are permissible. Nature possess all things, and regulations are a construct of human society, so all is fair game). It was at the New School that Cage spread his intellectual seed the farthest. The range of influence from that series of classes reaches into today and will continue for the foreseeable future.
A few of the artists who attended Cage's class were George Brecht, Allan Kaprow, and, contemporary singer-songwriter Beck's grandfather, Al Hansen. Over the course of their relationship, George Brecht spent a considerable amount of time with Cage discussing philosophy. From these conversations, Brecht began cultivating his unique variety of performance art which was centered on the glorification and reframing of a single task; which was often a banal or insignificant chore. Brecht believed the role of the artist was to stimulate the viewer's imagination and to stretch their perceptual capacity. He believed this could be achieved through heightened awareness and participation in the task at hand. Eventually, he would go on to participate in the Event group Fluxus, whose focus was similar to these original goals but with a manifesto, which declared the artist dispensable as the audience was to become self-sufficient in their experience of art, and a lot of internal drama. After becoming involved with this group, Kaprow would accuse him and them of artistic irresponsibilty; an accusation which Cage had also received from a close friend.
Motor Vehicle Sundown was a symphony composed by Brecht for a fully auto orchestra. It involved a large number of people with cars manipulating them per the instruction cards created by Brecht in order to create an environment of noises, lights, and movement for the enjoyment of those performing it and anyone who happens to be passing by.
In many regards, this piece is aligned with Cage's aesthetic philosophy. The most fundamental of theses similarities is the utter lack of, or desire for, meaning in the composition. Neither man had any desire to present their own meaning through art, but rather to create a space for others to contemplate the environment and time in which they find themselves. Additionally, the use of a non-music item being engaged in a musical way and theatrical nature of this Event greatly reflect the influence Cage had on Brecht's artistic development. Chance, one of Cage's principle tenets, was not a great consideration in either the conception or performance of this piece, however. Brecht chose the actions, implements, and the range of time each human-auto interaction should occur purposefully. The actual duration for each task was selected through chance methods.
In the piece, Three Telephone Events, however, chance comes into play in a very interesting way. Three Telephone Events require the person on the receiving end of a phone call to make a decision at some point before engaging with the ringing phone, without knowing who might be on the other end of the line. Both the decision of how to choose which option to pursue and the resulting social interaction are completely up to chance. Furthermore, the phone call recipient must exercise a degree of non-attachment. Brecht's willingness to explore non-attachment echos Cage's perspective and is clear in the options presented in this Event.
It does not, however, expand on the common notion of how to use a phone. In that regard, it doesn't assume that the object's possibilities of operation are completely open. Because of this, the amount of reflection in the moment of the phone as a tool may be limited to the impact these events may play on the interpersonal relationship being potentially tested. While both Brecht and Cage relied on audience participation for the success of their works, Brecht's pieces seem to be focused more on the social aspects of life, whereas Cage tended to highlight the physically perceptual realm.
Both of these men had been greatly impressed by the Dadaist movement, which had begun several decades prior to their conceptual and philosophical explorations of art. Dada challenged people's expectations and creature comforts by creating situations and works of art which required people to look at the world and social structure in a new way. Although frequently overlooked in favor of her male counterparts in the Dada movement, Hannah Hoch had a strong voice which she channeled into heady and controversial photomontages. Her work was highly critical of contemporary and traditional gender roles, as well as of the gendered trends in consumerism and the portrayal of women in media.
One might notice the thematic similarities between Hoch's criticism of the depiction of the New Woman and the issues addressed by first generation feminist artists and wonder if their intentions are comparable. The remainder of this essay will address this query by assessing the specific societal struggles being addressed in these works. It will also focus on the manner in which the female form was used, in general, by Hoch and first generation feminist artists and for what aim.
In Hoch's era, there was a superficial embrace of women who were androgynous in appearance, present in the workforce, generally amiable, and sexually aware. As a result of the sexual liberation brought about during the first world war, there was a genuine shift in the range of socially acceptable dress and behavior for women. Hoch, herself, arranged her appearance in an androgynous way and engaged in bisexual activities. After the war, as the markets, once again, became flushed with male workers, this New Woman, who had embraced the aforementioned changes, began being touted as a marketing ploy. It was promoted as a form of gender equality, but in reality, through the objectification and heteronormative sexualization of this new aesthetic and lifestyle in printed and cinematic media, only served as another means of maintaining the status quo.
Hoch used the female form in her work to address this misappropriation for capitalist gains by taking apart the images available to women in popular culture and recombining them in ways that either highlight their objectification or question gendered expectations, or both. It is this author's opinion that Hoch's desire was for gender fluidity and social equality. She did not seem to form her feminine identity in the essential qualities of womanhood as the first generation feminist artists did. However, her work indicates a sense of betrayal and righteous anger associated with the misrepresentation of the female form for male gratification and reinforcement of sexual and gendered societal roles, with which the feminist artists could relate.
By the time the first generation feminist artists began their work, another great war, with the same shift of gender in the workplace and sexual identity, had taken place. Women were, once again, returned to the role of nurturer, supporter, keeper of the domestic, and, more than ever before, consumer; but nothing more. The same desire to, as Miriam Schapiro put it, “redress the trivialization of women's experience”, which was one facet of Hoch's goals, fueled the first generation feminist artists. Rather than trying to do this by find the limits of gender binary through androgyny and confronting media's portrayal of what a woman should be, this group of artists explored their own bodies and experiences.
They used what they learned through this exploration to create pieces which used their own, frequently naked, bodies in powerful ways which highlighted their autonomy from the male society (as demonstrated by Carolee Schneemann), to create conceptual representations of everyday struggles women face (seen in the collaborative work of Womanhouse), and to satirize traditional gender roles (Judy Chicago's The Cock-Cunt Play). These first generation feminist artists wanted to take back that which was essentially and biologically theirs as women, break down taboos about anatomy and sexuality, and to reflect the ugliness of the caricature of womanhood created by tradition back to the society that cultivated it. Hannah Hoch, too, wanted to show underlying implications of the cultural messages being presented to women, but this is where the similarities begin to dissipate. In the end, the feminist artists were about women's liberation through embracing their biology, and Hannah Hoch's goal was to provide a critique of gender norms and culture as a whole.
If there is an underlying theme provided by the artists addressed in this essay it is this: we are, always have been and always will be, living in a boring society with regulations which reflect fear or lack of imagination and dated values. The only way to escape this reality is through creating something which engages people in a genuine and provocative way.
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