John Cage is the subject of a new museum exhibition in Barcelona. The exhibit looks at Cage’s works in various media and his impact on all forms of contemporary art.
The New Yorker’s Alex Ross shares his thoughts on the highlights of the exhibit – but also raises this conundrum:
The great oddity of twentieth-century art history is that while Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and other radical postwar painters are almost universally hailed as masters, their works drawing huge crowds in museums, Cage is still often treated as a freak or a charlatan.
The distinction makes no intellectual sense, but there it is.
It is striking that someone as influential as Cage – as a composer, author, electronic music pioneer and artist – hasn’t found an audience that reflects his influence.
Ross is right. Many people that might appreciate Rauschenberg or Pollock would cringe at the idea of sitting through a concert of Cage’s works.
Maybe the answer to Ross’s conundrum is as simple as this: you can’t close your ears.
If you see a painting that’s confrontational, ugly or incomprehensible, you can close your eyes or walk away. You are in control of the experience.
At a concert of music by an artist like Cage, you can’t close your ears or move on to the next thing. You aren’t in control of your experience – you can just react to it.
This seems to be a fundamental challenge of electronic music (and to a certain degree, music in general); when anything is possible, how do you create music that is original, yet still has the power to seduce someone’s ear?