Indifference and Politics


“There are those who are passionately involved in righting the wrongs of this world – hunger, famine, war, refugees, injustice, and so on. Equally there are those who stand indifferently looking on. Such indifference is reflected in the escapism of Feldman and Cage. Indeterminacy too, i.e. unconcern as to pitch, duration, performing means, is founded on an indifference which is both artistic and sociological.” Madame von Meck

I’m afraid this is a terrible misconception. Nothing could be further from the truth. John Cage was dedicated to political action, in one form or another, his whole life. It is more consistent and pervasive in his life than even his involvement with music.

Cage is said to have supported a Maoist form of socialism and had turned from music in the 1960’s to writing and political activism. In 1967 Cage published Diary: How to Improve the World about problems of world hunger, homelessness, and the Viet Nam war. Cage was influence by and worked with Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan on a variety of projects in the 1960’s. They shared a utopian desire to save the world. In 1968 Cage and Fuller worked with the Dept. of Justice to develop a framework of social justice for Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.”

Cage’s (and by extension, Cunningham’s) political views are very much based on what he considered to be the obvious results of technological development, as exemplified in the work of Buckminster Fuller and others; that technology would eventually provide enough food and goods to care for everyone on the planet. To Cage, planetary ecology, responsible agribusiness (he was a vegetarian), and concern for all human life were key issues and he spoke about them often in his work. Cage “took his work…to be a contribution to the global conversation among those who care about the future of the planet.” (Musicage, Joan Retallack, p. xxvii.) Cage’s primary political stance was a support of anarchy, which he felt would be the most appropriate form of government in a world where everyone’s basic needs (food, shelter) were satisfied and there was plenty of leisure to pursue artistic and personal goals. The world has again proven to be less interested in accomplishing these goals than Cage or Fuller would have liked.

It was around this time that Cage began having some doubts about Maoist politics and utopian visions. In 1968, ‘A Year from Monday’ began with the statement “Our proper work now if we love mankind and the world we live in is revolution.” However this call to revolution was soon followed with a long section titled Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) a somewhat ironic commentary on his own previous work.

Gradually Cage changed from utopian activism, which was too similar to totalitarianism, to a kind of anarchism. He felt that the urge to control, even for a good cause, led to conflict. This change to a free form of anarchism was reflected in his music where he looked for ways of eliminating control and offering performers more creative participation and in his writings like this excerpt from ‘Empty Words:’

Chance operations “are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concern for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience…Rome, Britain, Hitler’s Germany. Those were not chance operations. We would do well to give up the notion that we alone can keep the world in line, that only we can solve its problems. More than anything else we need communion with everyone. Struggles for power have nothing to do with communion. Communion extends beyond borders; it is with one’s enemies also. Thoreau said: “The best communion men have is in silence.”

For Cage, indeterminacy was not artistic or social indifference but a political statement put into practice.


~ by severalfourmany on February 20, 2006.

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