John Cage: Guiding Spirit of American Modern Art?

In 1951, musical composer and overall art theorist John Cage (shown above) stepped into an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Touted as the quietest place on Earth, the anechoic chamber offered the chance for Cage finally to experience the silence he had been pursuing in his music. But rather than complete silence, Cage found himself bombarded with sounds he later learned were the workings of his own nervous system and blood circulation. Total silence, it seemed, existed nowhere. If sound was everywhere, then music was everywhere—and everything was music. That cognitive jump, combined with Cage’s explorations into Zen Buddhism, helped him spread his ideas to other forms of art, particularly the visual arts. That story and many others appear in Kay Larson’s beautifully written book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. But did Cage really break new ground, or did he simply repeat what Marcel Duchamp and his readymades said decades before? That question weighs heavily on both Larson’s book and Cage’s legacy.


Larson, an art critic as well as a Zen practitioner herself, masterfully navigates the path Cage followed from simple beginnings to the complex simplicity of Eastern philosophy. Cage’s teacher D.T. Suzuki emerges as a paragon of Zen teaching and Zen living. Although I wish Larson had dove deeper into the intricacies of Cage’s music, she combines her knowledge of Zen and art to give a thorough picture of how Cage the musical theorist evolved into Cage the artistic theorist. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the visual arts as well as Merce Cunningham (Cage’s life partner) in dance employed Cage’s ideas and followed his spirit. In Larson’s view, Cage stands at the center of the entire sphere of American modern art. “We notice that it was John Cage, not Marcel Duchamp, who first pointed artists in this direction” that led to Pop Art and Minimalism, Larson contends.

Larson lays it out simply: “This book proposes that John Cage originated the worldview that showed artists how to appreciate the work of Marcel Duchamp.” Calling Duchamp a “recluse” by the end of the 1950s who “most of the art world was determinedly ignoring,” Larson unfortunately knocks down Marcel to pump up John. “It was John Cage whose life touched multiple thousands of creative people in all disciplines, who performed—by himself, with others, and with Cunningham and company—around the world, and who was teaching and preaching nonstop,” Larson proclaims. “Cage had no need and no reason to sit at Duchamp’s feet like an acolyte… The prevailing art-world notion that Cage somehow took dictation from Duchamp is not supported by the evidence.”

When Larson says “prevailing art-world notion,” I wonder if she had the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp (which runs through January 21, 2013 and which I reviewed here) in mind. As the title suggests, that exhibition positioned Duchamp at the center of the circle of influence, with Johns, Rauschenberg, and Cage all having their own Marcel moments, direct encounters with the French master free of mediation. I wouldn’t say that the show presents Cage as an “acolyte” at Duchamp’s feet, but it definitely suggests Duchamp as the source of Cage’s ideas. “He used chance operations the year I was born,” the exhibition quotes Cage telling an interviewer after discovering Duchamp’s Erratum Musical.

But perhaps the question of who came first is irrelevant in the end, like original Zen question about the chicken and the egg. Larson’s writing about Cage, for whom she obviously has great admiration and affection, so she’ll naturally place him first. The PMA owns The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) and other major works by Duchamp, so they likewise naturally place him first, as does most of the art history establishment, who may still view Cage as primarily as musical innovator and only secondarily as a visual artist or influence on visual artists. To be truly Zen about the whole matter, you would say that it’s the ideas and not who delivers them that matters.

In the end, Larson’s Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists provides a fascinating new lens through which to see the whole course of modern American art. Where many see Pop Art as devoid of philosophy and purely as the use of the detritus of commercialism, Larson suggests seeing Andy Warhol, for example, as modern Zen master. The sometimes maddening lack of answers from the enigmatic Warhol thus becomes the strategic silence of the teacher of Zen desiring the student to discover the answer for him or herself. Warhol’s 8-hour film Empire (1964) capturing subtle changes in the Empire State Building in real time becomes an extended moment of Zen. As we continue to come to grips with Pop Art and its repercussions, Where the Heart Beats might hold some answers or at least propose new questions. The question of where John Cage and Marcel Duchamp belong in the messy mix of influence and who influenced whom, however, may never be convincingly answered, although it will remain an important one to ask and continue to explore.

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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