John Cage and the sound world


I had a discussion this week on whether or not contemporary art is really art. It started with wondering whether what Christo does, put up fabric gates in central park, constitutes art. Many people said no. The reason being is that it is all about shock value. It is also one dimensional. You don’t go back and get a different experience from a Christo gate every time you see it. I mean maybe you do, but really the effect is felt the first time, when you say wow someone put all these fabric gates in central park. This is different from the effect you feel in front of say the sistine chapel whenever you see it. Also there is a question about the notion of beauty. Are Christo’s gates beautiful, are they intended to be beautiful. I do think one of the quality of art is that it should be deemed beautiful by someone – how bourgeois another reason was that it is not, beautiful. What does it mean to be beautiful? I don’t know different people with different taste find different things beautiful.

Someone brought up John Cage 4’33 as an example of something that is not art – and that is just shock value. I agree but there are things that John Cage does that I would call art or even great art such as the music of changes or Etudes Australes these pieces depend on the musician playing them allows the musician to inject their own taste but within a very defined sound world.


One of the things I have learned from my painting group is the concept of the ‘color world’ I think this was popularized by Hans Hoffman. Abstract art is about color, the primacy of color, a portrait does not have to be painted with skin tones but with blue. A “color world” is the creation of a world with its own color scheme that flows together to create a coherent world.

This color world comes out of phenomenology. I don’t really have something substantial to back this up, but a few inklings and my spleen point in this direction. Husserl, the father of phenomenology, which itself has about 10000 different definitions, had an idea of the lifeworld. First phenomenology as Husserl thought of it, was for the individual to engage with the world of sense perception. The world is the lifeworld – the world of consensus reality… but the world is not related to us as an object but as a verb something lived in by us (us all not me as an individual). So the lifeworld changes – it is dynamic.

Anyway the lifeworld is the world we experience, we create it by living it. A successful color world is one that we create by painting it. John Cage is creating a sound world. His compositions are sound worlds. His sound worlds are more variable than the color world of a painting which presents itself always the same. Cage’s sound worlds change depending on who plays the world. But if we imagine arts as involving different levels of collaboration and authorship with perhaps painting being the most personal and film being the least, and the types of worlds that these aesthetic modes allow the great artists are the ones that create new worlds. Is a great sound world a sound scape.- like Green House. But is this just like a beautiful landscape, is this flattening perspective, is this the Monet or the Cezanne flatteing of the picture plane? Is this a new world, a new color world, a new sound world?

I would say the creation of sound worlds is what Cage is doing. Sometimes it is successful or sometimes it is unsuccessful but he created what it meant to be in a sound world at all.

Some other thoughts on John Cage from various musicians.

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