Saturday, April 11, 2009

John Cage and Freedom

I started a painting yesterday, and it got me thinking about the approach to one's artwork in general. To preface this, let me explain that there are two types of painters: broad brush painters and fine brush painters (okay, so if you count Jackson Pollack and preschoolers everywhere, I guess there can be "no brush" painters as well). Me, I'm a fine brush painter, meaning that my paintbrush never gets bigger than a half-inch wide. Preferably, my brush is so small that one can hardly tell it's a paintbrush and rather sees a stick with three tiny bristles poking out of it. Why do I like such a small brush on even a 30''x40'' canvas? It's all about control, my friends. When my brush is that small, I have maximum control and can make everything look exactly the way I want it to with my nose one inch from the canvas (no kidding. really, I've gotten paint on the end of my nose before).
So what does this have to do with Cage? Well, Cage has come to represent everything that makes me uncomfortable as an artist. Definitely not a fine brush painter. Beethoven was a fine brush painter. The fine brush gives the power of manipulation, a power that Cage was eager to relinquish. But I don't think that Cage was even a broad brush person. Maybe a "no brush" person with a blindfold, or maybe a "no paint" person that makes people really think about his painting. What I'm trying to point out is that Cage didn't work within conventional confines of music, and as he did so, he relinquished all control over his medium. For many artists, that's scary. Whether you want it to be or not, artwork is a reflection of the artist. Even Cage, as he stove to remove himself as much as possible from his music, is reflected in his work. His choice to take himself out of it is directly related to how people see him in it. So to relinquish all control one has over it is a big step, or rather a ludicrous one. Then again, it is also the most liberating...
I think one of the reasons that so many people are intimidated by Cage's work, that so many people just "don't get it" is because they can't bring themselves to understand a person to relinquish that kind of control. Or rather, perhaps these people are themselves afraid of the kind of freedom that comes with that. I, for one, don't think that I could do a painting with a larger brush -let alone do it blindfolded. That lack of control, that sort of freedom, really scares me. It's uncomfortable. And I think that's the response many people have toward avant guard music, in general -especially that of a composer who so heavily relies on chance and indeterminacy. To throw all caution to the wind and just see what happens, to allow the world to see you in your art without having exercised control over its finer points, is scary.
For that, I have to admire Cage as an artist. He's braver in this respect than I could ever be. And more free as well.

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