John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day

Monday 19 September 2011

Sadly, I had to miss the John Cage concert on Southbank last Tuesday (I had a perfect excuse) but I did remember to see the exhibition it accompanied. This was the first opportunity I’d had, after all these years, to see some of Cage’s visual art directly.

I have to admit I felt a twinge of disappointment when I read the promo blurb which promised an exhibition “inspired by Cage’s use of chance-determined scores”, i.e. the artworks were arranged scattered high and low over the walls, their positions determined by chance. In other words, an imitation of Cage’s Rolywholyover A Circus exhibition in 1992. There’s a difference between being inspired by someone and imitating them.

Rolywholyover A Circus presented a changing mix of artworks and objects from a variety of sources. Every Day is a Good Day was supposed to be an exhibition of Cage’s art. The two shows had different aims and purposes. As a survey of Cage’s prints and drawings, the presentation did him a disservice, treating his work as so many props as part of a greater installation. Just because Cage did it once doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing to show that you “get it”. If you think his art is worth exhibiting, display it at least as well as you would any other artist and give the punters a chance to assess it on its merits by giving them a good look at it.

Speaking of which, the lighting: was that chance-determined too? If so, it appeared a bit too uniform to meet the Cageian aesthetic. If not, it was crap. I know Cage admired the idea of a painting that would not be disturbed by the action of shadows on its surface but that didn’t mean that shadows were mandatory, any more than he hoped there’d be one punter in the audience struggling with a bag of crisps at every performance of 4’33″. While I’m complaining, why was just the first part of his String Quartet in Four Parts playing on a loop the whole time I was there? If you’re playing just one piece, could you make it a complete one? Wouldn’t Ryoanji be a much more appropriate choice?

OK, enough whingeing. It was great that someone in the UK brought together a large collection of Cage’s art for display. The catalogue was worth it alone, as it can be tricky to find even reproductions of many of these pieces in one location. To stand in one room surrounded by works made over nearly 20 years was a wonderful immersion into his aesthetic sensibility, and even gave a partial sense of how the sometimes disparate tendencies of his music related to each other. Cage largely made these pieces as objects for contemplation, and no matter how beautiful they may look in reproduction, their lack of any conventional “content” draws attention to the subtleties otherwise barely perceptible when viewed at first hand: the texture of the paper, the impressions of the printing plate left on the surface, a stray trace of smoke.

Given that it’s so overshadowed by his music, the show was a useful start for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Cage’s art. A few pieces seemed facile, little more than school art-class exercises that present ordinary found objects as “beautiful” or “artistic”. More often, they used the same methods – traced rocks, smoked and scorched paper, washes of colour, lines and accidents – as a means to explore the materials and techniques of printing in unusual but sympathetic ways (Cage was never a confrontational “anti-artist”.) The methods I mentioned above are one and the same as the subject matter, for want of a better term. This unified approach succeeds in meeting Cage’s long-stated aesthetic of imitating nature in its manner of operation, creating beauty which is unintentional, but not accidental.