At this point in the evolution of our language, the word “master ” means many things to many people. Still, one wonders just which definition the Public Broadcasting Service had in mind last September when it featured the putative composer John Cage in its “American Masters” television series. “American Masters” is, or at least is publicly funded as, an arts program. In line with the usual idea of whom an arts program should celebrate, “American Masters” has concerned itself in the past with those who might plausibly be thought to fit squarely one of the most trenchant meanings The Oxford English Dictionary gives for the word “master”: “An artist of distinguished skill, one of those who are regarded as models of excellence in their art.” In line with the O.E.D.’s formulation, the series has in the past brought to television the lives and achievements of such indubitable masters as Aaron Copland, Eugene O'Neill, Isaac Bashevis-Singer, and even (for a humorous change of pace) Buster Keaton. Despite the enormous differences separating these artists—and the other “American Masters” subjects—from each other, they all shared the one common, and defining, trait of artistic mastery: rational control of a body of rigorously chosen material.

Now, for our study and admiration, we are given John Cage. Unlike the “American Masters” before him, Cage exercises no rational control, and he chooses no material. Instead he mocks the very notions of reason and control, and avoids choice by choosing chance, as revealed to him through the use of the Chinese oracle book, the I Ching. He glories in his musical inabilities, bragging that he has no talent for harmony; he bases his work on the conviction that all sounds, whatever their origin or their character, are equally music.

It must be said that the PBS television program was vintage Cage. Here was extensive documentation of many of his routines: Speech, a mocking 1955 composition for five radios and reader; Minutiae, a purposely pointless 1952 Merce Cunningham dance piece set to (or rather performed at the same time as) a Cage percussion score; the filming of a chess game between Cage and Teeny Duchamp, the widow of the painter much admired for turning what he called “found objects”—most notably a urinal—into art; and what must be the television premier of the silent 1954 piano piece 4'33", a work in which the pianist does nothing but open and close the lid covering the keys, and note the elapsed time on a stopwatch. There was, too, ample footage of Cage, in his role as professional mycologist, hunting down (and then cooking) exotic varieties of mushrooms.

In his review of the program, New York Times critic John J. “Perhaps the most striking thing about John Cage is his ability to reduce just about anyone in his vicinity to a gentle smile.” Mr. O’Connor may well speak for television critics, but for those committed to music and to art, Cage’s pronouncements that “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it,” and “I don’t hear music before I write it,” hardly sound gentle. Rather, he sounds like a grave-digger of the traditional aesthetic sensibility built on an idea of ordered beauty. Aggression remains aggression, even when it is disguised as paradox and whimsicality. Doubtless those responsible for “American Masters” felt that in the Cage program they were presenting us with a master of art; in fact, they were only presenting us with a master of our disorder.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 3, on page 3
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