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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Cage, Rauschenberg, and Tomkins revisited

After saying I'd felt discomfitted by Calvin Tomkins's recent "New Yorker" profile of painter/collagist Robert Rauschenberg, I went back and read the whole thing. It was an exercise in nostalgia.

Tomkins had devoted one of four chapters of his 1965 book "The Bride and the Bachelors" to Rauschenberg (the other three chapters were on composer John Cage, artist Jean Tinguely, and artist Marcel Duchamp, whose work "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" inspired the book's title; Tomkins later added a chapter on choreographer Merce Cunningham). Tomkins adapted his 1965 book from profiles he'd written for the "New Yorker," so his recent profile was a 40th anniversary of sorts. In 1980, Tomkins wrote a whole book on Rauschenberg, which I read extracurricularly sophomore year in college in 1982 or 1983, and which made a big impression on me.

The new profile recycles anecdotes and quotes and phrases from his earlier work, which is sad enough; worse, Tomkins recycles impressions. It simply won't do to unqualifiedly call Rauschenberg's combination painting-sculptures of the 1950s, which are now worth many millions of dollars apiece, "shockers." They may have been shockers at the time, but now they're completely assimilated.

It isn't just that Rauschenberg is a multimillionaire with a large personal staff and huge property holdings in various locations that signals the assimilation of his works: Rauschenberg's lyrical, loud collage technique has been hugely influential on commercial graphic art and videography. I love Rauschenberg's work; I think it's beautiful; and I think it's great that book-cover designers and advertisers and videomakers have borrowed from him. But Tomkins is stuck in wistfulness for the 1960s avant-garde "high art" that he chronicled with such vitality. He can't acknowledge that the aesthetic approach he championed long ago went commercial. He's wedded to the exclusivity connoted by "avant-garde" and "high art."

One of the recycled quotes in the new profile reminded me why Rauschenberg kindled my mind as well as my eyes: he "defined his themes as 'multiplicity, variation, and inclusion.'" Take it all in; miss nothing; embrace everything.

Yesterday I dug out a literary journal my dorm put out in April 1983, sophomore year, and found a "collage poem" I'd made, inspired by Rauschenberg. Scattered over the page are breezy anecdotes from a Spring Break visit to New York, as well as visual/verbal detritus I picked up there: a museum ticket, a parking ticket, a subway tear-off advertisement for a job training program, a bubblegum comic (WHY DID HUMPTY DUMPTY HAVE A GREAT FALL? TO MAKE UP FOR A ROTTEN SUMMER), a newspaper headline, a friend's personal card, a note and a drawing left in another friend's dorm mailbox, and a squib of writing describing the work of Rauschenberg's great friend and ally Jasper Johns. The versified anecdotes show the syrupy naivete of the 19-year-old I was; the overall aesthetic is cheery.

As is Rauschenberg's generally, which is what makes his stuff so useful for book cover designers and MTV. Tomkins would agree with the assessment of cheeriness; he calls the aesthetic approach of Rauschenberg and Cage "comic."

Which gives the lie to Cage's attack on Varese. Although Varese included non-pitched noises in his music long before Cage did, Cage wrote in a 1958 essay later collected in 1961 his first, most famous book, "Silence,"

Varese is an artist of the past. Rather than dealing with sounds as sounds, he deals with them as Varese.
It is because of Tomkins's profiling of Cage that we know that Cage, in his own way, dealt with sounds as Cage. According to Tomkins, Cage was a cheerful person; his aesthetic is equally cheerful. Re-reading some of the pieces in "Silence," I am now struck by how in some respects Cage seems like an Eisenhower suburbanite. He's preternaturally cheerful; he's proud of America's contributions to aesthetics; he's optimistic for the future; he's unconcerned with society as such as long as he is free to do his own thing. Contrast this to the liveliest jazz of the late '50s -- Ornette, Mingus, Miles, Coltrane, Ellington. The "inclusionary" aesthetic of Cage and Rauschenberg seems not to include much psychology or sociology.

Cage on social relations can be positively yucky. He was an adept of Zen Buddhism, which the poet and translator and essayist Kenneth Rexroth, who was 5 or 6 years Cage's senior, pegged as the religion of warriors and the rich in Japan. Some of the Zen stories Cage includes in "Silence" give the whiff of fascism.

[The Master said to the student], "You've been here three years, three months, and three weeks. Stay three more days, and if, at the end of that time, you have not attained enlightenment, commit suicide."
Cage later expressed frustration with performers who would not honor the details of his scores. I don't have copies of his later essays because they often creep me out. As I recall, in one of them he expresses admiration and/or envy for the disciplinary prowess of Mao. It reminds my bohemian snobbish self that there's nothing really wrong with having been an Eisenhower suburbanite, which I only mentioned because the passage of time allows us to feel similarities between an era's subcultures that may have been obscured at the time.

Cage's fiction of "dealing with sounds as sounds" as opposed to dealing with them as personal expression allowed him to do things nobody else had done. But I can't imagine how promulgating the fiction of the effacement of personal expression could be useful for artists any more. Few of us aspire to Zen desirelessness; Cage himself was endlessly ambitious for his career.

I love a lot of Cage's music and have found inspiration and beauty in his early essays and a few of his later ones. I have been focusing here on my reservations, but I still love him.
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