Saturday, December 8, 2007


Ist edition Aporia Press and Unpopular Books, London 1988. 2nd UK edition AK Press, 1991.

The entire contents of this book (except the index) are available for free on this site, but you can still buy hard copies should you so wish. This book was written in 1987, things have moved on since then (both for the author and in the world), so please bear that in mind....

1. Cobra.
2. The Lettriste Movement.
3. The Lettriste International (1952-57).
4. The College Of Pataphysics, Nuclear Art and the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus.
5. From the "First World Congress of Liberated Artists" to the foundation of the Situationist International.
6. The Situationist International in its heroic phase (1957-62).
7. On the theoretical poverty of the Specto-Situationists and the legitimate status of the Second International.
8. The decline and fall of the Specto-Situationist critique.
9. The origins of Fluxus and the movement in its 'heroic' period.
10. The rise of the depoliticized Fluxus aesthetic.
11. Gustav Metzger and Auto-Destructive Art.
12. Dutch Provos, Kommune 1, Motherfuckers, Yippies and White Panthers.
13. Mail Art.
14. Beyond Mail Art.
15. Punk.
16. Neoism.
17. Class War.
Selected Bibliography.

This book was first published by Aporia Press and Unpopular Books of London in 1988, and subsequently reissued by AK Press (Stirling) in 1991.

Questionnaire: Situationist International

1. What does the word “situationist” mean?

It denotes an activity aimed at creating situations, as opposed to passively recognizing them in academic or other separate terms. At all levels of social practice or individual history. We replace existential passivity with the construction of moments of life, and doubt with playful affirmation. Up till now philosophers and artists have only interpreted situations; the point now is to transform them. Since human beings are molded by the situations they go through, it is essential to create human situations. Since individuals are defined by their situation, they need the power to create situations worthy of their desires. This is the perspective in which poetry (communication fulfilled in concrete situations), the appropriation of nature, and complete social liberation must all merge and be realized. Our era is going to replace the fixed frontier of the extreme situations that phenomenology has limited itself to describing with the practical creation of situations; it is going to continually shift this frontier with the development of our realization. We want a phenomeno-praxis. We have no doubt that this will be the first banality of the movement toward the liberation that is now possible. What situations are to be transformed? At different levels it could be the whole planet, or an era (a civilization in Burckhardt’s sense, for example), or a moment of individual life. On with the show! It is only in this way that the values of past culture and the hopes of realizing reason in history can find their true fulfillment. Everything else is in decay. The term situationist in the SI’s sense is the total opposite of the current usage in Portugal, where “situationists” means supporters of the existing situation (i.e. supporters of Salazar’s dictatorship).

2. Is the Situationist International a political movement?

The words “political movement” today connote the specialized activity of group and party bosses who derive the oppressive force of their future power from the organized passivity of their militants. The SI wants nothing to do with any form of hierarchical power whatsoever. The SI is neither a political movement nor a sociology of political mystification. The SI aims to represent the highest degree of international revolutionary consciousness. This is why it strives to illuminate and coordinate the gestures of refusal and the signs of creativity that are defining the new contours of the proletariat, the irreducible desire for freedom. Centered on the spontaneity of the masses, such activity is undeniably “political” in the sense that those rebellious masses are themselves political. Whenever new radical currents appear — as recently in Japan (the extremist wing of the Zengakuren), in the Congo, and in the Spanish underground — the SI gives them critical support(1) and thereby aids them practically. But in contrast to all the “transitional programs” of specialized politics, the SI insists on a permanent revolution of everyday life.

3. Is the SI an artistic movement?

A large part of the situationist critique of consumer society consists in showing to what extent contemporary artists, by abandoning the richness of supersession implicitly present (though not fully realized) in the 1910-1925 period, have condemned themselves to doing art as one does business. Since that time artistic movements have only been imaginary repercussions from an explosion that never took place, an explosion that threatened and still threatens the structures of this society. The SI’s awareness of this abandonment and of its contradictory implications (emptiness and a desire to return to the initial violence) makes the SI the only movement able, by incorporating the survival of art into the art of life, to speak to the project of the authentic artist. We are artists only insofar as we are no longer artists: we come to fulfill art.

4. Is the SI an expression of nihilism?

The SI refuses the role that would be readily granted it in the spectacle of decomposition. The supersession of nihilism is reached by way of the decomposition of the spectacle; which is precisely what the SI is working on. Whatever is elaborated and constructed outside such a perspective will collapse of its own dead weight without needing any help from the SI. But it is also true that everywhere in consumer society wastelands of spontaneous collapse are offering a terrain of experimentation for new values that the SI cannot do without. We can build only on the ruins of the spectacle. Moreover, the fully justified anticipation of a total destruction precludes any construction that is not carried out in the perspective of the totality.

5. Are the situationist positions utopian?

Reality is superseding utopia. There is no longer any point in projecting imaginary bridges between the wealth of present technological potentials and the poverty of their use by the rulers of every variety. We want to put the material equipment at the service of everyone’s creativity, as the masses themselves always strive to do in revolutionary situations. It’s simply a matter of coordination or tactics. Everything we deal with is realizable, either immediately or in the short term, once our methods of research and activity begin to be put in practice.

6. Do you consider it necessary to call yourselves “situationists”?

In the existing order, where things take the place of people, any label is compromising. The one we have chosen, however, embodies its own critique, in that it is automatically opposed to any “situationism,” the label that others would like to saddle us with. Moreover, it will disappear when all of us have become fully situationist and are no longer proletarians struggling for the end of the proletariat. For the moment, however ridiculous a label may be, ours has the merit of drawing a sharp line between the previous incoherence and a new level of rigor. Such incisiveness is just what has been most lacking in the thought of the last few decades.

7. What is original about the situationists, considered as a distinct group?

It seems to us that three notable points justify the importance that we attribute to ourselves as an organized group of theorists and experimenters. First, we are developing for the first time, from a revolutionary perspective, a new, coherent critique of this society as it is developing now. This critique is deeply anchored in the culture and art of our time, which can in fact be truly grasped only by means of such a critique (this work is obviously a long way from completion). Second, we make a practice of breaking completely and definitively with all those who oblige us to do so, and with anyone else who remains in solidarity with them. Such polarization is vital in a time when the diverse forms of resignation are so subtly intertwined and interdependent. Third, we are initiating a new style of relation with our “partisans”: we absolutely refuse disciples. We are interested only in participation at the highest level, and in setting autonomous people loose in the world.

8. Why don’t people talk about the SI?

The SI is talked about often enough among the specialized owners of decomposing modern thought; but they write about it very little. In the broadest sense this is because we refuse the term “situationism,” which would be the only pigeonhole enabling us to be introduced into the reigning spectacle, incorporated in the form of a doctrine petrified against us, in the form of an ideology in Marx’s sense. It is natural that the spectacle we reject rejects us in turn. Situationists are more readily discussed as individuals in an effort to separate them from the collective contestation, although this collective contestation is in fact the only thing that makes them “interesting” individuals. Situationists are talked about the moment they cease to be situationists (as with the rival varieties of “Nashism” in several countries, whose only common claim to fame is that they lyingly pretend to have some sort of relationship with the SI). The spectacle’s watchdogs appropriate fragments of situationist theory without acknowledgment in order to turn it against us. It is quite natural that they get ideas from us in their struggle for the survival of the spectacle. But they have to conceal their source, not merely to protect their reputation for originality from charges of plagiarism, but because this source implies the broader, coherent context of these “ideas.” Moreover, many hesitant intellectuals do not dare to speak openly of the SI because to speak of it entails taking a minimum position — saying what one rejects of it and what one accepts of it. Many of them believe, quite mistakenly, that to feign ignorance of it in the meantime will suffice to clear them of responsibility later.

9. What support do you give to the revolutionary movement?

Unfortunately there isn’t one. The society certainly contains contradictions and is undergoing changes; this is what, in continually new ways, is making revolutionary activity possible and necessary. But such activity no longer exists — or does not yet exist — in the form of an organized movement. It is therefore not a matter of “supporting” such a movement, but of creating it: of inseparably defining it and experimenting with it. Admitting that there is no revolutionary movement is the first precondition for developing such a movement. Anything else is a ridiculous patching up of the past.

10. Are you Marxists?

Just as much as Marx was when he said, “I am not a Marxist.”

11. Is there a relation between your theories and your actual way of life?

Our theories are nothing other than the theory of our real life and of the possibilities experienced or perceived in it. As fragmented as the available terrains of activity may be for the moment, we make the most of them. We treat enemies as enemies, a first step we recommend to everyone as an accelerated apprenticeship in learning how to think. It also goes without saying that we unconditionally support all forms of liberated behavior, everything that the bourgeois and bureaucratic scum call debauchery. It is obviously out of the question that we should pave the way for the revolution of everyday life with asceticism.

12. Are the situationists in the vanguard of leisure society?

Leisure society is an appearance that veils a particular type of production/consumption of social space-time. If the time of productive work in the strict sense is reduced, the reserve army of industrial life works in consumption. Everyone is successively worker and raw material in the industry of vacations, of leisure, of spectacles. Present work is the alpha and omega of present life. The organization of consumption plus the organization of leisure must exactly counterbalance the organization of work. “Free time” is a most ironic quantity in the context of the flow of a prefabricated time. Alienated work can only produce alienated leisure, for the idle (increasingly, in fact, merely semi-idle) elite as well as for the masses who are obtaining access to brief periods of leisure. No lead shielding can insulate either a fragment of time or the entire time of a fragment of society from the radiation of alienated labor, because that labor shapes the totality of products and of social life in its own image.

13. Who finances you?

We have never been able to be financed except, in a very precarious manner, by working in the present cultural economy. This employment is subject to the following contradiction: we have such creative abilities that we can be virtually assured of “success” in any field; yet we have such a rigorous insistence on independence and complete consistency between our project and each of our present creations (see our definition of antisituationist artistic production)(2) that we are almost totally unacceptable to the dominant cultural organization, even in the most secondary activities. The state of our resources follows from these conditions. In this connection, see what we wrote in issue #8 of this journal (p. 26) about “the capital that is never lacking for Nashist enterprises” and, in contrast, our conditions (on the last page of this issue).(3)

14. How many of you are there?

A few more than the original guerrilla nucleus in the Sierra Madre, but with fewer weapons. A few less than the delegates in London in 1864 who founded the International Working Men’s Association, but with a more coherent program. As unyielding as the Greeks at Thermopylae (“Passerby, go tell them at Lakedaimon...”), but with a brighter future.(4)

15. What value can you attribute to a questionnaire? To this one?

Questionnaires are an obvious form of the pseudodialogue that is becoming obsessively used in all the psychotechniques of integration into the spectacle so as to elicit people’s gleeful acceptance of passivity under the crude guise of “participation” and pseudoactivity. Taking such an incoherent, reified form of questioning as a point of departure, however, enables us to express precise positions. These positions are not really “answers,” because they don’t stick to the questions; they reply by posing new questions that supersede the old ones. Thus, real dialogue could begin after these responses. In the present questionnaire all the questions are false; our responses, however, are true.



1. See, for example, the SI’s Contribution to a Councilist Program in Spain, the comments on the Zengakuren in chapter 2 of On the Poverty of Student Life, and the unpublished notes on the Congolese revolutionary movement reproduced in Debord’s Oeuvres (pp. 692-698).

2. On “antisituationist art,” see The Fifth SI Conference in Göteborg.

3. The reference is to Jörgen Nash and others who had recently been excluded from the SI and who were trying to cash in on the situationists’ notoriety by producing “situationist art” and founding a “Second Situationist International” (see The Counter-Situationist Campaign in Various Countries).
As for the situationists’ own conditions, they stated that they had no objection to publishers, film producers, patrons, etc., interested in financing situationist projects, whether disinterestedly or in the hope of making profits, as long as it was understood that the situationists would retain total control over the form and content of the projects.
Regarding the publication of radical texts, Internationale Situationniste #10 (p. 70) has the following note: “It is clear that there are presently only four possible types of publishing: state-bureaucratic; bourgeois semicompetitive (though subject to a tendency toward economic concentration); independent (wherever radical theory can be legally self-published); and clandestine. The SI — and any critical current anywhere — uses and will continue to use the latter two methods; it may in many cases use the second one (to obtain a qualitatively different level of distribution) because of the contradictions left open by anarchic competition and the lack of enforced ideological orthodoxy; and it is of course totally incompatible only with the first one. The reason is very simple: the competitive bourgeois type of publishing does not claim to guarantee any consistency between itself and its different authors; the authors are not responsible for a publishing firm’s operation and, conversely, the publisher has no direct responsibility for their life or ideas. Only state-bureaucratic publishing (or that of parties representing such a bureaucracy in formation) is in complete solidarity with its authors: it has to endorse its authors in everything and its authors also have to endorse it. Thus it represents a double impossibility for any revolutionary expression.”

4. Sierra Madre: mountain range in Cuba where Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and a few companions began their guerrilla struggle against the Batista regime (1956). The Greeks at Thermopylae: a small band of Greek soldiers who fought to the death against the vastly superior forces of the Persian Empire (480 BC). See Herodotus’s History of the Persian Wars (chapter 7). The quote is from the epigram of Simonides: “Stranger, when you come to Lakedaimon, tell them that we lie here, obedient to their will” (trans. Kenneth Rexroth).

“Le Questionnaire” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #9 (Paris, August 1964). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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The Situationist International (SI) was a small group of international political and artistic agitators with roots in Marxism, Lettrism and the early 20th century European artistic and political avant-gardes. Formed in 1957, the SI was active in Europe through the 1960s and aspired to major social and political transformations. In the 1960s it split into a number of different groups, including the Situationist Bauhaus, the Antinational and the Second Situationist International. The first SI disbanded in 1972.

The first issue of the journal Internationale Situationniste defined situationist as: "having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. One who engages in the construction of situations. A member of the Situationist International". The same journal defined situationism as "a meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists." One of the main goals of the situationists is the restoration of authenticity in life. Our society of spectacle is a nightmare with alienation, consumerism as opium, lack of authenticity. "To awaken from this nightmare is the first task that the situationists saddle to themselves

The most prominent French member of the group, Guy Debord, has tended to polarise opinion. Some describe him as having provided the theoretical clarity within the group; others say that he exercised dictatorial control over its development and membership; yet others believe that he was a powerful writer but a second-rate thinker. Other members included the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys, the Italo-Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, the English artist Ralph Rumney (sole member of the London Psychogeographical Association, Rumney suffered expulsion relatively soon after the formation of the Situationist International), the Scandinavian artist Asger Jorn (who after parting with the SI also founded the Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism), the architect and veteran of the Hungarian Uprising Attila Kotanyi, the French writer Michele Bernstein, and Raoul Vaneigem. Debord and Bernstein later married.

While the entire history of the Situationists was marked by their impetus to revolutionize life, the split was characterised by Vaneigem (of the French section), and by many subsequent critics, as marking a transition in the French group from the Situationist view of revolution possibly taking an "artistic" form to an involvement in "political" agitation. Asger Jorn continued to fund both groups with the proceeds of his works of art.

One way or another, the currents which the SI took as predecessors saw their purpose as involving a radical redefinition of the role of art in the twentieth century. The Situationists themselves took a dialectical viewpoint, seeing their task as superseding art, abolishing the notion of art as a separate, specialized activity and transforming it so it became part of the fabric of everyday life. From the Situationist's viewpoint, art is revolutionary or it is nothing. In this way, the Situationists saw their efforts as completing the work of both Dada and surrealism while abolishing both. Still, the Situationists answered the question "What is revolutionary?" differently at different times.

above coped from:

for more information see:

John Cage,4'33"

The first performance of John Cage's 4'33" created a scandal. Written in 1952, it is Cage's most notorious composition, his so-called ‹silent piece›. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the performer plays nothing. At the premiere some listeners were unaware that they had heard anything at all. It was first performed by the young pianist David Tudor at Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952, for an audience supporting the Benefit Artists Welfare Fund – an audience that supported contemporary art.
Cage said, ‹People began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn't laugh -- they were just irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen, and they haven't fogotten it 30 years later: they're still angry.›
To Cage, silence had to be redefined if the concept was to remain viable. He recognized that there was no objective dichotomy between sound and silence, but only between the intent of hearing and that of diverting one's attention to sounds. "The essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention," he said. 7 This idea marks the most important turning point in his compositional philosophy. He redefined silence as simply the absence of intended sounds, or the turning off of our awareness.»3

(source: Cage conversation with Michael John White (1982), in Kostelanetz 1988, 66, in: Solomon, Larry J.: The Sounds of Silence, in:

Background and influences

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. They are also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, "I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation."[7]
There has been some skepticism about the accuracy of the engineer's explanation, especially as to being able to hear one's own nervous system. A mild case of tinnitus might cause one to hear a small, high-pitched sound. It has been asserted by acoustic scientists[attribution needed] that, after a long time in such a quiet environment, air molecules can be heard bumping into one's eardrums in an elusive hiss (0 dB, or 20 micropascals). Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."[8] The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4'33″.
Cage wrote in "A Composer's Confessions" (1948) that he had the desire to "compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 4 [and a half] minutes long — these being the standard lengths of 'canned' music, and its title will be 'Silent Prayer'. It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibly."[9]
Another cited influence for this piece came from the field of the visual arts. Cage's friend and sometimes colleague Robert Rauschenberg had produced, in 1951, a series of white paintings, seemingly "blank" canvases (though painted with white house paint) that in fact change according to varying light conditions in the rooms in which they were hung, the shadows of people in the room and so on. This inspired Cage to use a similar idea, as he later stated, "Actually what pushed me into it was not guts but the example of Robert Rauschenberg. His white paintings… when I saw those, I said, 'Oh yes, I must. Otherwise I'm lagging, otherwise music is lagging'." Cage's musical equivalent to the Rauschenberg paintings uses the "silence" of the piece as an aural "blank canvas" to reflect the dynamic flux of ambient sounds surrounding each performance; the music of the piece is natural sounds of the players, the audience, the building, and the outside environment.
Cage was not the first composer to conceive of a piece consisting solely of silence. One precedent is "In futurum", a movement from the Fünf Pittoresken for piano by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff. Written in 1919, Schulhoff's meticulously notated composition is made up entirely of rests.[10] Cage was, however, almost certainly unaware of Schulhoff's work. Another prior example is Alphonse Allais's Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, written in 1897, and consisting of nine blank measures. Allais's composition is arguably closer in spirit to Cage's work; Allais was an associate of Erik Satie, and given Cage's profound admiration for Satie, the possibility that Cage was inspired by the Funeral March is tempting. However, according to Cage himself, he was unaware of Allais's composition at the time (though he had heard of a 19th-century book that was completely blank).[11]

1. William Fetterman. John Cage's Theatre Pieces: Notations and Performances, p. 69. Routledge, 1996. ISBN 3718656434
2. John H. Lienhard. Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins, p. 254. Oxford University Press US, 2003. ISBN 0195189515
3. Richard Kostelanetz. Conversing with John Cage, p. 69-70. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-93792-2
4. a b James Pritchett, Laura Kuhn. "John Cage", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy, (subscription access).
5. Gutmann, Peter (1999). John Cage and the Avant-Garde: The Sounds of Silence. Retrieved on 2007-04-04.
6. Richard Kostelanetz. Conversing with John Cage, p. 70. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-93792-2
7. A few notes about silence and John Cage. (2004-11-24).
8. Cage, John (1961). Silence. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press.
9. a b Pritchett, James (1993). The Music of John Cage, Music in the Twentieth Century (No. 5). Cambridge University Press, 59;138. ISBN 0-52-156544-8.
11. Dickinson, Peter (1991). "[Reviews of three books on Satie]". Musical Quarterly 75 (3): 404-409.

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for a video of a performance see:


The following interview is pieced together from a series of tape-recorded interviews with John Cage during his recent visit to New York. They were made at parties, in flats, and in taxis.

INTERVIEWER: What about Marshall McLuhan?

CAGE: Just this: the media is not a message. I would like to sound a word of warning to Mr. McLuhan: to speak is to lie. To lie is to collaborate.

INTERVIEWER: How does that relate?

CAGE: Do you know the Zen story of the mother who had just lost her only son? She is sitting by the side of the road weeping and the monk comes along and asks her why she's weeping and she says she has lost her only son and so he hits her on the head and says, "There, that'll give you something to cry about."

INTERVIEWER: Yes, somebody should have kicked that monk in the ass!

CAGE: I agree. Somebody said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It's happening here all by itself without being under a strict government; so if it's working without trying, why can't it work without being Communist? Everybody looks and acts alike, and we're getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should be alike.

INTERVIEWER: Isn't that like Pop Art?

CAGE: Yes, that's what Pop Art is, liking things, which incidentally is a pretty boring idea.

INTERVIEWER: Does the fact that it comes from a machine diminish its value to you?

CAGE: Certainly not! I think that any artistic product must stand or fall on what's there. A chimpanzee can do an abstract painting, if it's good, that's great!

INTERVIEWER: Mary McCarthy has characterized you as a sour Utopian. Is that accurate?

CAGE: I do definitely mean to be taken literally, yes. All of my work is directed against those who are bent, through stupidity or design, on blowing up the planet.

INTERVIEWER: Well, that is very interesting, Mr. Cage, but I wanted to know what you think in the larger context, i.e., the Utopian.

CAGE: I don't know exactly what you mean there . . . I think the prestige of poetry is very high in the public esteem right now, perhaps height is not the right yardstick, but it is perhaps higher than ever. If you can sell poetry, you can sell anything. No, I think it's a wonderful time for poetry and I really fell that something is about to boil. And in answer to your question about whether poetry could resume something like the Elizabethan spread, I think it's perfectly possible that this could happen in the next four or five years. All it needs is the right genius to come along and let fly. And old Masefield, I was pleased to see the other day celebrating his ninetieth birthday, I think, said that there are still lots of good tales to tell. I thought that was very nice, and it's true, too.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think, that is, are you satisfied with the way we are presently conducting the war in Viet Nam?

CAGE: I am highly dissatisfied with the way we are waging this nasty war.

INTERVIEWER: Incidentally, your rooms are very beautiful.

CAGE: Nothing incidental about it at all. These are lovely houses; there are two for sale next door, a bargain, too, but they're just shells. They've got to be all fixed up inside as this one was, too. They were just tearing them down when I got the Poetry Society over here to invite Hy Sobiloff, the only millionaire poet, to come down and read, and he was taken in hand and shown this house next door, the one that I grew up in, and what a pitiful state it was in. Pick-axes had already gone through the roof. And so he bought four of them and fixed this one up for our use as long as we live, rent free.

INTERVIEWER: Not bad. Tell me, have you ever though of doing sound tracks for Hollywood movies?

CAGE: Why not? Any composer of genuine ability should work in Hollywood today. Get the Money! However, few screen composers possess homes in Bel-Air, illuminated swimming pools, wives in full-length mink coats, three servants, and that air of tired genius turned sour Utopian. Without that, today, you are nothing. Alas, money buys pathetically little in Hollywood beyond the pleasures of living in an unreal world, associating with a group of narrow people who think, talk, and drink, most of them bad people; and the doubtful pleasure of watching famous actors and actresses guzzle up the juice and stuff the old gut in some of the rudest restaurants in the world. Me, I have never given it a thought.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about Silence.

CAGE: Sure. You never know what publishers are up to. I had the damnedest time with Silence. My publishers, H***, R***, and W***, at first were very excited about doing it, and then they handed it over to a young editor who wanted to rewrite it entirely, and proceeded to do so; he made a complete hash of it. And I protested about this and the whole thing--the contract was about to be signed--and they withdrew it, because of this impasse. The Publisher, who is my friend, said, "Well, John, we never really took this seriously, did we? So why don't we just forget it?" And I replied, "Damn it all, I did take it seriously; I want to get published." Well, then they fired this young man who was rewriting me, and everything was peaceful. But there was still some static about irregularities of tone in Silence. So I said, "Well, I'll just tone them down a little, tune the whole thing up, so to speak." But I did nothing of the sort, of course! I simply changed the order. I sent it back re-arranged, and then they wanted me to do something else; finally I just took the whole thing somewhere else.

INTERVIEWER: What was your father like?

CAGE: I don't want to speak of him. My mother detested him.

INTERVIEWER: What sort of person was your mother?

CAGE: Very religious. Very. But now she is crazy. She lay on top of me when I was tied to the bed. She writes me all the time begging me to return. Why do we have to speak of my mother?

INTERVIEWER: Do you move in patterns?

CAGE: Yes. It isn't so much repeating patterns, it's repetition of similar attitudes that lead to further growth. Everything we do keeps growing, the skills are there, and are used in different ways each time. The main thing is to do faithfully those tasks assigned by oneself in order to further awareness of the body.

INTERVIEWER: Do you believe that all good art is unengaging?

CAGE: Yes I do.

INTERVIEWER: Then what about beauty?

CAGE: Many dirty hands have fondled beauty, made it their banner; I'd like to chop off those hands, because I do believe in that banner . . . the difference is that art is beauty, which the Beatniks naturally lack!

INTERVIEWER: The Beatniks, notably Ed Sanders, are being harassed by the police lately. Do you approve?

CAGE: On the contrary. The problem is that the police are unloved. The police in New York are all paranoid . . . they were so hateful for so long that everybody got to hate them, and that just accumulated and built up. The only answer to viciousness is kindness. The trouble is that the younger kids just haven't realized that you've got to make love to the police in order to solve the police problem.

INTERVIEWER: But how do you force love on the police?

CAGE: Make love to the police. We need highly trained squads of lovemakers to go everywhere and make love.

INTERVIEWER: But there are so many police, it is a practical problem.

CAGE: Yes, I know, it will certainly take time, but what a lovely project.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think it is better to be brutal than to be indifferent?

CAGE: Yes. It is better to be brutal than indifferent. Some artists prefer the stream of consciousness. Not me. I'd rather beat people up.

INTERVIEWER: Say something about Happenings. You are credited with being the spiritual daddy of the Happening.

CAGE: Happenings are boring. When I hear the word "Happening" I spew wildly into my lunch!

INTERVIEWER: But Allan Kaprow calls you "the only living Happening."

CAGE: Allan Kaprow can go eat a Hershey-bar!

INTERVIEWER: Hmmm. Well put. Now, to take a different tack, let me ask you: what about sex?

CAGE: Sex is a biologic weapon, insofar as I can see it. I feel that sex, like every other human manifestation, has been degraded for anti-human purposes. I had a dream recently in which I returned to the family home and found a different father and mother in the bed, though they were still somehow my father and mother. What I would like, in the way of theatre, is that somehow a method would be devised, a new form, that would allow each member of the audience at a play to watch his own parents, young again, make love. Fuck, that is, not court.

INTERVIEWER: That certainly would be different, wouldn't it? What other theatrical vent interests you?

CAGE: Death. The Time Birth Death gimmick. I went recently to see "Dr. No" at Forty-Second Street. It's a fantastic movie, so cool. I walked outside and somebody threw a cherry bomb right in front of me, in this big crowd. And there was blood, I saw blood on people and all over. I felt like I was bleeding all over. I saw in the paper that week that more and more people are throwing them. Artists, too. It's just part of the scene--hurting people.

INTERVIEWER: How does Love come into all this?

CAGE: It doesn't. It comes later. Love is memory. In the immediate present we don't love; life is too much with us. We lust, wilt, snort, swallow, gobble, hustle, nuzzle, etc. Later, memory flashes images swathed in nostalgia and yearning. We call that Love. Ha! Better to call it Madness.

INTERVIEWER: Is everything erotic to you?

CAGE: Not lately. No, I'm just kidding. Of course everything is erotic to me; if it isn't erotic, it isn't interesting.

INTERVIEWER: Is life serious?

CAGE: Perhaps. How should I know? In any case, one must not be serious. Not only is it absurd, but a serious person cannot have sex.

INTERVIEWER: Very interesting! But, why not?

CAGE: If you have to ask, you'll never know.

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John Cage, Silence

History of Experimental Music in the United States

Once when Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was giving a talk at Columbia University he mentioned the name of a Chinese monk who had figured in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Sukuki said, "He lived in the ninth or the tenth century." He added, after a pause, "or the seventh century, or the twelfth or thirteenth century of the fourteenth."

About the same time, Willem de Kooning, the New York painter, gave a talk at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia. Afterwards there was a discussion: questions and answers. Someone asked De mooning who the painters of the past were who had influenced him the most. De Kooning said, "The past does not influence me; I influence it."

A little over ten years ago I acted as music editor for a magazine called Possibilities. Only one issue of this magazine appeared. However: in it, four American composers (Virgil Thomson, Edgard Varese, Ben Weber, and Alexei Haieff) answered question put to them by twenty other composers. My question to Varese concerned his views of the future of music. His answer that neither the past nor the future interested him; that his concern was with the present.

Sri Ramakrishna was once asked, "Why, if God is good, is there evil in the world?" He said, "In order to thicken the plot." Nowadays in the field of music, we often hear that everything is possible; (for instance) that with electronic means one may employ any sound (any frequency, any amplitude, any timbre, any duration); that there are no limits to possibility. This is technically, nowadays, theoretically possible and in practical terms is often felt to be impossible only because of the absence of mechanical aids which, nevertheless, could be provided if the society felt the urgency of musical advance. Debussy said quite some time ago, "Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity." Paraphrasing the question put to Sri Ramakrishna and the answer he gave, I would ask this: "Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time?" And I would answer, "In order to thicken the plot." In this view, then, all those interpenetrations which seem at first glance to b hellish - history, for instance, if we are speaking of experimental music - are to be espoused. One does not then make just any experiment but dos what must be done. By this I mean one does not seek by his actions to arrive at fame (success) but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to provide pleasure to the senses (beauty) but does what must be done; one does not seek by this actions to arrive at the establishing of a school (truth) but does what must be done. One does something else. What else?

In an article called "new and Electronic Music," Christian Wolff says: What is, or seems to be, new in this music?... One finds a concern for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity - sound come into its own. The 'music' is a resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expressions of self or personality. It is indifferent in motive, originating in no psychology nor in dramatic intentions, nor in literary or pictorial purposes. For at least some of these composers, then, the final intention is to be free of artistry and taste. But his need not make their work 'abstract,' for nothing, in the end, is denied. It is simply that personal expression, drama, psychology, and the like are not part of the composer's initial calculation: they are at best gratuitous.

"The procedure of composing tends to be radical, going directly to the sounds and their characteristics, to the way in which they are produced and how they are notated."

"Sound come into its own." What does that mean? For one thing: it means that noise s are as useful to new music as so-called musical tones, for the simple reason that they are sounds. This decision alters the view of history, so that one is no longer concerned with tonality or atonality, Schoenberg or Stravinsky (the twelve tones or the twelve expressed as seven plus five), nor with consonance and dissonance, but rather with Edgard Varese who fathered forth noise into twentieth-century music. But it is clear that ways must be discovered that allow noises and tones to be just noises and tones, not exponents subservient to Varese's imagination.

What else did Varese do that is relevant to present necessity? He was the first to write directly for instruments, giving up the practice of making a piano sketch and later orchestrating it. What is unnecessary in Varese (from a present point of view of necessity) are all his mannerisms, of which two stand out as signatures (the repeated note resembling a telegraphic transmission and the cadence of a tone held through a crescendo to maximum amplitude). These mannerisms do not establish sounds in their own right. They make it quit difficult to hear the sounds just as they are, for they draw attention to Varese ad his imagination.

What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order. Among these actions the outcomes of which are not foreseen, actions resulting from chance operation are useful. However, more essential than composing by means of chance operations, it seems to me now is composing in such a way that what one does is indeterminate of its performance. In such a case one can just work directly, for nothing one does gives rise to anything that I preconceived. This necessitates, of course, a rather great change in habits of notation. I take a sheet of paper and place points on it. Next I make parallel lines on a transparency, say five parallel lines. I establish five categories of sound for the five lines, but I do not say which line is which category. The transparency may be placed on the sheet with points in any position and readings of the points may be taken with regard to all the characteristics one wishes to distinguish. Another transparency may be used for further measurements, even altering the succession of sounds in time. In this situation no chance operations are necessary (for instance, no tossing of coins) for nothing is foreseen, though everything may be later minutely measured or simply taken as a vague suggestion.

Implicit here, it seems to me, are principles familiar from modern painting and architecture: collage and space. What makes this action like Dada are the underlying philosophical views and the collage like actions. But what makes this action unlike Dada is the space in it. For it is the space and emptiness that is finally urgently necessary at this point in history (not the sounds that happen in it - or their relationships) (not the stones - thinking of a Japanese stone garden - or their relationships but the emptiness of the sand which needs the stones anywhere in the space in order to be empty). When I said recently in Darmstadt that one could write music by observing the imperfections in the paper upon which one was writing, a student who did not understand because he was full of musical ideas asked, "Would one piece of paper be better than another: one for instance that had more imperfections? He was attached to sounds and because of his attachment could not let sounds be just sounds. He needed to attach himself to the emptiness, to the silence. Then things - sounds, that is - would come into being of themselves. Why is this so necessary that sounds should be just sounds? There are many ways of saying why. One is this: In order that each sound may become the Buddha. If that is too Oriental an expression, take the Christian Gnostic statement: "Split the stick and there is Jesus."

We know now that sounds and noises are not just frequencies (pitches): that is why so much of European musical studies and even so much of modern music is not longer urgently necessary. It is pleasant if you happen to hear Beethoven or Chopin or whatever, but it isn't urge st to do so any more. Nor is harmony or counterpoint or counting in meters of two, three, or four or any other number. So that much of Ives (Charles Ives) is no longer experimental or necessary for us (though people are so used to knowing that he was the first to do such and such). He did do things in space and in collage, and he did say, Do this or this (whichever you choose), and so indeterminacy which is so essential now did enter into his music. But his meters and rhythms are no longer any more important for us than curiosities of the past like the patterns one finds in Stravinsky. Counting is no longer necessary for magnetic tape music (where so many inches or centimeters equal so many seconds): magnetic tape music makes it clear that we are in time itself, not in measures of two, three, or four or any other number. And so instead of counting we use watches if we want to know where in time we are, or rather where in time a sound is to be. All this can be summed up by saying each aspect of sound (frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration) is to be seen as a continuum, not as a series of discrete steps favored by conventions (Occidental or Oriental). (Clearly all the Americana aspects of Ives are in the way of sound coming into its own, since sounds by their nature are no more American than they are Egyptian.)

Carl Ruggles? He works and reworks a handful of compositions o that they better and better express his intentions, which perhaps ever so slightly are changing. His work is therefore not experimental at all but in a most sophisticated way attached to the past and to art.

Henry Cowell was for many years the open sesame for new music in America. Mos selflessly he published the New Music Edition and encouraged the young to discover new directions. From him, as from an efficient information booth, you could always get not only the address and telephone number of anyone working in a lively way in music, but you could also get an unbiased introduction from him as to what that anyone was doing. He was not attached (as Varese also was not attached) to what seemed to so many to be he important question: Whether to follow Schoenberg or Stravinsky. He's early works for piano, long before Varese's Ionization (which, by the way, was published by Cowell), by their tone clusters and use of the piano strings, pointed towards noise and a continuum of timbre. Other works of his are indeterminate in ways analogous to those currently in use by Boulez and Stockhausen. For example: Cowell's Mosaic Quartet, where the performers, in any way they choose, produce a continuity from composed blocks provided by him. Or his Elastic Musics, the time lengths of which can be short or long through the use or omission of measures provided by him. These actions by Cowell Mae very close to current experimental compositions which have parts but no scores, and which are therefore not objects but processes providing experience not burdened by psychological intentions on the part of the composer.

And in connection with musical continuity, Cowell remarked at the New School before a concert of works by Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and myself, that there were four composers where getting rid of glue. That is: Where people had felt the necessity to stick sounds together to make a continuity, we four felt the opposite necessity to get rid of the glue so that sounds would be themselves.

Christian Wolff was the first to do this. He wrote some pieces vertically on the page but recommended their being played horizontally left to right, as is conventional. Later he discovered other geometrical means for freeing his music of intentional continuity. Morton Feldman divided pitches into three areas, high middle, and low, and established a time unit. Writing on graph paper, he simply inscribed numbers of tones to be played at any time within specified periods of time.

There are people who say, "If music's that easy to write, I could do it." Of course they could, but they don't. I find Feldman's own statement more affirmative. We were driving back from some place in New England where a concert had been given. He is a large man and falls asleep easily. Out of a sound sleep, he awoke to say, "Now that things are so simple, there's so much to do." And then he went back to sleep.

Giving up control so that sounds can be sounds (they are not men: they are sounds) means for instance: the conductor of an orchestra is no longer a policeman. Simply an indicator of time - not in beats - like a chronometer. He has his own part. Actually he is not necessary if all the players have Somme other way of knowing what time it is and how that time is changing.

What else is there to say about the history of experimental music in America? Probably a lot. But we don't need to talk about neo-classicism (I agree with Varese when he says neo-classicism is indicative of intellectual poverty), nor about the twelve-tone system. In Europe, the number twelve has already been dropped and in a recent lecture Stockhausen questions the current necessity for the concept of a series. Elliott Carter's ideas about rhythmic modulation are not experimental They just extend sophistication out from tonality ideas towards ideas about modulation from one tempo to another. They put a new wing on the academy and open no doors to the world outside the school. Cowell's present interests in the various traditions, Oriental and early American, are not experimental but eclectic. Jazz per se derives from serious music. And when serious music derives from it, the situation becomes rather silly.

One must make an exception in the case of William Russell. Though still living, he no longer composes. His works, though stemming from jazz - hot jazz - New Orleans and Chicago styles - were short, epigrammatic, original and entirely interesting. It may be suspected that he lacked the academic skills which would have enabled him to extend and develop his ideas. The fact is, his pieces were all expositions without development and therefore, even today, twenty years after their composition, interesting to hear. He used string drums made from kerosene cans, washboards, out-of-tune upright pianos; he cut a board such a length that it could be used to play all the eighty-eight piano keys at once.

If one uses the word "experimental" (somewhat differently than I have been using it) to mean simply the introduction of novel elements into one's music, we find that America has a rich history: the clusters of Leo Ornstein, the resonances of Dane Rudhyar, the near-Eastern aspects of Alan Hovhaness, the tack piano of Lou Harrison, my own prepared piano, the distribution in space of instrumental ensembles in works by Henry Brant, the sliding tones of Ruth Crawford and, more recently, Gut her Schuller, the microtones and novel instruments of Harry Patch, the mathematic continuity of cliches of Virgil Thomson. These are not experimental composers in my terminology, but neither are they part of the stream of European music which though formerly divided into neo-classicism and dodecaphony has become one in America under Arthur Berger's term, consolidation: consolidation of the acquisitions of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

Actually America has an intellectual climate suitable for radical experimentation. We are, as Gertrude Stein said, the oldest country of the twentieth century. And I like to add: in our air way of knowing nowness. Buckminister Fuller, the dymaxion architect, in his three-hour lecture on the history of civilization, explains that men leaving Asia to go to Europe went again the wind and developed machines, ideas, and Occidental philosophies in accord with a struggle against nature; that, on the other hand, men leaving Asia to go to America went with the wind, put up a sail, and developed ideas and Oriental philosophies in accord with the acceptance of nature. These two tendencies met in America, producing a movement into the air, not bound to the past, traditions, or whatever. Once in Amsterdam, a Dutch musician said to me, "it must be very difficult for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centers of tradition." I had to say, "It must be very difficult for you in Europe to write music, you are so close to the centers of tradition." Why, since the climate for experimentation in America is so good, why is American experimental music so lacking in strength politically ( mean unsupported by those with money (individuals and foundations), unpublished, undiffused, ignored), and why is there so little of that is truly uncompromising? I think the answer is this: Until 1950 about all the energy for furthering music America was concentrated either in the League of Composers or in the ISCM (another way of saying Boulanger and Stravinksy on the one hand and Schroeder on the other). The New Music Society of Henry Cowell was independent and therefore not politically strong. Anything that was vividly experimental was discouraged by the League and the ISCM. So that a long period of contemporary music history in America was devoid of performances by Ives and Varese. Now the scene changes, but the last few years have been quiet. The League and the ISCM fused and, so doing, gave no concerts at all. We may trust that new life will spring up,since society like nature abhors a vacuum.

What about music for magnetic tape in America? Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky call themselves experimental because of their use of this new medium. However, they just continue conventional musical practices, at most extending the ranges of instruments electronically and so forth. The Barrons, Loui and Bebe, are also cautious, doing nothing that does not have an immediate popular acceptance. The Canadian Norman McLaren, working with film, is more adventurous than these - also the Whitney brothers in California. Henry Jacobs and those who surround him in the San Francisco area are as conventional as Luening, Ussachevsky, and the Barrons. These do move move in directions that are as experimental as those taken by the Europeans: Pousseur, Berio, Maderna, Boulez, Stockhausen, and so forth. For this reason one can complain that the society of musicians in America has neither recognized nor furthered its native musical resource (by "native" I hat resource which distinguishes it from Europe and Asia - its capacity to easily break with tradition, to move easily into the air, its capacity for the unforeseen, its capacity for experimentation). The figures in the ISCM and the League, however, were not powerful aesthetically, but powerful only politically. The names of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern are more golden than any of their American derivatives. These latter have therefore little musical influence, and now that they are becoming quiescent politically, one may expect a change in the musical society.

coppied from:

John Cage

JOHN CAGE was born in Los Angeles in 1912. He studied with Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell, Adolph Weiss, and Arnold Schoenberg. In 1938 Cage composed the first prepared piano piece, Bacchanale, for a dance by Syvilla Fort. In 1951, he organized a group of musicians and engineers to make the first music on magnetic tape. In 1952, at Black Mountain College, he presented a theatrical event considered by many to have been the first Happening. In 1958, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Emile de Antonio organized a 25-year retrospective concert of his music at Town Hall in New York. He is musical advisor for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, having been associated with Merce Cunningham since 1943.

In 1949 Cage received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for having extended the boundaries of music through his work with percussion orchestra and his invention of the prepared piano. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978, and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1988. In 1982 the French Legion d'Honneur made Cage a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He received the Notable Achievement award from Brandeis University in 1983. He received the degree Doctorate of All the Arts Honoris Causa from the California Institute of the Arts in 1986. Cage was the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University for the 1988-89 academic year. He is a laureate of the 1989 Kyoto Prize given by the Inamori Foundation.

Cage is the author of Silence (1961), A Year From Monday (1968), M (1973), Empty Words (1979), and X (1983), all published by the Wesleyan University Press; Notations (with Alison Knowles, 1969), published by Something Else Press; Writings Through Finnegans Wake (1979), published by Printed Editions; For The Birds (conversations with Daniel Charles) (1981), published by Marion Boyars; Another Song (accompanying photographs by Susan Barron) and Mud Book (with illustrations by Lois Long), both published by Callaway Editions; and Themes and Variations (1982), published by the Station Hill Press. I - VI (the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard in 1988-89) was published by the Harvard University Press in Spring 1990. The book includes transcripts of the question and answer periods that followed each lecture, and an audio cassette of Cage reading one of the six lectures. The First Meeting of the Satie Society (with illustrations by Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol Lewitt, Mell Daniel, the author, and Henry David Thoreau as rendered by Benjamin Schiff) is in preparation by the Limited Editions Club. The texts, without illustrations, are also accessible by modem from the Art Com Electronic Network carried by WELL (Whole Earth `Lectronic Link), San Francisco.

Conversing with Cage, a book-length composition of excerpts from interviews, by Richard Kostelanetz, was released in 1988 by Limelight Editions. John Cage. An Anthology, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, first published in 1970, was re-released in 1991 by Da Capo Press. David Revill's biography, The Roaring Silence. John Cage: A Life, was published by Arcade (New York) in late 1992.

John Cage's graphic works include Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel with Calvin Sumsion (1969), Mushroom Book with Lois Long and Alexander Smith (1974); and several series of etchings and monoprints made at the Crown Point Press, San Francisco, between 1978 and 1990. 52 paintings, the New River Watercolors, recently executed by Cage at the Miles C. Horton Center at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, made a tour of several Virginia museums and were shown at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC in April/May 1990.

John Cage's music is published by the Henmar Press of C.F. Peters Corporation. Recordings of his work are available from Wergo, Mode, New Albion, CRI, Columbia, Nonesuch, Folkways, Everest, Time, Cramps, C/P2 and many other labels.

John Cage died in New York City on August 12th, 1992.

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Mail Art

Mail art is art which uses the postal system as a medium. The term mail art can refer to an individual message, the medium through which it is sent, and an artistic genre. Mail art is also known as postal art and is sometimes referred to as Correspondence/Mail Art (CMA).
Mail artists typically exchange ephemera in the form of illustrated letters, zines, rubberstamped, decorated, or illustrated envelopes, artist trading cards, postcards, artistamps, faux postage, mail-interviews, naked mail, friendship books, decos, and three-dimensional objects.
An amorphous international mail art network, involving thousands of participants in over fifty countries, evolved between the 1950s and the 1990s It was influenced by other movements, including Dada and Fluxus.
One theme in mail art is that of commerce-free exchange; early mail art was, in part, a snub of gallery art, juried shows, and exclusivity in art. A saying in the mail art movement is "senders receive," meaning that one must not expect mail art to be sent to them unless they are also actively participating in the movement.When the electronic telecommunications network known as the Internet gave rise to e-mail art, conventional mail-art artists came to refer to the international postal service as the 'paper net' or snail-mail net. When a group of these artists are in some way linked through their works they are collectively referred to as a Mail Art Network. The mail art community has been referred to as the Eternal Network since the 1980s (or possibly even earlier), and predates the time when access to the internet became widespread.
The Mail-Art Network concept has roots in the work of earlier groups, including the Fluxus artists and the notion of 'multiples' or artworks manufactured as editions. Most commonly, Mail-Art Network artists have made and exchanged postcards, designed custom-made stamps or 'artistamps', and designed decorated or illustrated envelopes. But even large and unwieldy three-dimensional objects have been known to have been sent by Mail-Art Network artists, for many of whom the message and the medium are synonymous.
Fundamentally, mail art in the context of a Mail Art Network is a form of conceptual art. It is a 'movement' with no membership and no leaders.

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Performance Art

Performance art is art in which the actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work. It can happen anywhere, at any time, or for any length of time. Performance art can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer's body and a relationship between performer and audience. It is opposed to painting or sculpture, for example, where an object constitutes the work. Of course the lines are often blurred. For instance, the work of Survival Research Laboratories is considered by most to be "performance art", yet the performers are actually machines.
Although performance art could be said to include relatively mainstream activities such as theater, dance, music, and circus-related things like fire breathing, juggling, and gymnastics, these are normally instead known as the performing arts. Performance art is a term usually reserved to refer to a kind of usually avant-garde or conceptual art which grew out of the visual arts.
Performance art, as the term is usually understood, began to be identified in the 1960s with the work of artists such as Yves Klein, Vito Acconci, Hermann Nitsch, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Wolf Vostell and Allan Kaprow, who coined the term happenings. In 1970 the British-based pair, Gilbert and George, created the first of their "living sculpture" performances when they painted themselves gold and sang "Underneath The Arches" for extended periods. Alongside pioneering work in video art by Jud Yalkut and others, some performance artists began combining video with other media to create experimental works like those of Chicago's Sandra Binion, who elevated mundane activities like ironing clothes, scrubbing steps, dining and doing laundry into living art. Binion has performed all over the world and is highly regarded as an artist in Europe.
Performance art genres include body art, fluxus, happening, action poetry, and intermedia. Some artists, e.g. the Viennese Actionists and neo-Dadaists, prefer to use the terms live art, "action art", intervention or "manoeuvre" to describe their activities. These activities are also sometimes referred to simply as "actions".

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Installation Art

Installation art uses sculptural materials and other media to modify the way we experience a particular space. Installation art is not necessarily confined to gallery spaces and can be any material intervention in everyday public or private spaces.
Installation art incorporates almost any media to create an experience in a particular environment. Materials used in contemporary installation art range from everyday and natural materials to new media such as video, sound, performance, computers and the internet. Some installations are site-specific in that they are designed to only exist in the space for which they were created.

This genre of contemporary art came to prominence in the 1970s. Many trace the roots of this form of art to earlier artists such as Marcel Duchamp and his use of the readymade or to Kurt Schwitters' Merz art objects, rather than more traditional craft based sculpture. The intention of the artist is paramount in much later installation art whose roots lie in the conceptual art of the 1960s. This again is a departure from traditional sculpture which places its focus on form. Early non-Western installation art includes events staged by the Gutai group in Japan starting in 1954, which influenced American installation pioneers like Allan Kaprow.

Installation as nomenclature for a specific form of art came into use fairly recently; its first use as documented by the OED was in 1969. It was coined in this context in reference to a form of art that had arguably existed since prehistory but was not regarded as a discrete category until the mid-twentieth century. Allan Kaprow used the term “Environment” in 1958 (Kaprow 6) to describe his transformed indoor spaces; this later joined such terms as “project art” and “temporary art.”

Interactive installation is a branch off the installation arts category. Usually, an interactive installation will often involve the audience acting on it or the piece responding to the user’s activity. There are several kinds of interactive installations produced, these include web-based installations, gallery based installations, digital based installations, electronic based installations, etc. Interactive installations are mostly seen from the 1990s, when artists are more interested in the participation of the audiences where the meaning of the installation is generated.

With the improvement of technology over the years, artists are more able to explore out of the boundaries that were never be able to explore by artists in the past. The media used are more experimental and bold; they are also usually cross media and may involve sensors, which plays on the reaction to the audiences’ movement when looking at the installations. By using virtual Reality as a medium, immersive art is probably the most deeply interactive form of art. At the turn of a new century, there is a trend of interactive installations using video, film, sound and sculpture.

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Sound Art

Sound art is a loosely associated group of art practices that concern sound and listening as their focus. From the Western art historical tradition early examples include Luigi Russolo's Intonarumori or noise machines, and subsequent experiments by Dadaists, Surrealists, the Situationist International, and in Fluxus happenings. Because of the diversity of sound art, there is often debate about whether sound art falls inside and/or outside of both the visual art and experimental music categories.

Like many genres of contemporary art, sound art is often very interdisciplinary, commonly engaging in acoustics and psychoacoustics, audio technologies (both analog and digital), found or environmental sound, exploration of the human body, in conjunction with the standard set of visual issues found in contemporary art.

Other artistic lineages from which sound art emerges are sound poetry, spoken word, avant garde poetry, and experimental theater. Early practitioners include Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, William S. Burroughs, Hugo Ball, and Henri-Martin Barzun.

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"The right to be myself, as long as I live! As if I were a sound.": Postmodernism and the Music of John Cage, Nancy Perloff

"The right to be myself, as long as I live! As if I were a sound.": Postmodernism and the Music of John Cage
Nancy Perloff

from POSTMODERNISM: THE KEY FIGURES, ed. Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli (2002), Blackwell, © 2002

In 1972, as the term "postmodernism" was beginning to gain wide currency, the American composer John Cage offered the following observations on the new music. His remarks, first made during the recording of the TV film Birdcage on April 7, 1972, appeared later in the periodical Protokolle-Wiener Halbjahresschrift fur Literature, Bildende Kunst und Musik (1974) and then in the journal October (1997):

"The two kinds of music now that interest me are on the one hand a music which is performed by everyone. And I would like to say that the Chinese people are, from my point of view, now performing a beautiful music which I would actually like to go and hear . . So I like that music by many, many people. And here, more and more in my performances, I try to bring about a situation in which there is no difference between the audience and the performers. And I’m not speaking of audience participation in something designed by the composer, but rather am I speaking of the music which arises through the activity of both performers and so-called audience. . . The other kind of music that interests me is one which has been traditionally interesting and enjoyable down through the ages, and that’s music which one makes oneself without constraining others. If you can do it by yourself you’re not in a situation of telling someone else what to do." (Cage and Helms, 1997, pp. 82-83)
Cage’s writings, his often detailed written instructions for performance, his explanations of compositional procedure, and his musical scores, all produced during a long and prolific career (b. 1912, d. 1992), provide extraordinarily rich and varied evidence of his role as twentieth-century modernist and as source for postmodern aesthetics. The vast modal differences underlying the writings, scores, and live performances also point to problems inherent in applying a "modernist" or "postmodernist" label to John Cage. In the early 1970s, as we see in the comments quoted above, Cage endorsed collaborative musical performances in which the audience worked together with performers, fusing art with its environment, and in which the composer’s will did not constrain participants’ activities. This de-centered, collaborative, and heterogeneous principle for musical performance seems very postmodern. Yet the decisive presence of Cage’s ego ("I like", "I try to bring about"), as well as the value he attached to historical musical practice, steered a modernist course. He designed and determined the performance situation, no matter how many participants were involved, and relied on his invention of chosen traditions from the past.

Did Cage tend more toward "modernism" or "postmodernism"? How is his radical contribution best understood? Cage moves between the seemingly oppositional contexts of postmodernism in the 1970s and 80s, and European modernism in the early twentieth century, with reference especially to the art of Erik Satie (whom Cage championed), Italian Futurism, and German Dada. Cage’s friendship and intellectual exchange with the French composer, Pierre Boulez, during the early 1950s offers a third vantage point. Although the three contexts are quite separate, stylistically and chronologically, each is integral to the evolving Cage oeuvre. Yet none entirely accounts for his radicality. Through a discussion of these comparative settings, Cage emerges as an experimentalist and an avant-garde figure who believed in his responsibility to change the world through new music.

Writers on music have used "postmodernism" less frequently than critics in other fields. Even when comprised of quotation and appropriated soudns, music is an abstract language. In the case of Cage, a particularly complex scenario emerges. Here we have a composer who wrote poetic texts and mesostics, transformed the score into a visual object, and created music to be performed with dance and theater. Owing perhaps to the revolutionary changes Cage introduced in the meaning of musical composition, critics have skirted the issue of Cage’s postmodernism, identifying him instead as a leader of the late twentieth-century avant-garde. By reviewing the postmodernist debate in relation to Cage, what conclusions might be drawn about the usefulness of "postmodernist" or avant-garde in defining his art?

The few critics who address Cage’s links to postmodernism (Henry Sayre, Richard C. Hobbs, David Shapiro) identify his collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, beginning with their Dadaist "Happening" at Black Mountain College in 1952, as a significant impetus for the avant-garde of the 70s. They define Cage’s collaborative work on the "Happening" and on experimental dance in New York City as instances of "theatricality", a term applied by Michael Fried in 1982 to contemporary painting and sculpture which "depends for its effects of ‘presence’ on the staging, the conspicuous manipulation, of its relation to an audience" (Sayre, 1989, p. 9) In the years following Fried’s introduction of the term, "theatricality" came to coincide with "postmodernism" and shifted from single media art to a performative art revealed through the collaboration of performers and audience, and of high and vernacular media, sounds, and images. The modernist frame disappeared in postmodernism, replaced by contingency and fragmentation.

The experimental performance or "Happening" which Cage created and staged in the dining hall at Black Mountain College placed the performers in the aisles among the audience and presented a range of simultaneous but unrelated events: John Cage on a ladder reciting either his Meister Eckhart lecture, lines from Meister Eckhart, a lecture on Zen Buddhism, the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence; Merce Cunningham dancing around the chairs; Rauschenberg standing in front of his paintings or playing scratchy Edith Piaf recordings at double speed; David Tudor playing a prepared piano and a small radio; and M.C. Richards and Charles Olson perched on a different ladder and reading from their poetry. No narrative unfolded. But the events witnessed by the audience were staged and could be enhanced and refined by the performers, in the course of performance. (Harris, 1987, pp. 226; 228) In both respects, Cage’s "Happening" was a new form of theater.

This theatricality and the close link between performance and composition prompted Sayre to identify Cage, Rauschenberg and Cunningham as the originators of postmodernism. Sayre supported his argument with a discussion of important documents such as the "Interview with Roger Reynolds", published in 1962 in the Henmar Press catalogue of Cage’s compositions through 1962, the essay "Composition as Process", and particular compositions. In the Roger Reynolds interview, Cage redefined the nature of composition. Composition was not a finished, static object performed before an audience of passive listeners, but, rather, a changing acoustical experience subjective to each individual (performer and auditor) in the performance space. Since the performance action might have no beginning, middle, or end, and no discernible ordering of events, the composition as process opened the possibility for many different receptions and critiques by the audience. The French philosopher Roland Barthes concurred with the argument that Cage introduced a new music. Barthes’ analysis of this break linked the new role of performance with the idea of multiple signifiers in Cage’s music and the ceaseless production of new signifiers during the act of listening. In Barthes’s view, a sharp line had to be drawn between classical music, with its requirements that listeners decipher the construction of the piece from a code, and what he called the "new music as exemplified by Cage", which offered listeners a "shimmering of signifiers". This heterogeneity of codes with their shifting meanings and referents affected the listening process, which Barthes compared to the experience of reading a modern text: "Just as the reading of the modern text…does not consist in receiving, in knowing or in feeling this text, but in writing it anew", there is a kind of composition that requires us "to perform" it, "to operate" its music, "to lure it (as it lends itself) into an unknown praxis. (Barthes, 1985, pp. 259; 265) Here Barthes implicitly concurred with Sayre’s view that the performative requirements of Cage’s music define its novelty and hence its postmodernism.

Both the dancer Yvonne Rainer and the critic and philosopher Theodor Adorno discussed Cagian ideas associated with postmodernism, and attack them as apolitical and uncritical. In talking about Cage’s impact on her dance, Rainer praised the precedents he established for a new nonhierarchical, indeterminate organization, but argued that this nonhierarchy still failed to enable us to, as Cage would have it, "wake up to the excellent life we are living". On the contrary, she asserted, the critical insights gained from new methods of indeterminate composition and performance lead us to question whether the life we lead is so excellent, so just, so right, and how and why we have been led to believe this (Sayre, 1989, p. 8). Adorno attacked Cage for the practice of indeterminacy, the freedom to let sounds be sounds, the aesthetic of a composition’s interpenetration with its surroundings. The philosopher endorses, instead, relative autonomy of the work of art from its social conditions, believing both in the composer’s independence and his exertion of some control, so that the work assumed a critical function in relation to society. (Joseph, 1997, pp. 90; 95)

In The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, Lydia Goehr took a different tack on the radical nature of the ego in Cage. She argued that Cage did not succeed in abdicating control of, and hence distance from, the musical performance and attributed this ‘failure’ to a split between his theory (his ideas and aspirations) and his actual musical practice. Goehr avoided the terms "postmodern" or "modern", but posited that a chance-inspired musical work like the celebrated "4’33", premiered by David Tudor in 1952, still operated within the protocols of the concert hall. The concert setting conveyed a message to the audience about when to applaud and how to behave during the performance. The fixed duration told the audience to follow this behavior during an allotted time period. Cage intended to relinquish control over the performance, so that the sounds of audience and space would produce the contents of the piece. In Goehr’s view, however, theory and practice went their separate ways, since specific performance instructions circumscribed the range of random sounds and events. (Goehr, 1992, pp. 261-264) Whereas Rainer and Adorno believed that a stronger ego would articulate a critique of social conditions, Goehr asserted that Cage’s performances were the result of a powerful ego, which imposed choices that inadvertently strengthened, rather than undermined, the work-concept.

In seizing upon Cage’s theatricality and nonhierarchy as a source for postmodernism of the 70s, critics overlooked the emergence of collaborative and mixed media performance in Europe as early as the 1910s. (Sayre, 1989, p. 9) Satie’s ‘lyric comedy in one act. . . with dance music by the same gentleman’, Le Piège de Méduse (Medusa’s Trap) (1913), was revived as part of a Satie Festival organized by Cage at Black Mountain College in 1948. The production, which marked the American premiere, featured Buckminster Fuller as the Baron Medusa, Merce Cunningham as the mechanical monkey, sets by Elaine de Kooning, dances performed by Cunningham, and piano accompaniment by Cage. While fully notated and scripted (far from a chance piece), Piège de Méduse experiments with absurdist word-play, outrageous disjunctions between dialogue and stage action, and mixed media (dance, theater, music). (Whiting, 1999, pp. 449-60) It surely influenced Cage’s Black Mountain "Happening" staged four years later with Cunningham. Méduse coincided in time with the Italian Futurists’ organization of concerts of new sounds and with the Dadaists’ creation of a new form of poetic recitation. Luigi Russolo, the pioneer of Futurist music, broke the "limited circle of pure sounds" by composing scores for intonorumori (noise-intoners). He designed these instruments to produce noise-sounds divided into six timbral types: "booms, whistles, whispers, screams, percussive sounds and vocal sounds (human and animal". He intended this medley to simulate the sounds of the street and vernacular life. Cage’s interest in noise as the primary material of music indicates that he was familiar with Russolo’s writings. (Pritchett, 1993, p. 12) For German Dadaists such as Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann, new performance expressed itself in an abstract poetry, in which the formal visual patterns of words and letters served also as scores for poetic recitation.

The modernist theater of Satie, Russolo, and Schwitters are but three examples of performance genres which preceded and inspired Cage. He studied the aesthetics of the past and borrowed from musical and philosophical traditions that intrigued him, in order to invent his own voice (Pasler, 1994, pp. 125; 133) It is important to recognize this practice as we define Cage’s position vis-à-vis postmodernism. Whereas postmodernist artists referred to historical practices through techniques of quotation and bricolage, Cage used history as an intensive research process involving reinterpretations of tradition from his contemporary vantage and leading to the discovery of a personal style.

Cage’s serious study of the past began early in his career, during lessons in counterpoint and analysis with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles (March, 1935 – Summer, 1937) and during a six-month stay in Europe in 1949. Cage spent the bulk of his time in Paris, where he went regularly to the Bibliothèque Nationale to study the life and work of Satie -- one year after he had arranged the celebrated Satie performance at Black Mountain. During his visit, Cage pursued Virgil Thomson’s suggestion to contact Pierre Boulez, the most prominent French composer of the postwar avant-garde. The two developed a close friendship, which continued through correspondence when Cage returned to New York in November, 1949. (Nattiez, 1993, pp. 4-7) Cage was thirty-six, and Boulez twenty-four. A study of their friendship, their shared views on musical composition, and their gradual divergence, presents a new context for evaluating Cage as postmodernist. Is Boulez a postmodern composer? If not, does his position help define where Cage stands?

When he first met Boulez, Cage was searching for matrices with which to organize his works, particularly their rhythmic structure. A letter he received from Boulez in August 1951 suggests the nature of their Paris conversations. Using technical terms, Boulez described how the notion of the twelve-tone series could be generalized to apply not only to frequency but to intensities (volume), attacks, rhythm, and even timbre. (Nattiez, 1993, pp. 99ff) Boulez spoke of the "serial structure" of each musical parameter and introduced corresponding tables which mapped out the serial organization. This letter so impressed Cage that he translated much of it and published it in 1952 in the journal Transformations, with commentary by Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Cage. By bringing together the French serialist Boulez with American composers of chance and indeterminacy, Cage made a statement about the new music. He affirmed the common goal of composers of new music to isolate and compose for individual musical parameters, so that the parameters could then be integrated in different combinations.

Boulez’s admiration for Cage hinged on their common interest in doing away with Western European harmony and defining sound instead as an aggregate of timbre, frequency, attack, and duration. In a lecture Boulez delivered on Cage on June 17, 1949 (while Cage was in Paris), Boulez praised his colleague for "making use of sound complexes", instead of "pure sounds". In the published version of this lecture which appeared in 1952 in La Revue Musicale ("Possibly"), Boulez expanded this point:

We also owe to John Cage the idea of sound complexes; for he has written works in which, instead of using pure sounds, he employs chords which have no harmonic function, being essentially a sort of amalgam of sounds linked to timbres, durations, and intensities. (Nattiez, 1993, p. 9)
Boulez was most likely thinking of the sounds of Cage’s prepared piano, a magical tranformation of the piano into a percussion instrument capable of producing different timbres when materials (string, rubber band, metal coils…) were inserted between the strings. During the 1940s Cage had composed many pieces for prepared piano with which Boulez was clearly familiar.

The basis for friendship between the two young composers was solid: an interest in structure and in structural relations between musical parameters, in mathematical tables which charted out the different parameters, in sonic aggregates, in the idea of the series. They parted ways, however, as Cage became increasingly interested in chance and in a new performance situation. Boulez had always been critical of Morton Feldman’s "imprecision" and "simplicity", but as early as December 1951 Boulez lashed out at Cage’s precise use of chance in Music of Changes (1951):

"The only thing, forgive me, which I am not happy with, is the method of absolute chance (by tossing the coins). On the contrary, I believe that chance must be extremely controlled: by using tables in general, or series of tables, I believe that it would be possible to direct the phenomenon of the automatism of chance, whether written down or not. . . there is already quite enough of the unknown." (Nattiez, 1993, p. 17)
In Music of Changes, Cage used the I Ching, or Chinese Book of Changes, to create charts corresponding to three musical parameters: sound, duration, dynamics. To compose his piece, he tossed the dice (Boulez’s coins), obtained numbers referring to different cells in his charts, devised a sound aggregate with the resultant frequency, duration, and dynamics cells, then threw the dice to construct the next sound. In Boulez’s view, Cage left too much to chance. Boulez’s use of mathematical tables, which Cage initially found appealing, utterly controlled both the compositional process and the outcome. The idea of selecting compositional materials according to chance methods was unacceptable to the French composer.

In his rejection of Western harmony and his application of the idea of the tone row of Schoenberg and Webern to all aspects of musical structure, Boulez stood as a leading avant-garde figure. He was not, however, a postmodernist or even a source for postmodernism, for reasons that are clear from his response to Music of Changes. Neither Boulez’s theory nor his practice expressed an intent to remove the ego, make the auditor central, and fuse art with life. Seen in relation to Boulez, Cage was the American experimentalist who used the discipline practiced by Boulez to redefine both musical composition and performance, and to introduce randomness. Unlike those of Boulez, Cage’s experiments involved collaboration with any number of artists in other media (Cunningham in dance, Rauschenberg and Johns in painting and set design, filmmakers, video artists). Recasting the modernism of Satie, Italian Futurism, Dada, and other early modernist movements, Cage infused the vernacular into his composition by giving audiences the freedom to move and participate and, during the 60s, by conceiving of the work as a disciplined action by the performer with or without sounds. (Pritchett, 1993, p. 146)

Yet to place Boulez with the avant-garde and Cage with postmodernism is far too simple. The two composers had much in common. Both believed in building upon tradition, in this case the serialism of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Both believed that in applying serial structure to all musical components, they were extending and reinterpreting the work initiated by this Second Viennese School to replace functional harmony with a disciplined counterpoint in which one sound did not imply the next. Neither Boulez nor Cage engaged in social and political satire or attack. They tended not to appropriate and combine fragments of social and cultural history, philosophy, or composition to create multiple voices and simulacra. Cage, in particular, sought to discover a "suitable past" from which to invent a tradition of which he was the logical heir, the next voice. (Pasler, 1994, pp. 125; 133) He was concerned to carve his place in history, his original voice. Absorbed by the past, Cage joined the "mainstream of musical modernism" and set himself apart from the "fading sense of history" and the life in a "perpetual present" of postmodernist culture. (Pasler, 1994, 140; Connor, 1989, p. 91)

In assessing whether the postmodernist label aptly defines Cagian composition and aesthetics, I have argued that his interest in theater and mixed media may have prefigured postmodernism; I have situated Cage in the context of European modernism of the 1910s and 20s; and I have discussed his work in relation to that of the French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez. The missing link is the contribution of Cage to our understanding of the present world, independently of movements he may have anticipated, echoed, or refuted. With every decade, Cage’s work changed dramatically. In the 1950s, he explored procedures of chance and indeterminacy, devising unique graphic notations which performers could realize in a myriad of ways and raising perplexing questions about critical evaluation based on the written score or on the performance (which always changed). Cage sought to create a world of interpenetrating sounds, without hierarchy among these sounds. (Pritchett, 1993, pp. 139; 146) In the 60s, Cage’s aesthetic changed. Rather than treating the composition as a concrete object made up of sounds, he approached it as an action, a process in which the composer set up electronic components, and the performer realized a score that offered broad outlines, but no specifics. For instance, the score for Cage’s 0’00 (4’33" no. 2) of 1962 contains the following sentence: "In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action." By the 1970s, according to James Pritchett, Cage’s aesthetic had changed again, preoccupied more with an eclectic mixture of styles than with a single music of the future. (Pritchett, 1993, pp. 146; 158; 173)

Cage’s production was diverse, yet motivated throughout by goals which cannot be contained within the postmodernist rubric. The utopian vision of modernism and American experimentalism led Cage to transform the traditional roles of composer, performer, and audience, and to introduce a vision of "freedom given to disciplined people" to change society and to show the "practicality of anarchy". (Cage, 1997, p. 81) Cage used chance procedures in order to shift the authorial voice from the composer, to the performer and to the individual members of the audience. His move away from self-expression resonates with the multiple voices of postmodernism, although indeterminacy operated within his chosen parameters. In addition, the "postmodernist" rubric does not adequately explain Cage’s challenge to musical composition, the revolution he sparked in the 1950s by establishing difference between writing (the musical score) and sound (the performance). Cage paved the way for the production of works that were not fully notated or fixed. In the 1960s and 70s, Fluxus musicians went on to explore this idea of the "open work", which anticipated conceptual art. (Pepper, 1997, pp. 37-38) The Cagian tension between the written score and the variable performance, the resulting paradox that the score is autonomous, without fixed referent, the treatment of composition as process, the expansion of the possibility for multiple signifiers and critical receptions – such ideas propelled the avant-garde to new terrain. Explored in their own right, they distinguish Cage as a startlingly provocative voice whose originality made room for a new freedom for the contemporary audience.

reproduced from:

The Context of a Vanguard: Toward a Definition of Concrete Poetry, Jon M. Tolman

The Context of a Vanguard: Toward a Definition of Concrete Poetry
Jon M. Tolman

Poetics Today, Vol. 3, No.3, Poetics of the Avant-Garde. (Summer, 1982), pp. 149-166.

This essay represents an attempt to define Brazilian concrete poetry (and the world-wide movement it headed) within the context of contemporary vanguard movements. It is my intention to demonstrate that concrete poetry developed into the first truly classical literary movement of modern times. It achieved this breakthrough by rejecting the effort of neo- classical restoration groups to establish a contemporary poetic movement by disinterring the past. Concrete poetry will be shown to be essentially anti-romantic in sensibility and technique. Whether an isolated phenomenon or the first manifestation of a new spirit, its psychological, social and literary profile will be seen to be undeniably classical. As a pioneering movement it necessarily employs a number of strategies developed by earlier, romantic avant-gardes, but the theoretical writing of the movement clearly demonstrates that this use of the past is not anachronistic but rather that the recognition that certain achievements of the past have made possible a new aesthetic awareness. The concrete poets possess a well-defined sense of culmination or supplantation in which they do not worship or imitate the past, but build upon it.

Before undertaking my demonstration of these theories, I shall begin with a brief historical presentation in order to locate the Brazilian movement within its immediate literary tradition. Brazilian literature entered the twentieth century twenty years behind the times, having been kidnapped by a Parnassian movement which dominated Brazil as it never dominated France. Its domain was so pervasive, in fact, that Symbolism was almost stillborn, reduced in impact and relegated to distinct minority status until 1922, when it was rescued from oblivion by a revolutionary generation that used it as a weapon against a moribund Parnassian establishment. What happened in 1922 was the Modern Art Week, which ushered in an eight-year spree known in Brazil as Modernism, and which under the banner of innovation, brought Brazil into line with Europe. Iconoclastic, destructive and intensely nationalistic, Modernism was basically expressionist in orientation, but only certain elements of the European avant-garde were imported into Brazil. There was marked indifference to imagism, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism (in sharp contrast with Spanish America, where Surrealism, even today, has a profound influence). However, certain attitudes universally shared by avant-garde movements were accepted. Among them were a rejection of traditional poetics, with its formalistic emphasis on rhyme and meter; a gleeful spirit of épater le bourgeois; a search for a national language, a national identity. By 1930 Modernism had worn itself out and gave way to a more constructive spirit which maintained its formal iconoclasm even while turning away from it thematically. Nationalism was abandoned as poets turned inward searching for individual identity, thereby anticipating the alienation which would be the dominant attitude in the literature of postwar Europe and America. In prose, the poetic nationalism of the previous period crystallized into the novel of the Brazilian Northeast, neo-realistic in technique and reformist or revolutionary in its social message.

In the late forties a growing dissatisfaction with the formlessness of the previous aesthetic began to manifest itself in poetry through a return to traditional poetics. The first traditional form to reappear was the sonnet, to be followed by the ode and other long-abandoned devices. In prose a similar reaction took place. In fact the entire evolution of postwar Brazilian literature may be said to have been dominated by formalism and formalistic experimentation. In poetry this formalistic preoccupation coalesced into what would be called the Generation of 1945, later to be accused of being neo-Parnassian. The most important poet of this period, João Cabral de Melo Neto, collaborated only briefly with the "Orpheus Group," as they called themselves, before pulling away from them to develop his own formalistic aesthetic under the influence of Paul Valéry.1 While the poetics of the Orpheus Group more nearly resembles that of Rilke or T. S. Eliot, Cabral's poetic theories--after coming into contact with Valéry, and incorporating local influences of two of Modernism's greatest voices, Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Murilo Mendes--developed along the lines of an anti-rhetoric, a negative poetics exalting an extreme, ascetic formalism.

The aegis of the Generation of 1945 was short-lived. A small group of young men in São Paulo, restive under the constraints of what they perceived as literary anachronism, published their first work in Orpheus periodicals, but as they gained confidence and knowledge, they launched a fulminating attack on their elders. The Generation of 1945, repudiated in their moment of dominance, never recovered. What was surprising was the sudden development of the Noigandres Group (initially Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari) and their movement which they called concrete poetry. It was in the early fifties when they took the country by storm and succeeded briefly in dominating the literary scene. By the early sixties, in spite of continued influence among certain young poets, concrete had lost its hegemony over contemporary poetry. The following period in Brazilian literature seems marked by eclecticism with no really definable trends, or at least by no trends with any large following. Concrete continues to exert considerable influence, and the concrete poets continue to be active, but there is widespread hostility to the group, the result of the polemics which marked its birth and development. Internationally, however, the Noigandres group still has prestige, and as a dynamic element of the concrete movement of the fifties which had worldwide ramifications, it continues to be prominent.2
Two concepts underlie the essay which follows. The first is that romanticism is less a movement than an all-embracing state of mind and culture spanning two centuries, with its beginnings in the late eighteenth century and extending to the present. The second is that romanticism and classicism are poles between which Occidental art has always oscillated. Critics and literary historians as diverse as Mario Praz and Hiram Haydn have contributed to these concepts, while such modern theoreticians as Murray Krieger and Morse Peckham have been instrumental in applying them to postwar literary phenomena. It may be helpful in the present context for me to define, in the broadest possible terms, what I mean by classical and romantic. For that purpose, Haydn's epistemological definition is admirably suited. Eschewing an attempt to list "characteristics," always vitiated or completely nullified when one goes to the work itself, he strikes at the heart of the matter by examining the differing attitudes of romanticism and classicism to that most basic of human problems: the gap between the real and the ideal:

The only definition of the Classicist that I have found possible to apply with equal validity to Plato and Pope, to Racine and Dante, to Addison and AEschylus, is that the Classicist is a man and artist who finds it possible to accept without misgivings the authority and discipline of a fixed order and rules because he believes in the essential congruence and relatedness of the ideal and the empirically actual--that which should be and that which is. Whether the actual is but an imperfect extension of the ideal, as with Plato; whether it is an ordained and limited part of the creation effected by the ideal (in Christian terminology, God), as in Pope's and Addison's version of the Great Chain of Being; whether, as in the concept of "immatered form" of Aristotle's mature philosophy, which recognizes the usefulness and relatedness of intellectual concept and empirical observation, it is a question of rooting the ideal in the actual, and motivating the actual by the ideal--in any case, the Classicist recognizes the relation as a direct and certain one, and fixes upon that recognition his aesthetic as well as his moral, philosophical or religious creed.

The Romanticist, on the other hand, is that man or artist who, moved by the discrepancy he finds between the ideal and the empirically actual, cannot reconcile the two. As a result, he may, like Keats, yearn more and more nostalgically for an escape to, and a complete immersion in, the world of the ideal--which becomes increasingly, and perhaps even exclusively, real to him. [...] On the other hand, like Shelley, the Romantic may dream of effecting a reconciliation between the two by the ultimate imposition of the ideal upon the empirical actuality in the distant and improbable future. [...] Still again, with Wordsworth, he may find the ideal in simple and primitive nature, and in those closest to her. [...]

But whether the particular Romantic's form of rebellion is escape or reform, passive or active, he is always a rebel against the established order and skeptical about the validity of the value of fixed laws. [...] He does not accept the established relatedness of the ideal and the actual, and he refuses to abide by rules derived from this central premise, whether aesthetic ones or ones pertaining to the conduct of life (Haydn 1950:15).

It should be borne in mind that Haydn's study involves Elizabethan literature (in spite of the nineteenth-century references in the quote), not "Romanticism" in the limited historical sense of the word. According to these concepts, it is possible to postulate the essential romantic identity of movements as diverse as Symbolism and Surrealism, the essentially romantic nature of apparently anti-romantic movements such as Realism and Naturalism. Further, if the modern age in art has been essentially romantic, it is possible to postulate the eventual exhaustion of that great impulse and its replacement by its antipode, classicism.

But if romanticism triumphed in artistic milieux in the mid-nineteenth century and then proceeded to develop a tradition which can be traced through Baudelaire to Verlaine and Rimbaud and to the Symbolists and thence to avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism, it did not triumph socially until recently. It was romanticism's long struggle with public taste that shaped its development. The public in the Western world has always taken "for its ideals, or idols, what may be called, if not classicism, at least the traditional or the academic" (Poggioli 1973:50). In the first third of this century this basic divergence in taste was exacerbated by a growing alienation of the avant-garde artist from society. His alienation, according to Poggioli, took several avenues of expression; antagonism, in which the artist deliberately affronts public morality and etiquette, and attacks (usually his predecessors) in violent polemical jargon; nihilism, in which the artist reaches "a point of extreme tension toward the public and tradition" (p. 64), which culminates in a destructive impulse capable of annihilating all cultural values; agonism, in which the artist, convinced of the impending end of civilization, acts suicidally in an attempt to bequeath something of value to the future; and Futurism, in which the artist has an acute sense of being in a state of transition, perceiving himself as a precursor of future developments. Important in contemporary nihilism have been two factors, the commercialization and vulgarization of art, and the increasing tendency to regard the relationship between an artist and his work as a private one, negating the social value of art in favor of art as private fantasy.

Poggioli convincingly argues that only modern bourgeois societies create conditions in which avant-garde art may flourish, nurturing a counter culture which despises its source. The bête noir opposed by contemporary avant-gardes has been mass culture, in all its forms. In technological urban societies there has been a radical and permanent separation between popular and avant-garde culture, accentuated by a homogenizing process in which ethnic and folk elements are lost under the pressures of mass media and other forces. "By means of specialization and technology, modern society has broken all the links between artisan and artist, destroyed all the forms of folklore and ethnic culture; it has even transformed the very concept of 'the people,' now a synonym for the quite different concept of 'the masses'" (p. 122). Poggioli sees the attempts of such modern artists as Eliot to recreate or restore a lost sense of craftsmanship as doomed from the start. I shall return to this point later.

In his epilogue Poggioli summarizes the evolution of the avant-garde, divided into four moments or phases. The culmination of this development in our time is the triumph of the avant-garde spirit and its ramification into all artistic spheres. But Poggioli does not perceive that this success extends even to society, which has become impervious to shock, permissive to extremes, willing to tolerate and reward the most outrageous artistic extravagances. Avant-garde has become chic, not merely among the elites, but among a vast bourgeois audience which has at last been weaned away from academicism. There remains a sullen residue which opposes all such decadence, but the numbers of adherents have been vastly swollen by affluence and the public education it has fostered. This success has put the avant-garde into crisis, undermining the alienation necessary to its survival. Harold Rosenberg has aptly summarized this situation in Discovering the Present (1973: X-X:):

The cultural revolution of the past hundred years has petered out. Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it. Today's aesthetic vanguardism is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, by state art councils, by museums, by industrial and banking organizations. Foundation grants are made to underground film and magazines, to little-review contributors, to producers of happenings and electronic music, to the Merce Cunningham dance group. The art-historical media have become thoroughly blended with the mass media and with commercial gesign and decoration under the slogan of community art programs. Reciprocally, commercial movies, thrillers, even TV advertising spots have become so daringly experimental in the formal sense as to elicit not the comprehension of a message but the immediate total response of a work of art.

By and large, the contemporary artistic scene demonstrates that the boast of the Dadaists that they had done it all was true. There is a kind of desperation in the most extreme manifestations of contemporary avant-garde art of the now traditional left. It is besieged by a sense of déjà vu. Literally everything has already been tried. According to Rosenberg:

In art, "conservative" and "radical" ought to be abandoned and attention concentrated on déjà vu. The purpose of education is to keep a culture from being drowned in senseless repetitions, each of which claims to offer a new insight. In America an almost total absence of genuine education in modernist creations and attitudes of the past hundred years is responsible for wave after wave of déjà vu novelties. The dejavunik exploits his audience's lack of education by appealing to its desire to be advanced and its expectation of being repelled by new work. Today, cultural professionals can count on avant-garde déjà vu to arouse the enthusiasm of undergraduate movie makers, post-art aesthetes, far-out curators, and collector-dealers for whatever makes the grade as Time-Newsweek shock (p. xi).

These quotes suggest that the romantic age as I have defined it may be ending. It is too early to determine such a hypothesis objectively, but there is mounting evidence that something of the sort may be happening. I refer to the prevalence of a neo-classical revival during the last forty years. It can be stated without exaggeration that the most powerful literary impulses of contemporary culture have come from artists basically hostile to romanticism. I refer to Eliot, Pound and Valéry. It remains to be seen, however, whether this "anti-romanticism" is any more authentic than preceding manifestations in the nineteenth century. T. E. Hulme's prediction of a new classical spirit, although widely assumed to have been futile, did have serious repercussions in its effects on Eliot and Pound.3 Poggioli takes up this question and dismisses the possibility of a new classicism, at least as it is exemplified in Eliot, largely because Eliot's impulse is nostalgic. Poggioli does admit that recently the dynamism seems to have gone out of avant-garde, manifested in increasingly rare appearances of new movements, but attributes this lack of intensity to a broadening of the avant-garde spirit in its contemporary triumph:

In modern poetry and art, classicism can operate only as a retrospective utopia, as a logical counterbalance to the futuristic utopia. In any case, the frequency within the recent avant-garde of positions such as Eliot's along with the rehabilitation and renewal of the very concept of tradition, has certainly contributed to making new movements and manifestoes more rare and scarce. Thus the appearance of a series of new poetics, neoclassical on the surtace, has devaluated experiment as an end in itself (p. 223).
It is significant that Haroldo de Campos's rejection of the poetics of the Generation of 1945 is couched in quite similar phraseology. I refer to the essay entitled "Poetry and Paradise Lost." It is precisely a "retrospective utopia" which is repugnant to the concrete poets:

Anodyne and anonymous lyricism, and love of conventional patterns of vagueness lie, for instance, behind the "rediscovery" of the sonnet in the manner of a "dernier cri." These are the well-known manifestations of Sunday-Park art, a backwater where poetry is perfectly codified in little metric rules, adjusted to a serene formal elegance and equipped with a stock of metaphors prudently controlled in all their petite bourgeois self- sufficiency by a curiously repressing policy: the so-called "atmosphere" (climate) of the poem (1975:25).
Other passages from the Theory of Concrete Poetry (Teori a de Poesia Concreta) demonstrate that for concrete, the poetry of the previous generation was doubly damned: it looked backward in attempting the restoration of clichéd poetic forms, and it was romantic in its sensibility, alienation and sentimentality. While the apparent neoclassicism of the Generation of '45 and other postwar groups might thus be disposed of as a kind of cloying anachronism, the poetics of Valéry and Pound offered sterner resistance, and it was only after deliberation that the concrete poets concluded that they must push beyond them.

Beyond its rejection of nostalgic anachronism, how is concrete poetry's classical protile delineated? Brietly, concrete poetry is not alienated, not agonistic, not nihilistic, not Futuristic. It subscribes to a theory of Zeitgeist, conceived in Russian formalist terms. It rejects subjectivism in all its forms, even the detached subjective role of the artist in the work as conceived by Valéry or Pound. It rejects the idea that art and society are inimical, and in fact attempts a conscious rapprochement with the public. It embraces modern technology and scientism, and is fascinated by communication theory.4 It totally rejects the cult of the metaphor which has characterized contemporary art, and refuses to accept a favorite avant-garde dictum that legitimate art is exceptional.

Concrete's rejection of alienation is profound. It rejects the whole subjective-romantic emphasis on the subconscious, on correspondence, on the poet as mystic or seer. In fact, it overwhelmingly rejects what Hannah Arendt has called the "deep-structure fallacy": the idea that surface is superficial or frivolous and that what matters, what is essential, is what is hidden from view. Concrete affirms the thingness of things, accepting the phenomenological reality of surface. It is therefore opposed to the oneiricism of the Surrealists, proposing instead the maximalization of lucidity. Poggioli has analyzed the Schopenhauerian conception of will as an irrational, unconscious, automatic vital cosmic force. It is this conception (which lies behind avant-garde theories of automatism) that is specifically rejected by the concrete poets, for whom even chance and intuition are subject to rigid control. Décio Pignatari speaks of "the chronomicrometering of chance," and "the most lucid intellectual work for the clearest intuition" ("newpoetry: concrete," 1975:41). He later elaborates these ideas in "Chance, Choice, Shots," where he speaks of chance shaped by mathematical theories of probability. Concrete does not flee from technology, but rather embraces its empiricism and functionalism.

The ingenuous or academic notions that someone might have about mathematics are also not important. Mathematics cannot be opposed to art to the point of conferring to intuition that traditional absolute value, which betrays an idealistic education prisoner to the apparently infinite field of the Arbitrary. Those who ignore principles through the panicked belief that they limit or restrict (one knows not what ... inspiration, perhaps) is compelled to justify "post factum" his work. He can only do this by using dubious articulations or subjective sub-levers. Right was always on the side of those who had reasons instead of mere justifications (1975:147-148).
In this statement, Pignatari redefines intuition in biological terms which do not permit the slightest idealization of the process: "A [ ... ] physiological, psycho-cultural perception mechanism [ ... ] at the root of elementary feedback circuits and high-grade options, stimulating experimental actions." For concrete, creativity is not a process of blind subjection to the unconscious justified post factum as art, but the a priori determination of an aesthetic problem to be solved in a specific and straight-forward manner. In his essay "From the Phenomenology of Composition to the Mathematics of Composition," Haroldo de Campos makes this plain.

Concrete poetry is moving toward the rejection of organic structure in favor of a mathematical or quasi-mathematical one. In the poem of the word-after-word type, structure results from the interaction of words or fragments of words produced in the spatial field, with each new word implying something like a structural option. Such an option solicits a marked intervention of chance and intuitional readiness. Concrete poetry instead seeks a mathematical structure planned before the word. The solution of the structural problem will therefore require that words be used under the control of the thematic number. The definition of structure which fits the poem will be the exact moment of the creative option. From that point on the intervention of a disciplining and critical intelligence will be effected with greatest intensity. The structure selected will rigorously determine the elements of play and their relative positions in an almost mathematical way.
We seek a planned verbal structure, "as precise as possible," as neat as "symbolic logic," as exact as the "visible ideas" of a concrete painter (1975:91-93).
Haroldo de Campos's theory of a "thematic number" conclusively refutes a common criticism of concrete poetry that it represents nothing more than a kind of automatism where isolated words are arbitrarily thrown together as in one of Tristan Tzara's games. Two examples follow, from different moments in the movement's evolution. Even as early as 1953, concrete had moved away from extrinsical, "shaped" poems à la Apollinaire. This is evident in the Poet-Minus series by Augusto de Campos. In this series, Augusto worked with color and words, seeking to reproduce in poetry some equivalent to Webern's musical theories of Klangfarbenmelodie (it is unfortunate that this presentation is limited to the printed word, since the spoken-musical version of the following poem is essential to its Gestalt, to its verbi-voco-visual wholeness):

It is clear in "Here are the Lovers" that we have words arranged by an aprioristic but open-minded/receptive creative mentality which allows full play to what Pignatari calls "factors of proximity and likeness." It should be equally obvious that this is no mere word-picture poem. The juxtaposed words resonate together, setting off refractions of meaning that scintillate around the columns and contribute to its Gestalt. The experience is in some ways akin to synesthesia, where one sensation evokes a response in another sense area. In this case, what the poem manages to evoke/provoke in the receptive reader is a sensual response that goes far beyond the usual intellectual titillation essential to love poetry.

Haroldo de Campos's "Poemandala" from his Lacunae series (1971) exhibits an ethereal grace, managing to evoke the oriental (concrete's fascination with the ideogram can be traced to Pound and pervades the movement's theory) while teasing the mind with its haiku-like columns of words. As insubstantial as a shadow, as permanent as the symbol that forms its core, the poem seems almost like the image left on the retina when one blinks after seeing a strong light. It is a perfect demonstration of what can be achieved with "minimal means," with "a planned verbal structure" that nevertheless is neither clumsy nor pedestrian (as might be assumed by the mathematical formulations of the theory):

Concrete's rejection of subjectivism, the romantic cult of personality, is carried to the extreme of excluding from the poem all traces of the author's presence. This quality is amply demonstrated in the two poems that precede this paragraph. In this effacement the concrete poets go far beyond the craftsmanship of Valéry, Pound or Eliot, where, for all their formal discipline, the authors maintain a persona, a mediator between author, work and reader. It was Eliot, in fact, who revived the Renaissance theories of persona in his attempt to reestablish distance between author and work and eliminate the romantic tendency to blur the distinction between maker and speaker. In the concrete poem there is simply no speaker. To the extent that the reader and the author make contact they do so in the poem itself, not outside it. The concrete poem makes great demands on the reader, since the raw materials of the poem are presented to him, along with certain instructions, and it is he who must realize the poem. This act of faith on the part of the concrete poet reflects his belief in Gestalt, in the validity of the concept that 2 + 2 can equal 5 in art. But the problem is that in the concrete work, the Gestalt is not presented pre-digested by a persona but left only as a potential. This quality is demonstrated in Augusto's "Eis os amantes" where the reader re-creates/re-experiences the copulation that forms the poem's experiential foundation. For another convincing demonstration of this dynamism in concrete poetry, the reader is referred to Haroldo's "Si-Ien-cio"(1956). An equally convincing demonstration of the direct, experiential qualities of concrete may be found in Décio Pignatari's "beba coca cola," in which the poet expresses a profound existential nausea. This is a protest poem with a difference: the reader is invited to participate in an experience that begins with a slogan, "Drink Coca Cola" and culminates in an explosion of rage/ nausea/expulsion (as in excretion). Once again, to listen to the aleatoric vision of this poem in a recording is to materially increase the intensity of the experience. Even more than in traditional word-after-word poetry, concrete is dependent for complete impact on complete experience:

A striking feature of the concrete movement is its attempt to rejoin the severed relations between poetry and public. Concrete theory attempts to demystify art, advocating a kind of Functionalism in which the poem is treated as an object, not an objet d'art to be carefully preserved and saved in a museum case, but an object like a piece of bread or a newspaper. Rather than emphasize craftsmanship in an attempt to valorize the artist's creative effort, concrete poets emphasize creativity as a process akin to industrial design, in which the designer's creative efforts go into conceiving a prototype. Such a prototype is anonymous and capable of infinite reproduction. The test of its efficacy is not the personal taste of an elite collector, but whether the object functions and satisfies the needs of the public. As a consequence, concrete poetry strives to present itself without mystery directly to the consumer. The intellectual elitism involved in the modern cult of the metaphor is also avoided, along with the entire rhetorical-discursive apparatus of traditional lyric poetry. Décio Pignatari says:

The now classic postulation, "form follows function," involving the notion of useful, utilitarian beauty, means an awareness on the part of the artist, both artistically and economically, of the new world of assemblyline industrial production. In this world, "et pour cause," craftsmanship is put out of circulation as anti-economic, anachronistic, incompatible and incommunicable with that impersonal, collective and rational world that comes to depend entirely on planning on all levels and meanings.

The contradictions between industrial production and individual artistic craftsmanship opened a chasm between art and the public. In the face of these divergencies, it became necessary to join beauty with utility in order to attend to the needs of a new type of consumer, a "consumer of physical design," in the words of Neutra ("Form, Function and General Project," Campos and Pignatari 1975:107-108).
Lest anyone mistake his meaning, assuming that concrete seeks to commercialize art, Pignatari adds that these consumer goods lie "in the realm of thought and sensitivity, not convertible into mere utilitarian values." This is n ot to say that commercialization and art are necessarily inimical. Pignatari himself established a successful ad agency in Sa o Paulo for a number of years, and one of his ads is usually included in concrete anthologies. In his "Disenfo rmio" (an anti-diarrheal medicine) the letters of the product invade and consume the "intestinal disturbance." The ad is a t once a highly effective commercial message (part of whose effectiveness is subliminal) and a demonstration that what works has artistic value.

The concrete poets showed an early interest in the media and in communication theory, and the use of concrete graphic techniques by ad agencies and television are seen by them as proof of the validity of their theoretical position. The modern urban consumer, accustomed by television and the newspaper to headlines and simplified syntax, has been conditioned to high speed communication. In the concrete aesthetic what functions, what communicates, possesses artistic value. In the words of Haroldo de Campos:

Concrete poetry is language fit for the contemporary creative mind. It permits high-speed communication. It prefigures for the poem a re-integration in daily life similar to that which the Bauhaus achieved for visual arts: whether as a vehicle of commercial advertising (newspapers, signs, TV, movies, etc.), or as an object in itself (functioning in architecture, for example) with a field of possibilities analogous to both industrial design and painting. It substitutes the magical, the mystical and the "maudit" for the useful (1975:46).
Concrete's rapprochement with mass culture may be partially explained by the specific Brazilian situation, which in some ways resembles that of Russia in the time of the Formalists. In both cases a technologically oriented, innovating avant-garde reacts to a stratified literary tradition it identifies with a colonialist mentality. In such a situation, the avant-garde may regard a mass-oriented aesthetic favorably rather than adopt the hostile attitude typical of the avant-garde in more advanced countries. In this instance there is a confluence of specific local conditions and generalized cultural ones which produces an avant-garde movement quite unique in contemporary art. It is the '45 Generation's traditional elitist sociopsychological orientation that sets off the concrete movement's mass-accepting intransigence.

Beyond concrete's non-alienated orientation to society and art, there are other characterisitics which identify the movement as classical. The most prominent is perhaps the movement's historicism. As Poggioli has noted, classical movements have a well-defined sense of being a culmination as opposed to the agonistic sense of transition which besets the romantic avant-garde. Concrete regards itself as the fruition of a half century of vanguard efforts, and its Theory is replete with analyses of the movements which preceded it. These analyses emphasize the failures of Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and of such figures as Apollinaire even while conceding their contribution to the concretist aesthetic. For example, in the essay "Aspects of Concrete Poetry," Haroldo de Campos (1975:94-106) analyzes the contributions of Mallarmé, Pound, Apollinaire, the Futurists, Dadaists and others to concrete poetry. In spite of his respect for their contributions, he rejects the contemporary validity of these precursors, accepting their innovations only in the spirit of an inheritor, saying that "the cinematic descriptiveness, the frenetic subjectivity and the ultraromanticism of the futurists hypostatized in their characteristic machine made their compositions barren of constructive organization." Similarly, Augusto de Campos rejects Apollinaire, after recognizing his contributions, in the following terms: "Apollinaire condemns the poetic ideogram to the mere figurative representation of theme. [...] This removes most of the vigor and physiognomic richness which the calligrammes might have had, in spite of the grace and visual 'humor' with which Apollinaire almost always 'draws' them" (1975:19). Pound himself, the direct aesthetic forbear of the concrete poets, is ultimately rejected for his attachment to craftsmanship and the individualistic, subjective relationship between maker and poem that this attitude implies. It should be evident from the foregoing remarks that I have used the term "precursor" advisedly. Perhaps the only way in which a previous author can be a "precursor" is in the literal sense, of a forerunner, a contributor to one's aesthetic, and even then only when the formulator of such a statement has a classicist mentality, perceiving himself as a culmination.

While concrete poetry shares with other avant-garde movements a love of the experimental, it has developed a radical new conception of the theme-form equation which deserves analysis as it relates to classicism and romanticism. Standard avant-gardism's cult of the new presumes a feverish search for new forms of expression and their abandonment when they become generalized or vulgarized through mass acceptance. In other words, what commonly characterizes avant-garde movements is their abhorrence of stereotype. On the other hand, traditional classicism has taken the view that certain artistic forms are virtually immutable, defining originality in terms of surpassing models. To some extent this orientation explains the failures of neo-classical movements in modern literature, obsessed with restoring modes of expression anathematized by the romantic avant-gardes. This constitutes the central dilemma of the modern classical vision: the inability to invent a form adequate to express that vision in non-anachronistic terms. Instead, modern exponents of classicism have attempted the restoration of a lost paradise, and in so doing, have demonstrated that they continue trapped in the romantic ethos they abhor. The problem has been that the power of the Greco-Roman model was such that in spite of increasing distance in time it exercised (and continues to exercise) a fatal fascination for would-be followers of the classical way. In reality, only the exuberant optimism of the Renaissance prevented, and then only temporarily, an awareness of the incongruity of resurrecting a long-dead cultural model to express fourteenth- and fifteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical needs. As Hiram Haydn has demonstrated, the Baroque age was the first romantic period of modern time, one in which the paradoxical possibilities of the Greco-Roman model were fully explored. The eighteenth century's attempt to reassert the model foundered, at least partially, on anachronistic incongruity and ushered in the modern romantic age. The genius of concrete poetry lies in its freedom from the past and its invention of a form adequate to the expression of a twentieth-century classicism.

In its development of a new formal theory in harmony with the contemporary period, concrete poetry has abandoned classicism's traditional insistence that theme and form are separate entities. At best, classicism of the Greco-Roman mold will admit only that certain forms, such as the sonnet, are uniquely adapted to the expression of certain themes. Concrete poetry resolves the theme-form binomial in favor of a new synthesis in which form is theme (isomorphism) in which the structure and physical arrangement of words in a poem are determined in each case by the internal demands of the Gestalt created by the "factors of proximity and likeness" at play. Form is not imposed on the words from without, is not programmatic, is not extrinsic. This conception confronts the poet with a radical new creative option each time he begins a poem. In traditional poetry, a writer conquers a style and evolves thematically within it, content to innovate only in a relative sense. Even when the poet adheres to a new movement, for example, he simply takes over the new style, makes it his own and tinkers. For the concrete poet each new poem is a leap in the dark.

It should be evident from the foregoing that concrete poetry also has made a radical new formulation in the concept of originality. Leaving behind both traditional classicism's effort at surpassing models and romanticism's cult of the new, the concrete poet confronts each new creative moment armed only with his readiness to allow the words to shape themselves into an idea, which, once expressed, is relatively unique. At most a new idea will lead to a limited series of poems that exhaust its potentiality. The creative attitude of the concrete poet is one of patient awareness.

The related concepts of form and originality are themselves important in their relationship with another traditional shibboleth: that of "national" literature. Isolated behind very real walls of distance and time, modern Occidental literatures developed concepts of nationalism that seemed both logical and inevitable. The traditional artist, protected behind these arbitrary walls, was free to imitate, often rather closely, the efforts of contemporaries in other countries, and the product of his labor was assured a place in the intellectual market of his country. The concrete poet, operating in an age when communication is virtually instantaneous and travel is relatively so, fully accepts the impossibility in such a situation of any appeal to relativity or uniqueness. Concrete poetry developed internationally in such a way that limitations of language and culture were minimized within a tacit consensus that imitation or duplication from one country to another was impossible practically and illicit creatively.

In this essay I have attempted to demonstrate the possibility that concrete poetry is an avant-garde movement of classicist tendencies rather than romantic ones. For the purposes of example, parting from an epistemological basis, I have explored the various ways it rejects alienation, the predominant characteristic of modern romantic avant- garde movements. Beyond the movement's intrinsic merits as an approach to contemporary aesthetics, the intriguing possibility of its classicist nature especially recommends it to those interested in contemporary literary typology. Indeed, if concrete is classicist and avant-garde then a whole series of assumptions about vanguardism and aesthetics must be reconsidered, since vanguardism has been universally assumed to be a romantic phenomenon. If romanticism, after a two-hundred-year reign, has reached a point of inanition, a classicist revolt will assume certain characteristics of the avant-garde as a matter of dynamics inherent in the situation. This may also explain why contemporary neo-classical movements such as the Generation of 1945 in Brazil failed to generate impact. The possibilities of a technically formalist moderating reaction within romanticism were exhausted by such nineteenth-century movements as Parnassianism. Concrete has shown that formal tinkering within a romantic aesthetic is no longer viable. For formalism to work in the contemporary period, a radical psychological amputation is necessary. The affirmative, optimistic mentality of concrete, allied with its acceptance of avant-garde aesthetics makes it clear that we have in reality two apparently similar but radically different movements which contemplate each other across an unbridgeable gulf.


1. João Cabral de Melo Neto is reasonably well known in the United States and elsewhere. His poetry may be consulted in various anthologies, including The Literary Review (Winter issue, 1978), and Elizabeth Bishop's An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972). These anthologies may also be consulted for the other Brazilian poets mentioned.

2. A kind of unofficial Brazilian blockade of concrete works was broken a few years ago, and the intervening period had seen the commercial publication of several important works. Prior to that time, within Brazil, all concrete works, including Invenção and Noigandres were privately financed and published. In 1973, a second edition of the Teoria da Poesia Concreta was published by the São Paulo publisher, Duas Cidades. In the same year, Augusto de Campos privately printed his retrospective Caixa Preta (Black Box), together with designer Julio Plaza. In 1977 Haroldo de Campos's Xadrez de Estrelas (Chessboard of Stars) (poetry and prose) was published in Sa o Paulo by Perspectiva. In the same year, Décio Pignatari's Poesia Pois E Poesia (Poetry? Damn Right!) was published by Duas Cidades. Finally, in 1979, Haroldo published his Signantia Quase Coelum, a collection of poetic fragments with a Dantean foundation, also with Perspectiva. These retrospective editions have for th e first time provided readers in Brazil and abroad with access to almost the entire corpus of concrete poetry.

In addition, the author of this essay recently finished translating the Theory of Concrete Poetry. It is possible that the Theory will become available to the English-speaking community in the near future. (All translations in this study are taken from that text.) The poems themselves are available in translation in a number of anthologies, most notably Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A World View (1970) and Emmett Williams's An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967).

3. See the essay entitled "Romanticism and Classicism" in Hulme (1936:113-140). The romanticism of the New Critics, Hulme's inheritors, is expounded by Richard Foster (1962: 30-44).

4. The movement's preoccupation with communication theory led it, in later stages, toward semiotics. The movement may be justly regarded as a pioneering semiotically oriented effort. See the Teoria da Poesia Concreta or the Anthology of Concrete Poetry (Williams 1967) for examples of semiotic poems. The Theory, with its phenomenological orientation, abounds in pre-semiotic discoveries.


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