Friday, February 12, 2010

THE ANARCHIST ART OF JOHN CAGE, Richard Kostelanetz


In surveying his work in music and theater, in poetry and visual art, I have noticed that the American John Cage favored a structure that is nonfocused, nonhierarchic and nonlinear, which is to say that his works in various media consist of collections of elements presented without climax and without definite beginnings and ends. This is less a negative structure, even though I am describing it negatively, than a visionary esthetic and political alternative. In creating artistic models of diffusion and freedom, Cage is a libertarian anarchist.

What makes Cage's art special, and to my senses politically original, is that his radical politics were expressed in decisions not of content but of form. For instance, one quality of nearly all works of his for large ensembles is that they do not need a conductor. By extension, the work implies that outside of music, as well as in, it is possible to create social mechanisms that likewise can function without conductors, without chiefs. In other words, in the form of his art, in the form of performance, is a representation of an ideal polity.

It is precisely in relinquishing traditional opportunities for authority that Cage made essentially political decisions. His scores are designed to encourage a greater variety of interpretations than usual. There is no 'right way' to do them, though there are wrong ways, especially if a performer violates the instructions that are not left to chance. A second reflection of Cage's politics was writing music for an ensemble of equals, even when he was one of the performers, thereby resisting such conventional hierarchical forms as a soloist with a backup group. (The fact that this last feature was always true indicates to me that Cage subscribed to his egalitarian esthetics long before he was conscious of them.) Thirdly, the principle of equality extends to the materials of his art. Not only are all notes equal, but all instruments are equal, regardless of their rank in the musical tradition. In Credo in Us (1942), for instance, the piano has no more presence than the home radio; all are equidistant from the audience. Fourth, he performed his music in gymnasiums as well as opera houses, the assumption being that all venues are equally legitimate.

In his book 'Notations' (1968), where Cage presented in alphabetical order a single page apiece of scores chosen by contributing composers, the radical assumption is that the editor has no more authority than the reader in assigning value. Nothing is featured by being put ahead of the others, or having its name on the book's cover. The absence of hierarchy and of editorial discrimination in this book likewise reflects his politics. (A traditional editor would huffily characterize a book like 'Notations' as 'an abdication of professional responsibility.') Anyone who ever worked in theater with Cage knew that he believed every performance venue should have convenient exits so that spectators can leave whenever they wish. Capturing anyone's body was to him no more justifiable in art than in life. One truth of Cage's own functioning was that no one loses anything by relinquishing power, but the essence of his method is not to tell but to show.

With that last point in mind, it is instructive to contrast the anarchism of Cage's art with another masterpiece of anarchist art in our time, the Living Theater's production of 'Paradise Now' (1968). Those of us who saw it two decades ago will remember that 'Paradise Now' was structured as a series of sketches designed to elicit audience participation. Thus, it opened with the performers reciting testimony of their own imprisonment: 'I can't travel without a passport,' they repeatedly proclaimed, confronting and challenging the audience to respond with argument or shocked acceptance. 'I am not allowed to take off my clothes.' 'I don't know how to stop the war,' they kept on repeating. From this purgatory the performers progress to sketches of liberation, which is paradise, culminating with members of the audience being invited onstage to leap into the locked arms of male company members. Structurally, this play is dialectical, moving from antithesis to synthesis; and in this respect, it differs from Cage who hasn't presented any antitheses, as far as I can tell, in at least forty years.

Another difference is that 'Paradise Now' is preachy, Julian Beck even telling us that we've been offered glimpses of the postrevolutionary age. Cage, by contrast, shows instead of tells, for his assumption is that, in the community represented by his art, the Promised Land has come. When asked about his response to such programmatic political music as Frederic Rzewski's, he said, 'I have difficulty with it, because it's so pushy. It has precisely in it what government has in it: the desire to control; and it leaves no freedom for me. It pushes me toward its conclusion, and I'd rather be a sheep, which I'm not, than be pushed along by a piece of music. I'm just as angry, or refusing to go along with the 'Hallelujah Chorus' as I am with the Attica one [by Rzewski]. The moment I hear that kind of music I go in the opposite direction. And they use the technique of repetition, and of sequence, incessantly [as did the Living Theater, I should add]. And I can do without that.'

One thing that fascinates me about Cage is the purity of his anarchism. His perceptions are true to his politics; in neither his speech nor his behavior do you find the kinds of contradictions and compromise that some political people think are opportune for ultimate ends. He is utterly free of pretenses to superior humanity and thus false snobbism (and in these respects so utterly different from his sometime protege Morton Feldman). I've always regarded Cage as epitomizing the noncompetitive life, where no one is regarded as a threat who must be eliminated, where you can afford to be generous with your own work as well as your possessions, and to do work so extreme and idiosyncratic that plagiarism need not be feared. As he has always made a point of publishing his writings in small magazines as well as large, assuming that the putative 'reputation' of any venue affects him not, it is not surprising that his 1980s creative text on the Satie society bypassed book-publishing entirely to become available gratis, but only through the modem on your home computer. Even Cage's philosophy is true to his politics, at a time when, to paraphrase Barnett Newman, Philosophy is for the artist, especially for some painters nowadays, much as the Bible is to the minister, which is to say a respectable source that can be used to justify anything. I recently read scores of interviews with him and have never found Cage claiming anything about his art that was demonstrably false.

It is scarcely surprising that in his own professional life he has resisted not only titles and accompanying power but servility, being neither a boss nor an employee but, instead both, or more precisely a small businessman with a peripheral relation to another small business that didn't give him much power (or until recently made much money)--the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In other words, even in his own life there was an absence of antitheses. When Harvard offered him a professorship in 1988-89, giving him one of those titles purportedly raising its bearer above the nonprofessors, I warned him that, especially if you will be talking about anarchy, you must insist upon being called the Charles Eliot Norton 'Person' of Poetry. (I reminded him that England's anarchist movement went through a divisory crisis in 1953, when Herbert Read accepted a knighthood!) When I later asked him 'what it was like to be a Harvard Professor,' he replied, appropriately, 'not much different from not being a Harvard professor.'

Another quality I admired about Cage was that, especially in contrast to many post-socialists of his generation, he never doubled back. He never said that an earlier position of his was now unacceptably radical. As a result, he was never been an ex-anything in either esthetics or politics. His art, as I noted before, always displyed the anarchist characteristics defined here. I would judge that one reason for his professional confidence to the end, in politics as well as esthetics, is that he knew from the beginning that he never wrong, which I hasten to add is not the same thing, especially in politics, as being always right.

One Cagean tactic that always puzzled me in reading interviews with him is how he often rationalized an esthetic move in terms not of ideology but simply of social benefit. Let me quote an example from my book, 'Conversing with Cage' (1988, 2002), where he said of his 'Freeman Etudes' for violin: 'They are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we're now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it's just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.'

Once I recognized this tendency toward sociological rationalization in Cage's commentary, I was skeptical about it, thinking it might represent a certain opportunism; but the more often I saw it, I began to recognize Cage as someone who came of age in the 1930s, when ideas about social betterment through art were more plentiful. To me, Cage was essentially a thirties lefty, who was more interesting than others who came out of that period because he made some original perceptions not only about art but especially about the place of politics in art, and then the possible role of art for politics, all the while remaining true to the sentiment of that time. In my sense of Cage, Zen and chance and everything else came afterwards; they are merely icing on this essentially anarchist cake.

(1993).

www.richardkostelanetz.com
Rkosti@aol.com

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Development of the Artist's Book, Peter D. Verheyen



Written by Peter D. Verheyen
for FIA 610, Department of Fine Arts, Syracuse University April, 1998

What is a book? An artist's book? A livre d'artiste?

What is a book? Traditionally the book form has been associated with the codex, a textblock of folded signatures, sewn to some kind of support with a cover. Although this structure (with some variations) has existed for over a thousand years other forms have come to be called books as well, including clay tablets, scrolls, petrogylphs and, now, some argue computer files as well. Illustrations have been a part of "books" almost from the beginning being used to illustrate the text and depict events or places or people... within, the Nuremberg Chronicle being an early example of this. The illustrations were not, however, meant to be seen as art. William Blake (1757 -1827) changed that with his artists' books, among them The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Songs of Innocence. In these, Blake wrote the text, made the etchings of the text and illustrations, printed, and then hand-colored the pages. The only thing Blake did not do it seems was bind them. Blake was far ahead of his time. The artist's book did not reappeared until this century and was adopted as a format by the Futurists, DADA, and the Constructivists among others. The livre d'artiste which co-existed with the artist's book, was similar yet also very different.
Livre d'artiste vs. artist's book:

What is the difference between an artist's book and a livre d'artiste. Johanna Drucker in her work The Century of Artists' Books draws a very clear distinction. According to her, the livre d'artiste came into being as a publishing enterprise initiated by such figures as the Parisian art dealers Vollard and Kahnweiler who saw a business opportunity in marketing deluxe editions illustrated by recognized or upcoming stars in the fields of visual arts or poetry, among them Chagall, Picasso, Apollonaire, Matisse, Miro, Ernst. This was a distinctly French undertaking with no real parallels in the United Kingdon or Germany.

While deluxe editions were not unusual at the time, the idea of merging them with the fine arts was. These editions were generally released unbound, essentially as a suite of prints or at best very simply bound. The buyer would then take them to their favorite binder designer such as Bonet, Creuzevault, or Legrain. These "collaborations" were nothing short of breathtaking.

To Drucker the livre d'artiste stopped just short of being artist's books by "stopping just at the threshold of conceptual space in which artist's books operate." This is because it is very rare to find a livre d'artiste which "interrogates the conceptual or material form of the book as part of its intention, thematic interests, or production activities." To Drucker, these livres d'artistes seem to be "embalmed" in excessive production values, with a very stiff relationship between the text and images which seemed forced into an outdated structure or format.

The main distinction between the livres d'artistes and the artist's book is that the former were almost always initiated by the publisher with often little or no relationship between the artist and writer. The binder was only an afterthought, though a significant one as it now turns out. By contrast, the artist's book is understood to be the work of one individual or a collaborative effort. In either case, it is conceived from start to finish as an integrated unit. The motive is also quite different. While the livre d'artiste was created as a financial venture, the artists' motives are more likely to be to make themselves heard or to share a vision. Making money is nice, but not the reason for creating the work. The artist's book is by nature, and for the reasons just mentioned more likely to be non-traditional in format and structure. In fact, it is almost expected that artists deviate as far as they dare from the traditional form entering into the realm of sculpture. Indeed, most of the creators of artist's books are not tied to anyone discipline in particular. Some are primarily printmakers but most are not and bring a very broad background to their "books" (I use that term loosely). As opposed to the livres d'artistes these are more than likely to be unique objects and as such are more closely allied with painting and sculpture. Technically, they are created using a variety of techniques, employing fine printing as easily as xerography.

Another category which falls somewhat between the two is the fine press artist's book. This category is generally more closely allied with the livre d'artiste in that it is an editioned work. While some fine press artist's books are the work of an individual, more often than not working in close collaboration, an author, artist, printer, binder. On a more commercial level the 1920's - '40's saw a number of artist's books released by major publishers. Featured are the work of Lynd Ward who published several novels in woodcuts, John Vassos who took to offset, Rockwell Kent and others. Zines, issued by micro-presses in small or large editions, regularly, or just once, fit in this category, with the difference that the production is often less elaborate and refined, but also more experimental in content and concept. They are a way for the artist to reach a wide audience without great expense, similar in many ways to the Dada publications.
Importance of structure to the artist's book:

In contrast to the livre d'artiste, the artist's book is likely to make the structure of the book an integrated part of its overall design and concept. How the "book" or object is assembled is as important as the contents of the book, if any. It is quite common for "book artists" to create "books" which are no more than finely engineered works of paper, often highly complex, which contain no text and only the faintest hint of "bookness" (a term coined by Philip Smith a British fine binder who came to binding by way of painting). The structure determines how the "book" is read, and influences how the "reader" interacts with it. Pages can open up from both sides and panels can be hinged along different sides making the viewer unfold the structure as they "read" it. Pop-ups can reveal hidden aspects. By slightly changing a series of illustrations animation can be created as the "reader" flips through the pages quickly. Through the use of transparency, an image can evolve and de-evolve as the "pages" are turned. The possibilities are almost endless, and one innovation leads to another. In the process the "reader" becomes increasingly drawn into the object as they interact with it. This idea of the importance of structure is explored in detail in Keith Smith's book Structure of the Visual Book..
Significance of the illustrator to the book:

In the text to the MOMA exhibition catalog A Century of Artists Books, Riva Castleman breaks down the relationships of the parties as: artists with authors; artists as authors; artists for authors; and artists without authors.

Artists with authors represents the livres d'artiste where the artist and author are brought together, the artist's role being to embellish the words of the author, just as it the typesetter and designer's role.

Artists as authors refers to artists who decided that they wanted to express themselves in words as well as images. With Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Malevich, El Lissitzky, and Duchamp this was very successful and their works helped define their movements (Bauhaus, Constructivism, Dada). Others such as Miro, Leger, and Matisse were more than capable of putting into words the expressiveness of their painting.

Artists for Authors is much like the first category except that the pairing of the two is often more remote. While, as with the first category, the two parties may know each other and exchange ideas, here more often than not the artist was commissioned, or chose to illustrate an earlier text. Artists, however, could also take existing texts and use those as the basis for new works. An example is Tom Philips' treatment of two works. The first, entitled A Humament, was derived from a text (The Human Document) which Philips bought at a flea market for 2 shillings. Through overpainting and other alterations of the text he created a new one. Philips also treated Dante's Inferno as well as translating it.

The final category, artists without authors, this is where, according to Castleman, the origins of the modern artist's book can be found. Grosz's Ecce Homo and El Lissitzky's About Two Squares are examples of this as is Frans Masereel La Ville and some of Lynd Ward's work such as Gods's Man. Edward Ruscha is credited with setting the pattern for the modern artist's book with his 1963 work Twentysix Gas Stations, a work in which he juxtaposed the images of gas stations, chosen for their similarity of appearance and function with a blank facing page.

The Fluxus movement, founded at the same time, was a collaborative international movement which created a large body of work in the form of printed cards, broadsides, booklets, often boxed together in a "neo-Dada" manner. This movement led to the explosive growth of the artist's book movement in the 1970's and '80's which was inclusive rather than exclusive, with easy to acquire works of art.
Future of the artist's book and trends:

What is the future of the artist's book? The past twenty-five years, especially the past fifteen have seen an explosive growth in the number of artists creating "books" and the acceptance of the format along with other more "mainstream" forms of art. Exhibitions are becoming increasingly widespread and "the book" as concept is being taught in a number of art programs. Printmakers are still making prints and many of these will still end up in "book" form. What is being lost is the art of the craft of fine bookbinding. Those who are teaching in the programs do not have the skills to pass on the finer points of binding, and those in private practice can't afford to take on apprentices for the most part. Perhaps the end of this century will see the end of the finely bound book. When one looks at what artists consider "books," it becomes clear that the term is being used to describe sculptures and wall hangings. These may be derived conceptually from "the book," but that does not make them a book, nor does it make them any less a work of art. Likewise a piece of granite, carved and polished to look like a thick sewn signature is not a book. It depicts one, but that does not make it one. Duchamp may have said that "it is art because I say it is," and in his case it may well have been, but it is all to easy to extend to "it is a book because I say it is." While other forms may transmit information, like clay tablets, scrolls, or graffiti on a wall, that does not make them books.

As technology has advanced, bringing with it new means of producing and creating texts, and illustrating the "book," the very concept of the "physical book" is changing. With the advent of the Web and it's ability to hyperlink to other parts of a document or another document altogether, the book need no longer exist as a physical artifact. Janet Maher, a professor of art at Loyola College, created a work entitled ALPHABET which exists only electronically and is composed of a series of animated images which flash a text, depicting the alphabet across the viewer's screen. Is it a book? I'm not so sure, but it is art. As programs grow in versatility and ease of use, we can expect increasing artists to chose this as their medium.

I'd like to close with Philip Smith's statement on "bookness" which sums up, in my mind, the book form. While the boundaries of a form must be explored, a commonly agreed upon vocabulary is important for an understanding of that form as well as any discussion of it.

"Bookness: The qualities which have to do with a book. In its simplest meaning the term covers the packaging of multiple planes held together in fixed or variable sequence by some kind of hinging mechanism, support, or container, associated with a visual/verbal content called a text. The term should not strictly speaking include pre-codex carriers of text such as the scroll or the clay tablet, in fact nothing on a single leaf or planar surface such as a TV screen, poster or hand-bill.

"Bookness" is however being stretched to include forms which carry a digitalized or electronic text such as a CD, a hard disk or a microchip, or miscellaneous forms such as spirals of paper with continuous text, or pyramids, dodecahedrons and other geometric multiplanar forms (which could also have text inscribed on them). I would not describe all these things as having the quality of bookness or being strictly covered by the definition. A blank book is still a book, but a blank do decahedron or unmarked spiral of paper is not a book, it is a dodecahedron etc. A text is a text and not a book, but any other object one likes to imagine may perhaps be its conveyance. A text can be inscribed on anything but this does not make it a book, or have the quality of bookness, even as a scroll retains its scrollness without any text on it. A teddy bear with text on it is not a book! The book is not the text, although it is traditionally associated with it, and these two elements appear often to be mistaken for the same thing. The book is the hinged multiplanar vehicle or substrate on which texts, verbal, or tactile (the latter would include braille and other relief or embossed effects, found objects, pop-ups) maybe written, drawn, reproduced, printed or assembled.

The large imposed sheets on which texts are printed before folding into quires or signatures are not yet in book form (the qualities of bookness have not yet been imparted to them); nor to microfilm or microfiches by which book texts may be scanned be described as having bookness. They would be considered in the single planar form as on a video monitor (or a painting for example), but when the same text is arranged into book form it then taken on the qualities of bookness. It is questionable whether something becomes a book by being called such. The notion that an artist may call anything he likes a "work of art" or a "book", because he says so, is the extreme of sloppy thinking and contravenes everything we regard as leading to truth, notwithstanding Marcell Duchamp!

In a story by Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451, there is a group of people who, in order to save them, memorise books, and are called "walking books"! Other similarly claimed substitutes abound in so-called book-artists' jargon, but the memories of books are not yet in book form, and so cannot be called books or have bookness. One could say however that a pack of Tarot cards does have bookness. It functions as a working group of loose-leaf planar surfaces with related images conveying textual matter in pictorial form. Traditional knowledge has it that the Tarot is in fact a philosophical treatise. The planes of a book have a necessary relationship or they simply become a collection of arbitrary planes for which a book format is not essential for the conveyed meaning. Many arbitrarily devised objects such as chewed or dissolved texts in bottles, etc., may or may not be art objects, but they are not objects with bookness. The book-maker's art should be distinguished from the art-maker's book. The book is generally thought of as a compact, conveniently portable mobile object (although there can be giant books, made of any material). The book, as book, has multiple planes because all the text or material it contains would be too unwieldy in a single planar form. There are book-like objects or appearances and object-like books, but that is a different story."

Bibliography:

* The Ardent Image: Book illustration for adults in America, 1920 - 1942. Toledo, OH: Ward M. Canada Center, The University of Toledo, 1995.
* The Art of the Book and the Book Arts Press. Upper Arlington, OH: Logan Elm Press & Papermill, 1994.
* The Book as Art: Modern illustrated books and fine bindings, part 1. New York: Sotheby's 1995.
* The Book Stripped Bare: A survey of books by 20th century artists and writers. Hempstead, NY: The Emily Lowe Gallery and Hofstra University Library, 1973.
* Castleman, Riva. A Century of Artists Books. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1994.
* Polnische Buchkunst der Gegenwart. Warsaw: Verband der Polnischen Bildenen K√ľnstler, Bezirk Warschau, 1996.
* Dressing the Text: The fine press artists' book. Santa Cruz, CA: The Printers' Chappel of Santa Cruz, 1995.
* Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995.
* The New Bookbinder. London: Journal of Designer Bookbinders. Various issues.
* Ray, Kevin. Una Selva Oscura: Tom Philips's Inferno. St. Louis, MO: Special Collections, Washingotn University Libraries, 1997.
* Smith, Keith. Structure of the Visual Book, 3rd ed. Rochester, NY: Keith Smith Books, 1994.
* Smith, Keith. Text in the Book Format. Fairport, NY: The Sigma Foundation, 1989.
* Smith, Philip. Designer Bookbinders Newsletter. London: Summer 1996. Letter to the editor.
* Trusky, Tom. Some Zines 2: Alternative & Underground Artists & Eccentric Magazines & Micropresses. Boise, ID: Cold-drill books, Department of English, Boise State University, 1996.
* There are also an increasing number of resources relating to this subject on the Web. Links to most of these can be found at

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