Don’t Blame it on ZEN

The Way of John Cage AND Friends

By Amber Sesnick

(1912-1992), a leading voice of the post-war avant-garde, is widely regarded as one of the most provocative and influential American composers of the 20th century. But his influence reaches far beyond the world of music. A composer, philosopher, poet, visual artist, amateur mycologist, and longtime Buddhist devotee, Cage has had an enormous impact on generations of artists, from those who worked with and around him to those working today. Whether composing music, performing, or creating visual art, Cage’s compositions were guided by the belief that as the artist, it was not his role to dictate the outcome of the work, but rather to allow for the influence of chance and indeterminacy.

“Don’t Blame it on ZEN: The Way of John Cage & Friends,” on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Jacksonville, traces Cage’s work and legacy, exploring his unique approach to art making that continues to live on in the work of artists today. This interactive and multidisciplinary exhibition features not only the work of Cage himself, but that of artists who knew and worked with him, and those who have followed his footsteps including Maria Chavez, Philip Corner, Andrew Deutsch, Ann Hamilton, Christian Marclay, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Robert Rauschenberg, among many others on display in the exhibition. 

The Influence of Zen

John Cage was born in 1952 in Los Angeles, California. First experiencing music through childhood piano lessons, he would go on to study at Pomona College and UCLA; explore the art, music, and architecture of Europe; and learn under the direct tutelage of American composers Adolph Weiss, Henry Cowell, and late-20th century master Arthur Schoenberg.

Cage discovered early on that the music he wanted to create was distinctly different from the music of his time. He initially worked with mathematical formulas to create compositions, but unhappy with the outcome he began to experiment with unorthodox instruments such as household items. 

His devotion to Zen Buddhism and his study of Indian philosophy led him to begin composing aleatoric or change-controlled music. He employed the I Ching—an ancient Chinese divination text that uses chance operations—as his main tool for composing. This engagement of chance, in combination with his rejection of any hierarchy of sound, enabled him to remove his own aesthetic preferences and prejudices, in essence freeing his work from the will of the composer. 

In the early 1950s Cage encountered Zen Buddhism through the works of Aldous Huxley and the Buddhist scholar and thinker Daisetsu Teitar Suzuki. Though he did not practice in the traditional sense, the philosophy of Zen Buddhism greatly informed his life and the way he worked, building harmony between his mundane daily responsibilities and his creative practice. However, while it played a substantial part in the way he lived and viewed the world, he wanted to make clear that the Zen philosophy was not responsible for his actions. In his own words, “What I do, I do not wish [to be] blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.” 

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Author: Arbus

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