On January 2, 2013, American composer Daniel Asia (University of Arizona) published an article in the Huffington Post‘s “Live” section, entitled “The Put On of the Century, or the Cage Centenary.” It was an assessment of the “music” of John Cage. The article apparently caused a genuine Aufruhr amongst liberals associated with Huffington Post, and elsewhere, but the whole affair finally generated an excellent, objective response by Kurt Ellenberger in the same Huffington section, January 23, entitled, “Red Pill, Blue Pill: Professor Asia’s Cardinal Sin.” Ellenberger, also a musician, evaluated the liberal response to Asia most accurately, if not heroically. Particularly insightful is the illustration used at the beginning of his article: James Tissot’s turn of the last century water color painting, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” (ca. 1902).
I regret that I myself did not respond sooner. Dan Asia was my composition teacher at the University of Arizona, and still my professional mentor.
Basically, Asia declares John Cage a historical functionary, rather than a serious musician or composer. Anyone who has studied contemporary classical music knows that ideas may often make sense in their historical context, in some semi-private college classroom dialogue, but, they have otherwise no merit whatsoever. Much of art, more of sin, as Edgar Allan Poe might say. Much of modern art is about neither idea nor technique. It is completely parasitical, or reactionary, to what was established by generations of careful development and achievement. The pretense is abundantly clear to the objective thinker. That pretense is criminal to the human mind.
Edgar Allan Poe
Moreover, Henry Pleasants pointed out nearly sixty years ago that contemporary classical music could only survive in the carefully protected environment of the academy. The ‘adjunct’ reality of the the state-funded theorists was the life-line of modern “classical” composers. See, The Agony of Modern Music (1955, rpt. Simon & Schuster, 1969). The same pretense was noted anew by Donal Henahan in the New York Times, January 6, 1991, “And So We Bid Farewell To Atonality.” Dan Asia’s recent commentary did strike an offensive chord in the ears of professional liberals, but, he is hardly in a lion’s den. Such self-congratulatory persecution is illusory, created by carefully protected liberal environments, like that of Huffington Post. The larger picture of reality never fits in the ‘cage’ of liberalism.
Interestingly, the whole conversation of art is inescapably social, and thus inevitably political. A modern German artist/set designer names Jörge Madlener once told me that he thought the European system of music was of uncertain effect. “If that system of central European musical development was all part of what led to the Holocaust, then the whole system needs to be reevaluated.” He later said, “We [i.e., Germans] are still digesting the Holocaust.” In other words, How in the world, and why, did such a thing every come about? This conversation was in 1998, at Natalie Synhaivsky‘s first Composers Conference, in Aspen Colorado.
Igor Stravinsky, composer, (1882-1971).
Asia lauds Stravinsky’s music for its faithful consideration of the audience, which makes Stravinsky more important than Schoenberg. I would add to this that, what probably contributed to Stravinsky’s orientation toward the audience was the newly developing art form of cinema. (Sometimes Stravinsky’s music present such abrupt changes of color, tone, tempo, and melody that it suggests the violence of a cartoon. (Some of Rachmaninoff’s music reflects the same kind of rip-roaring, swash-buckling, roller-coaster emotionalism as well. Consider his Third Symphony, for example.) Be that as it may, the entertainment industry surely affected the development of at least the successful, popular modern composers. If the people didn’t like the music, it was destined for the tiny echo chambers of the academy, where it would be recognized only by the ethereal vanities of professional commentators–composers or other college faculty.)
Classic liberal, John Cage (1912-1992).
However, it is a fact that Asia blatantly, or I should say, boldly associated art (music) with social mores and norms. For this, Ellenberger says, the liberals condemn Asia for the “cardinal sin” of making a judgment. It isn’t about opinion, but an objective, Aristotelian aesthetic. Not to make Greek the mother of all morals, the Hebrew Bible, but, the classical philosophers certainly considered beauty and truth essential for the training of free men (citizens). These things involved standards. Equality is bane of art. One might consider an equal distribution of value, but, art has standards, by definition–six thousand years of consistent definition. This modern tryst of artistic equality is a momentary glitch in history, in which the subjective and aimless is declared sovereign.
I wouldn’t say John Cage was immoral, but I would say he was utterly parasitic, or leech-like. This is the essence of liberalism, in any form. It is reactionary to that which cost genuine effort, skill, and planning. Artistic responsibility, we might call the true value in art. Without it, what is left is pretense, an affront to the soul, and quite destructive.
Finally, I offer the view of Jacob Neusner, not on art, but on plurality. Speaking of various religions (on the same campus), he pointed out the fallacy of “generic” or equal value religion. He wrote,
Generic religion evades responsibility…Religion that is purely personal and private makes no difference in the world; that is why people in a pluralistic society resort to the privatization of religion, insisting that it is whatever you personally make it to be.
Neusner is coping with the inevitable questions when one confronts a cultural buffet of theology on an international campus: if all religions are right, then none of them is particularly important, except in a social sense. If they are all equal, then none is particularly valuable, or particularly true. This approach denigrates the very concept of truth. See, Jacob Neusner,”Can You Be “Religious in General”? in Religious Studies and Theology, Vol. 12, Nos. 2 & 3, May & September, 1992. Something has to be right, or there is no right.
Jacob Neusner, b. 1932
Liberals (and Communists) want to say hierarchies of value cause war, but I say, the lack of standards causes chaos and tyranny. Freedom costs war. It is a demonic irony that the modern “freedom” in art should deny all standards and values. Such is not art at all, but an effort in political deconstruction.
Art is utterly political. Ask Ludwig van Beethoven about his 3rd Symphony, “Eroica.”