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John Cage on Human Nature, Constructive Anarchy, and How Silence Helps Us Amplify Each Other’s Goodness

“It is essential that we be convinced of the goodness of human nature, and we must act as though people are good.”

Legendary composer, writer, artist, and Zen Buddhism scholar John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992), who pioneered the aesthetics of silence, was animated by a rich inner life and an extraordinary generosity of spirit. Even as he rose to worldwide prominence and became one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated artists, Cage continued to honor interview requests from major media and small-town student newspapers alike. In the 1987 compendium Conversing with Cage (public library), artist and critic Richard Kostelanetz sifts through half a century of interviews to cull the beloved composer’s enduring insight on music, art, power, and life.

Of particular timeliness today are Cage’s ideas about human nature, art as a form of constructive anarchy, and silence as a counterpoint to mutual reactivity — something that helps us enlarge rather than contract each other’s goodness.

Reflecting on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of love and nonviolent resistance, Cage — a self-described anarchist — tells one interviewer in 1972:

There is a tendency in the West to be convinced of the badness of human nature… It is essential that we be convinced of the goodness of human nature, and we must act as though people are good. We have no reason to think that they are bad.

He acknowledges that people are capable of perpetrating evil, but argues that rather than inherent badness, such acts are the product of perilous social programming. Speaking the very same year that Leo “Dr. Love” Buscaglia made his visionary case for reimagining education, Cage points to the factory model of formal education as the training ground for the power-grubbing tendencies that fester into acts of evil:

The whole involvement with power, with profit, and so forth have made it so that we have taught people to be bad. But by nature they are good. Do you see? So we must simply change our educational system. In the United States, everything is done to make people as bad as possible. And the way you do that is the following: If you have forty children, you give them all the same book to read. You could have them read forty different books, and that would be beautiful; but instead you give them one book to read, and they must all read the same one. Then they must pass an examination to see which one did the best. That immediately reduces human nature, because the one who does badly begins to think of copying what the one who did well did — in other words, stealing. Then the one who begins to think of winning the second time, and so we produce a society that is not bad by nature but that has been taught to be bad. I think that it is astonishing, with all that education, how good people are.

But human goodness, Cage argues in a different interview a decade later, is a collective accomplishment — much like external influences can train us out of our inherent goodness, they can also amplify it. Human beings, he reminds us, can goad one another toward evil or ennoble each other with the belief that we are, if given the chance, inherently good. (Two decades earlier, another legendary composer — Leonard Bernstein — had made a breathtaking case for the same idea.) Cage illustrates this with a poignant example:

I noticed in New York, where the traffic is so bad and the air is so bad … you get into a taxi and very frequently the poor taxi driver is just beside himself with irritation. And one day I got into one and the driver began talking a blue streak, accusing absolutely everyone of being wrong. You know he was full of irritation about everything, and I simply remained quiet. I did not answer his questions, I did not enter into a conversation, and very shortly the driver began changing his ideas and simply through my being silent he began, before I got out of the car, saying rather nice things about the world around him.

This encounter, of course, calls to mind the raw material of Cage’s best-known art — the application of silence as a creative force. In our present culture — a Rube Goldberg machine of reactivity, under the tyranny of which we often react to reactions instead of responding to the stimuli themselves — this idea bears many more layers of radical urgency.

Art from ‘Notations 21,’ a collection of artists’ interpretations of Cage’s music notation. Click image for more.

In another interview, Cage considers the role of art in effecting such nonreactive revolution:

It would be good if we could make our changes nonviolently. That’s how changes in art take place. The reason why we know we could have nonviolent social change is because we know we have nonviolent art change. We mustn’t believe that you can only change by killing because you can also change by creating.

He revisits this notion in a 1981 interview, invoking his mentor, the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki:

Art as I see it has to do with changing the mind, turning it away from the confines of ego (art in my opinion is not self-expression) and getting it to flow outward through sense perceptions full circle (the relative, the absolute) and inward through the dreams (Suzuki: the structure of the mind and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism).

But, having long believed that the best way to complain is to do something constructive, I was most captivated by a remark Cage makes in a 1972 interview as he reflects on the pointlessness of protest:

My notion of how to proceed in a society to bring change is not to protest the thing that is evil, but rather to let it die its own death. And I think we can state that the power structure is dying because it cannot make any inspiring statements about what it is doing. I think that protests about these things, contrary to what has been said, will give it the kind of life that a fire is given when you fan it, and that it would be best to ignore it, put your attention elsewhere, take actions of another kind of positive nature, rather than to continue to give life to the negative by negating it.

I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell, who wrote half a century before Cage: “Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”

Complement the wisdom-packed Conversing with Cage with a lesson in listening from Cage himself, Martin Luther King, Jr. on the six pillars of nonviolent resistance, and Pablo Neruda’s beautiful ode to silence, then revisit this wonderful read on Cage, Buddhism, and the inner life of artists.

Published September 15, 2015




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