John Cage: Once more without feeling

John Cage's forays into visual art are arbitrary and emotionless – they're also frustrating, says Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Culture

The silence, of course, you know. His work called 4'33" is one of the most famous compositions in the history of modern music. You may have never actually heard it. I have never heard it myself. But this brief, three-movement piano piece, written in 1952, where the player sits at the keyboard, following a score, and plays nothing at all – this has a become a monument in the avant-garde pantheon. John Cage is a name still to conjure with.

He lived between 1912-92, and he left many more memorable achievements. He invented the "prepared piano". He introduced the I-Ching to music, using its chance methods in his compositions. He worked and lived with the choreographer Merce Cunningham. He became an expert in mushrooms. His poetry specialised in one particular form, called mesostics. (Look them up. They are extremely easy.)

His character is maybe more familiar than most of his music. In interviews, you hear his soft, even dreamy voice. In photos, there's his big crazy letterbox grin. He's like a Zen Muppet, implacably euphoric and benign. And then there is his motto: "I have nothing to say, and I am saying it." Cage believed in a purely non-creative art. No personality. No feelings. No expression. No purpose. No choice. No skills. No taste. Strange, that such a charismatic personality should claim to have none.

Or perhaps not so strange. He played a prophetic role. And today his influence is more on art than on music. So we should be taking note of another of his strings, if that's the word – his own visual art. He only took it up in his last 15 years, and I've hardly seen it at all. But you can see it now, and in a large showing, whose tour has just started at Baltic in Gateshead. Every Day is a Good Day: that's how its title runs, another Cage-y motto. What would it look like?

Cage's music itself is certainly visual, and his scores are often beautiful. They arrive through drawings or diagrams or maps. They look as if they have priority over music, though Cage denied it. At any rate, his patterns are superimposed on stave pages, and they use chance procedures and random marks – for example, the constellations of the stars were methods on staves. These compositions are very neat, very clear.

And the art? First of all, come at the exhibition's hang. It looks random but also neat. It is laid out by chance procedures. Altogether, the show has a stock of 105 works – and also 30 invisible works, "blanks", each one given a notional shape and size, and which occupy wall space too. The walls themselves are given 920 possible positions. Not all of the works are being shown simultaneously.

At the moment there are 80 chosen works and some blanks too. They're hung all over the walls, high and low, close or wide. There's plenty of empty space. (And because some of the works are very feint and very high, they become almost hard to read.) And then, every two weeks, the hang will be altered, to an extent. Works and blanks will be moved, swapped, added, subtracted. The arrangements are all chosen by strict chance.

OK. And now scan the works. Cage's drawings, prints and watercolours don't immediately suggest method, and they don't recall his scores either. If they had a common character, it's that Cage always rejected the wild, masculine intensity of Abstract Expressionism. They are modest and quiet. But he used very various media and looks. Playful zigzag marks are sometimes made of straights, circles and curly knots. Or there is very dense and blindfold knitting of lines. There are open forms, drawn in outlines around the edges of stones. There are smoke-marks made from burned pages. Wide brushes are stroked across a surface. Et al.

Now, these works are often based on chance. Take an individual piece, for example, and see how it is made through such methods. It's one of his late "outlines" pictures, where the stones are painted by feathers and untypically colourful. The I-Ching is used at every level, except one. The stones are chosen. Their number is chosen. Their positioning is chosen. The feathers are chosen. The colour pots are chosen. But in the feather-painting around these stones, Cage's hand delivers swirling marks, and they can be very free.

So some of his works are chance-ruled, and some of them are chaotic, and some of them are both, and all of them are doing away with feelings, expression, purpose, choice, skills, taste, or they're trying to. But you couldn't be certain, I think, if you hadn't been told, that these goals were actually in operation. And the question is: how much does it matter, anyway? What do you want from this art?

Obviously, you can take a standard approach to Cage's art: some things are better and some things are worse. The drawings with the outlined stones – linear, spare, faint, and often overlapping – are attractive. They make subtle, ghostly marks. The playful graphic fields are quite good too. The smoky ones are OK. There are some hopeless stripy patterns; and likewise the wide brushes are very weak. But then, we're not surely supposed to have any judgement at all. Every day is a good day: and every work is a good work too. How do you deal with that?

Well, the hang itself is very satisfactory. And when you are not paying attention to the individual works, but only the ensemble, chance scatter is often the happiest solution. Almost any grouping, almost any random pattern, feels good. And even when you are paying attention to the individual works, this can work too.

Cage offered this encouragement. "In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring at all but very interesting." It's not bad psychology. For the gallery visitor, it becomes a trance, a daydream, a dwalm, for a while.

But then there are times when you encounter pure frustration. This aesthetic is whimsy or baloney or futility. Cage's works, at best, are clearly very limited. You can call them tasteful or neutral, interesting or boring. But they are essentially insipid. And it's not a surprise: his chance and chaotic effects are never risky. They have no grip, no stake. They're perfectly pleasant, but designed – non-designed – to make pictures that you're not meant to look at.

Or take another of Cage's mottos, which was: "I think laughter is preferable to tears". Sure, when it's a matter of indifference, we may as well choose laughter rather than tears. But when difficulty and pain arises, that's another thing. Laughter looks like not caring. Why is he so resistant to admit trouble? How can anyone's art believe in total acceptance? Could life really be like this? Come to that, is it even funny?

Of course, there's something admirable about Cage. He takes it all the way, all the way to nothing. He is a charming figure. He isn't a monster. But turn to Cage's art itself. You'll get more reward from his heirs. Take Richard Long's circular walks, say, or Martin Creed's The lights going on and off. These works have a proper bite, a succinct self-containment – in fact, from Cage's point of view, they're almost stimulatingly vigorous.

John Cage: Every Day Is a Good Day, Baltic, Gateshead ( ) to 5 Sept, free; then touring to Kettle's Yard, Cambridge; Museum & Art Gallery, Huddersfield; Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow; De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill-on-Sea