Sarah JM Kolberg on John Cage

John Cage, Lithograph B from Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, 1969, a group of 10 related works comprising two lithographs and 8 sets of plexigrams; lithograph hand painted on black Fabriano rag paper, 27 ½ x 40 inches (69.9 x 101.6 cm). University at Buffalo Art Galleries: Promised Gift of David K. Anderson. © Courtesy of the John Cage Trust / Photo: UB Art Galleries
John Cage, Lithograph B from Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, 1969, a group of 10 related works comprising two lithographs and 8 sets of plexigrams; lithograph hand painted on black Fabriano rag paper, 27 ½ x 40 inches (69.9 x 101.6 cm). University at Buffalo Art Galleries: Promised Gift of David K. Anderson. © Courtesy of the John Cage Trust / Photo: UB Art Galleries

The work shown here is just one element of John Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (1969), a series of compositions comprising eight Plexigrams—each itself eight sheets of silk-screened Plexiglas, mounted in a slotted wooden base and accompanied by one of two different lithographs. Fragments of words, letters, and images are scattered across the surface of each component, as seen the lithograph on view here. Depending on the viewer’s angle before the assembled work, aspects of each pane line up with or fall away from those on other panes. Not only does each viewer’s experience of the work differ, but one individual viewer can have multiple experiences of the work depending on the angle of view, a metaphor as much about politics as it is about art.

Created by Cage as a memorial to fellow artist and friend Marcel Duchamp, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel echoes Cage’s practice of mobilizing silence in his musical compositions to erase the typical power relationship between artist and viewer. By allowing silence to enter the performance, Cage brings the unique circumstances of each listening context into play, thereby letting sounds he cannot control supersede those he can. For Cage and his fellow homosexual artists, silence served another crucial function: as a form of covert resistance to the dominant culture’s totalizing control. Recognizing that any actions perceived as openly oppositional would only elicit further repressive impositions of power, Cage and his cohort developed strategies, like silence, that allowed forms of camouflaged dissent, evading control by not being openly resistant.

As Cold War-era homosexuals learned to disguise their authentic selves behind a publicly acceptable front of heteronormativity, a less pernicious form of this self-silencing strategy was being adopted by legions of “men in grey flannel suits.” As William H. Whyte’s best-selling book of the era The Organization Man explores, the code of conformity imposed on American life in the ‘50s, particularly in corporate culture, necessitated if not actual conformity, then at least the outward appearance of it. Corporate workers quickly learned that to get ahead they must cultivate a carefully crafted public self that might be quite different from one’s more authentic private self. As a result, Jonathan D. Katz argues, heteronormative America was being similarly trained in the value of the closet as a mode of survival.1

The Cold War politics of selfhood demanded a practice of not saying. In the opening of his 1949 essay “Lecture on Nothing,” Cage writes, “I am here, and there is nothing to say,” and then, in typical Cageian fashion, continues for 575 more lines. His point, however, is not that there is literally nothing to say, but rather that he wants to draw our attention to the dynamics of power inherent in language and, in relinquishing this power, to transfer agency for meaning-making to the reader. At the heart of Cage’s aesthetic is a deeply ethical political project. In refusing the normal majority/minority operative binaries, Cage erases the prevailing hierarchical dialectic of power, creating the possibility of multiple and shifting hierarchies. Elsewhere, Cage speaks against communication, in favor of conversation. Communication entails a unidirectional flow of ideas, a message to be conveyed and received, as opposed to conversation, which allows for the free exchange of ideas. Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel is a conversation with the viewer, who creates meaning from the various word and image fragments Cage has provided.

Cage frequently used chance operations in creating his works in order to eliminate his personal tastes, which he saw as necessarily delimited by what he already knew. Here the placement of words and images, their size, and their color were determined by the I Ching, an ancient Chinese chance-based system of divination. Devoid of any specific focus or narrative, the resulting surface invites the viewer’s eye to wander, taking in word and image fragments and reworking them in endless combinations. In this way Cage silences his own voice and allows the viewer to complete the work. In the context of the Cold War, the notion of individual freedom was a conservative fundamental idea, one that ideologically differentiated us from the Soviet Union’s forced collectivity. By offering the viewer freedom to make meaning, Cage deftly camouflages his radical freedom in the terms of America’s most fundamental claim about itself.

Whether in his musical or visual compositions, Cage created opportunities for the production of a new form of subjectivity, one in which the viewer is not merely a consumer, but an active producer of meaning. This is the element that gives these works such subversive power. Cage enables viewers to perceive themselves and their relation to power in new ways and, in imagining these new relations, to discover new means of eluding power’s control. As is often the case with Cage, not saying anything at all said more than saying something in the first place, since the absence of statement forced the audience to embrace the freedom to make meanings on their own. As he wrote, “I have nothing to say, and I’m saying it.”

1. Jonathan D. Katz, “Passive Resistance: On the Success of Queer Artists in Cold War American Art” L’image 3 (December 1996): 119-142.

John Cage Biography

John Cage (b. 1912, Los Angeles, CA; d. 1992, New York, NY) was a singularly inventive, highly influential, and much beloved American composer, writer, philosopher, and visual artist. For two years he attended Pomona College, Claremont, California (1930). Beginning around 1950, and throughout the passing years, he departed from the pragmatism of precise musical notation and circumscribed ways of performance. His principal contribution to the history of music is his systematic establishment of the principle of indeterminacy: by adapting Zen Buddhist practices to composition and performance, Cage succeeded in bringing both authentic spiritual ideas and a liberating attitude of play to the enterprise of Western art. His most enduring, indeed notorious, composition, influenced by Robert Rauschenberg’s all-black and all-white paintings, is the radically tacet 4’33″ (1952). Cage held his first solo exhibitions at the Stable Gallery, New York (1958), and at Galleria Schwarz, Milan (1971). Subsequently, exhibitions were organized on his work at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1977), at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1982), and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania (1982). Cage collaborated with the Carnegie International to create Changing Installation (1991) for the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. Cage curated a ground-breaking show of his own work entitled Rolywholyover A Circus at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, California (1993) that traveled to the Menil Collection, Houston; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York; the Art Tower Mito, Japan; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. Cage’s most recent solo exhibitions have been held at Galerie Stihl, Waiblingen, Germany (2009); the New Arts Program, Kutztown, Pennsylvania (2009); Henie Onstad Art Centre, Høvikodden, Norway (2010); the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasglow, Scotland (2010); BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, United Kingdom (2010); Museu d’Art Contemporani, Barcelona (2010); SCHUNCK, Heerlen, Holland (2010); National Academy Museum, New York (2012) and traveled to the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014). More information about his work can be found at

Sarah JM Kolberg Biography
Sarah JM Kolberg is a PhD candidate in the Department of Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo specializing in the American and French post-WWII period, with additional areas of focus in narratology, queer theory, and queer subjectivity in experimental film. Her dissertation will focus on the Nouveaux Réalistes. She has won numerous awards as both a writer and independent film producer, holds a joint MA in English and Film, and will complete her MFA in Media Study this year.