John Cage


Dear Artist,

What a remarkable clearing house this twice-weekly letter is. After that last one about building a factory, this old factory computer was backed up with creative folks who positively get off on the factory life. Almost no one disagreed with me. This could be a bad thing. Truckloads of related items came in as well. Louise Nel Phillips deposited John Cage’s “Rules for Students and Teachers.” Here they are:


John Cage’s Variations VII

Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

Consider everything an experiment.

Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

Break rules. Even your own rules. Leave plenty of room for X quantities.

John Cage (1912-1992) was a composer, print maker, performance artist, writer, philosopher, editor, teacher, mushroom expert, collaborator and poet. Fact is, John Cage had a lot of fun in his factory. Considered one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, he produced works with one note, no notes, notes by chance, and a noted organ composition that takes 639 years to play.

Thinking about the life and “happenings” of John Cage, it’s not difficult to see that joy, imagination and brilliance flow from factories. “Life,” he said, “is a workshop.”


Water Walk
1960 performance by John Cage on the TV game show I’ve got a secret

Best regards,


PS: “Music is purposeless play, an affirmation of life, not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” (John Cage)

Esoterica: During a joint concert of Cage’s “Etude for Piano,” the video artist Nam June Paik cut off Cage’s tie and then washed his hair with shampoo. Performance art is not limited to public galleries. Of his university life Cage wrote, “I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.” Cage’s favorite saying was “nichi nichi kore konichi” or, “every day is a good day.”


Trouble with attribution
by Trish Johnston, Atlanta, GA, USA

I love your letters, Robert, and learn so much from them, but I have to question the attribution of this material to John Cage. As far as I know these “Rules” were the work of Corita Kent, (1918-1986), serigrapher and teacher extraordinare, in which she included a quote from John Cage. The calligrapher David Mekelburg produced them in hand-carved stamped lettering and they were published in Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit, a book begun by Corita with her former student Jan Steward and finished by Steward after Corita’s death. (Bantam 1992).

(RG note) Thanks, Trish. We stand corrected and I definitely want to give the correct attribution. It seems Rule 10 is Cage’s.

There are 2 comments for Trouble with attribution by Trish Johnston

From: Joyce Luna — Sep 12, 2008

So glad you retrieved those ‘rules’ from being attributed to John Cage. They sounded like one of the thousands of self-help and encouragement posters that clog our lives with their banality. Cheers

From: Louise Nel Phillips — Sep 18, 2008

Ah Robert, John Cage never seems to avoid controversy even in death. Sorry but many sources attribute the rules to John Cage. I even checked tonite. I still like them — whoever wrote them!


John Cage at Pomona College
by Ann Chaikin, Bellingham, WA, USA


“Elizabeth Park Cherub”
oil on canvas, 18 x 14 inches
by Ann Chaikin

The university that John Cage referred to was Pomona College. I met him there in the 1960s. So though he may have felt “the institution was not being run correctly” when he wrote the quote, he did return there to meet students and to read and perform for us. I remember him as a friendly man with very interesting ideas. He showed us a book he had published with two threads of information printed on top of each other in two different colors. He also played his piece that consisted of the pianist sitting at the piano for a period of time without playing a note while we listened to the sounds around us. I learned from him that music is in the air all around us, not just written down on paper. I learned to listen more creatively and see more deeply. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to meet him.


Wise appreciative remarks
by Suzanne Geller, La Jolla, CA, USA


watercolor painting, 24 x 26 inches
by Suzanne Geller

I took two post-grad years at the New School For Social Research in N.Y.C. (now called New School University). I took painting with Kunioshi, Julian Levi, Stuart Davis when they were all starving – also 2 wonderful years of Art History with the late Meyer Shapiro. I also took Contemporary Music Appreciation and several of our lectures were with a “start-up” named John Cage. He invited the class to his apartment overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge — absolutely all-white ‘little furniture’ — we sat on the floor and he played us a composition on his all-white piano. It consisted of one note, held forever, till it faded away and THAT was it. I have to say that it was truly boring… But we all tried to be sophisticated and spouted wise appreciative remarks about the one-note piece.


Back against the wall
by Kathleen Thurston, Cincinnati, OH, USA


“Burchardi Church Organ”
ASLSP in 75 minutes

About Cage’s organ composition: has anyone attempted to start to play it through? Couldn’t it be passed from one organist/pianist to another through time? Hmmmm… might not be seamless, but after the 639 years, accomplished.

“Life is a workshop.” Good enough. For many, however, life is more of a sweatshop and working at something as “frivolous” as art is to not make “good” use of time. So some of us work and get nowhere, but don’t know what will change this. Right now everyone struggles financially, so it seems. My family has been irritated with me for asking for “loans” they know I can’t repay (yet). The mysterious nameless thing is moving inside me and I desire the time and space to “work.” But creating isn’t working, it is sheer joy. Because I have no cash, I find myself feeling like the writer-sister from Allen’s “Hannah and her Sisters” of the ’80s… always needy until the talent finally pays off. I feel as if my back is against a wall and the only way to move myself away from it is to produce.

(RG note) Thanks, Kay. There are shorter and longer versions of Cage’s piece. One performance took only 72 minutes. The longer version has not yet been fully played of course — its proposed length is determined by the number of “changes” it would take to pull the whole thing off. Talk about art being “long.” Regarding “back against the wall,” Cage was also a master at the fine art of getting other people — Universities, foundations, government agencies, etc. — to pay him to have fun.


John Cage happenings
by Roger Dortmueller, Dresden, Germany

Sage advice from John Cage. Rule Number 8 in this list is particularly useful. “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.” Many artists fail to understand and build the idea into their processes that there is a time for flow and a time for contemplation. An artist may yin and yang back and forth during execution, of course, but with self-trust comes the ability to just let it happen and think about it afterwards. Cage was big on happenings — the word was coined around his actions and thus began a trend that is still with us. The idea of happenings was not evident in the Renaissance, people then took art seriously and tried to improve themselves. In Cage, silence and shampoo were both art, and worthy of attention.


Be kind
by Jerry Conrad, WA, USA


“Alita Pearl”
original pottery
by Jerry Conrad

I’ve only recently been getting your missives thanks to Bruce Ulrich but I had an urge to reply to this one. I’m reminded of a wonderful correspondence from that wonderful promoter Tyson Underwood. He sent a quote from a source I don’t know and it goes like this:

“We need to train ourselves to be kind to each other. Meeting the public is hard work and it takes tough people who are determined to survive and thrive. Keep in mind that art shows are high stress times for all of us, partly because many things need to come together in a very short period of time and partly because showing one’s craft taps deep into the hopes and fears we carry just beneath the hard shell we have all evolved to deal with the business side of art. I regard to your fellow exhibitors, keep in mind that some artists are too fragile for this world and have been drawn to the life of the artist because it offers an illusion of escape from the burdens of reality. They are often lovely people and they often produce beautiful work. But they are ill-suited for the life of the artist. They break easily under the strain and will, alas, not be with us for long. Do what you can to GENTLY (my caps) speed them on their way.”


Waking up to how we are living
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA


“Railroad Bridge Corner”
acrylic on panel
44 x 10 inches
by Tiit Raid

The John Cage letter is one of my favorites because it points to a basic and often overlooked truth: for EVERYTHING we do can fit into the quote, “Music is… simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”

Isn’t that the purpose of everyday life? To wake up to how we are living it. Because truly, everything we do and say, our feelings and thoughts and beliefs are indications of not only who we are, but also of what life is about. And, when he says “Every day is a good day,” this is how we need to approach our everyday life, for it is affirming and puts us on a positive road to learning from and experiencing the life we are living.




What’s a professional?
by Kim Slocum, Warren, PA, USA


“Thunder Hooves”
original painting
5 x 7 inches
by Kim Slocum

I recently read an article in an art magazine about an artist and his education. He wrote that he was an apprentice to an artist in Europe (and he also lived in Europe). It made me think that only in Europe can you still be considered a professional artist having done that. In the USA if you do not have a formal education in art you are considered an outside artist no matter who you’ve studied under and what your accomplishments may be. I was wondering what your thoughts were on this.

(RG note) Thanks, Kimberly. In most of the Western World you are recognized as a professional when you do professional work. This can come about via apprenticeship, schooling or self-actualization. Unlike dentistry, for example, you don’t really need to go to a special school. Art is the most democratized of professions.



Overwhelming solitude
by Anonymous

I’ve just returned from a four day trip up north at a cottage. Some friends were invited however none could attend, so that left me on my own. It was quiet, peaceful (not even a radio), and a reflective time. By the end of day 2 I was wondering what the heck I was doing up there by myself. Testing to see if I could handle it? What’s “it”? The quiet got me thinking too much. This being the first time I’d done this sort of thing, I was overwhelmed by all that I “should” do: look, think, reflect, sketch, squint, paint, have a beer, snooze when I wanted to, explore the territory, explore my inner being, sketch and paint some more. I was rattled, the weather was miserable and I came home after 2 days. I felt I had let myself down. Is this normal? I am going to do this again in 3 weeks when the fall colours are exploding and the cottage will be much, much colder; it will be a little rougher but I have this feeling that it is something I need to do.

(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. The first time I went solo in a cabin I started to go nuts after about three days. Even though I had plenty of canvas and paint, I began, like you, to question my very being. I solved my distress by chopping a half dozen cords of wood. It was a remote island, in winter, and I had no way of getting off. When my friend finally arrived at a predetermined time to pick me off in his amphibian, I said “Never again.” Within a few months I decided to try a similar situation. My neuroses eased up this time, and I realized I was going to make it. After a few of these experiences I have become positively hooked on the concept. The outrageous selfishness of it all, however, is both negative and positive. My biggest concern is that others may be worried about me. But silence is golden. Creativity flourishes. The smell of private wood-smoke blows cobwebs from the brain.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for John Cage



From: Bernard Victor — Sep 12, 2008
From: Jayson Phillips — Sep 12, 2008

I always respect your opinions, even if they don’t always resonate with me. Perhaps your last letter made a very unimpeachable point: Do the work or, to borrow a more succinct view from Nike, “just do it.” One cannot base a career or even a portfolio on what one intends to do (smacks of “counting one’s chickens”). And one cannot become proficient in one’s work until enough work has been executed. Great posts, Robert.

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Sep 16, 2008

I loved the letter from Solitude. I used to think I functioned well in solitude until I was on a camping trip in Montana. My husband and his son went on a 2-day fly fishing trip leaving me alone in the camp ground over the week end. I sketched, painted and read, went into town to shop, the weather was glorious, the scenery was to die for and I was miserable! My paintings were completely uninspired and I was never so glad to see two fisher men drive up on Sunday evening! I was very disappointed in myself and felt I could have used the opportunity better.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Sep 16, 2008

Is a ‘retreat’ selfish? A few days to alone with one’s self?

I’ve lived alone most of my life, and in some very isolated places. I haven’t been called selfish for doing that. I love trees and fields, and the ocean. Someone might have to shake me back to the present if I was at a concert of one note that faded away, my consciousness would have followed it.

People do make comments that seem to reflect thought on their part that they would be horribly lonely without other humans around. For myself, I am most lonely in a city. Or if I have a boyfriend, and I can tell he’d rather be with someone else.

Perhaps many don’t give themselves time for themselves, and the world around them. I become very worn out being around people for long, even my best friends. I do seem to notice more of what’s around me than others do, a great tree, a new flower along side the road as I’m driving by, the color of the afternoon light on the mountains. Normal every day beauty seems to go unnoticed by most. They seem to be concentrating on that rattling little yakkity yak inside their mind, which is usually negative, and which warps perception.

A friend got high compliment for a painting of a wine bottle. She commented that he’d seen lots of wine bottles and had never commented about the translucent glass before.

Is it that we, as artists, must communicate what we see, hear, feel, to the Masses because they are numb?

From: Doreen Shann, Hunt, Texas — Sep 16, 2008

I read Overwhelming Solitude with interest. My husband’s job took him to Denver, Co. for 4 months and I went along. When we returned home, he was asked to go back for another 4 months. I chose to stay home for 3 weeks as I had projects and things to do and take care of. I am now into my 3rd week and today I am going nuts. Yes, I painted and planned, did my projects, read, watched TV. cleaned out stuff. But sitting on the deck in the evening in the beautiful Hill Country of Hunt, Texas watching the deer eat the corn I put out when you are alone is bittersweet. It is not as enjoyable when you have no-one to share it with. The only time I get off the hill is to go to physical therapy for a shoulder I had surgery on for a torn rotator cuff. Left shoulder; good thing I am right handed and could still paint or I really would have gone off the deep end. Anyway, I have had my “alone” time and now I am ready to go back to Denver with my husband for 4 months. You know you are sick of being alone when you look forward to physical therapy.

From: thierry henry — Sep 21, 2008







I see it my way

oil painting
by Kiki Kaye, Jalisco, Mexico


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