John Cage and the Beauty of Non-Intentionality

newmusicbox November 17, 2007


Cageís ideas can be very problematic, and some might be plain wrong.  Historically speaking, aesthetic theories are always over-extended into deadening orthodoxy, and Cage probably did this even with his own ideas.  But surely you would agree that he also opened our minds to many concepts that are deeply valuable. 


A lack of intentionality in auditory and visual stimuli can sometimes be very beautiful.  Why do we so love the rhythmic sound of wind chimes?  The rustling of leaves?  The chaos of a flock of birds singing?  Why do the random patterns of the stars in the sky so please us?  What would handmade clay pots be if they didnít look handmade?  Without elements of chaos much of what we perceive as beauty would not be possible. 


And think about music.  Why do the imperfect, organic rhythms of humans playing instruments often seem so much more humane than the mechanical perfection of computers?  Why are no two notes a human plays ever alike? 


And what about the great jazz musicians?  Even though we can discern the profundity of this music, its is often exquisite exactly due to its chance elements.  Music, by its very nature, contains elements of chaos that are often beyond analysis or definition.


Non-intentionality also brings into being many aspects of human consciousness that are fundamental to artistic expression, such as certain kinds of religious experience, as well as the irrational sides of our human psyche, like dreams and emotions.


Non-intentionality is not opposed to humanism; it is actually a fundamental part of our humanity.  Without elements of non-intentionality music as we know it, create it, and love it, could not exist.  So is it completely invalid for at least some artists to explore regions of non-intentionality in art? 


William Osborne