Anthony Burgess wrote "Is America Falling Apart?" to highlight the faults of America with the hope that America would change rather than disintegrate. The central theme of his essay was that America was too individualistic and would benefit from giving up some of that individualism in order to be a healthier society. "Where private ownership prevails, public amenities decay or are prevented from coming into being" (Burgess 287). His view of American individualism and how America needs to change is warped by his limited experience of large metropolitan areas and believing those experiences gave him an understanding of America.
One's perspective on many of the main American issues of debate changes depending on the geographic location in which one comes to an understanding of them. Burgess would have had a different perspective if he had avoided New York City and Los Angeles in order to experience America through suburbia or some of the thousands of rural towns in between the coasts. Public transportation, which Burgess complained about the lack of, is not even an option in the vast expanses in rural America. Other issues would have also taken a different shape. The issues that are important and how to deal with them changes depending on the area through which one experiences America.
Burgess properly identified the distrust of Americans to the corporate state, yet he failed to acknowledge that this distrust of the government was what made America great (288). This mistrust can be expressed in negative forms of individualism, which Burgess observed. It can also be expressed in positive forms, which Burgess failed to see; individualism by itself is not inherently evil. Rugged individualism that is necessary for life in rural America is much different than metropolitan individualism.
Burgess proposed more socialism as the solution for America (291). The dilemma is that when the government becomes involved in any area of life, freedoms are taken away. A recent example is a "freedom crisis" in Prince George County, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. The state attorney, a judge, and school officials believe that it is necessary for students to get vaccinated in order to attend school. They are forcing every student to get vaccinated or the parents will be sent to jail (Md.). This is the inevitable result of people allowing the government to make decisions for them. Freedoms are always relinquished when programs are implemented for the "greater good."
The crisis in Prince George County is an example which illustrates the danger of the conclusion Burgess came to as a result of his misunderstanding of America. The fear of Americans was realized: Government interference took away freedoms. This justifies the deeply-rooted anti-government sentiment that can be traced all the way back to the founding of this nation when the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, were written to protect the citizens from the government (United). This anti-government sentiment takes root all the way back to the early colonists: "The great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct" (Library).
The debate over how much freedom people should have in regards to the individual versus the "greater good" will continue through the ages as long as people join together to form communities. In asking what individual freedoms are indispensable, Burgess argued that more freedoms were dispensable than had already been relinquished. In so doing, he attempted to take away the pillar that made America the nation he so admired and enjoyed. Only with great trepidation do the American people give away any "right" to the government for the "greater good". If Burgess had accepted the great flaws that are chained to limited government along with noticing the great potential of the same limited government, then he would have been able to see clearly the greatness that freedom brings. Clinging at all costs to the idea of limited government and using that freedom to make a better world is what made America great. Implementing Burgess' ideas, which were developed from a narrow American perspective, causes it to fall apart.
Burgess, Anthony. "Is America Falling Apart?" The Norton Reader. 11th edn. Ed. Linda Peterson & John C. Brereton. New York: Norton, 2004. 286-291.
Library of Congress. America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century. 14 Feb. 2007. 25 Nov. 2007. .
"Md. Officials: Vaccinate Your Kids or Face Jail." Around the Watercooler. ABC News. 20 Nov. 2007 .
United States National Archives and Records Administration. The Bill of Rights. 25 Nov. 2007. .
When the composer John Cage was beginning to conceive of a new, all-encompassing approach to music that was to become epitomised by his 1952 piece 4'33", he was probably unaware of Alphonse Allais's Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, a musical composition dating from 1897 and consisting of 24 blank bars. He was also probably happily oblivious of the In futurum movement of Erwin Schulhoff's 1919 piano work Fünf Pittoresken, a score consisting entirely of meticulously notated rests.
These precursors in no way detract from Cage's achievement: to put it somewhat crassly, they were eyebrow-raising novelties (in the best possible sense), while 4'33" was a watershed not just in music but in art. The difference between them is the ideas they express: dadaist whimsy in Allais and Schulhoff, a rethinking of our notions of what music is in Cage (though Cage was himself no stranger to whimsy, dadaist or otherwise). 4'33", unlike these precursors, is defiantly not about silence (Cage's experience in an anechoic chamber convinced him that there was no such thing) but about creating a context in which to listen, to consider the stuff of music – sound. Cornelius Cardew summed up the Cageian philosophy: "Sound becomes music because of the way you listen to it." It can perhaps be said that Cage used the same technique as these earlier composers or, at a stretch, that he appropriated the same intangible material (that of an absence of conventional musical sounds). The intention of the piece, however, is utterly different. Does this matter if the effect of Funeral March or In Futurum in performance is the same? I think so. Before 1952, these pieces were musical vacuums: it is only in a post 4'33" world that these pieces can be heard (even if their composers didn't intend them to be).
There are many examples of artists unconsciously treading on the toes of their forebears and it is perhaps comforting that what appear to be some of the more remarkable feats of imagination are often not without precedent but rather, like 4'33", a refinement of an idea, transformed beyond recognition by the artist's vision. But of course, artists have been knowingly pilfering others' work for centuries too. Such pilfering dates back to the earliest days of western music and achieves its most obvious state in the form of the "theme and variations" in which a composer would cull a melody from another and let their own creative drive take over, transforming it and mining it for all it was worth.
Composers in the 20th century rather fell out of love with the theme and variations and using borrowed material became swampier ground, the distinction between the "found" material and the composer's own language distinctly hazier. Cage's approach set him apart. Take his piece Cheap Imitation of 1969. Here, the rhythmic structures of Erik Satie's Socrate are retained while the melodic pitches are reordered using chance techniques. Only this reordered melodic line remains and the result sounds like a sort of vague, half-remembered Satie, bracing in its austerity. In the set of Harmonies, from his larger work Apartment House 1776, Cage takes American hymn tunes from the time of the revolution and either subjects notes to chance-determined extension/diminution, thus smearing the previously clear cut harmonic language, or deletes notes entirely, decluttering it of its 18th-century tropes. The role of the composer here is much closer to that of editor, changing (or "correcting") the material, bringing the hymn tunes into line with Cage's tastes (something the composer found slightly uncomfortable as his work up until this point attempted to eschew the ego of the author). The whole of the borrowed work is presented, just devoid of some of its defining features.
Cage's most acknowledged legacy in the broader arts world lies in the Fluxus movement of the 1960s but artists today are still drawn to these ideas. Parallels may be drawn between Cage's technique in the Harmonies and that of the Swiss visual artist and comedian Ursus Wehrli. Wehrli's shtick is that art is "messy" and, as such, his work represents a long-overdue attempt to "tidy it up". So, when presented with a piece of mid-20th century abstraction, he separates all the elements of the image and arranges them by type into neat stacks (though his rigour sadly neglects him when it comes to Jackson Pollock). A crowded Bruegel street scene becomes eerily empty of life while the floorspace of Van Gogh's bedroom is cleared, all the detritus being stored on top of, and underneath, his bed: it's dadaist whimsy a go-go, certainly, but also recalls the Cage of the Harmonies. I'm not going to make any great claims for Wehrli as an artist – the work is fun, which is surely its guiding principle – but he certainly brings his own fastidious vision to these paintings: the works are strangely familiar but speak with a new (Swiss) accent. He also demonstrates the breadth of influence that Cage has had. What other composer has had an influence on comedy? Eric Morecambe could have been describing Cage's methods when he claimed to be "playing all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order".
Wehrli is an artist whose use of found material and intervention is transparent (and indeed relies on this transparency). Some rather fusty critics may take umbrage at his playful deconstruction of the canon but his working methods are nowhere near as potentially controversial as those of the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, one of the most striking contemporary writers. Goldsmith's works rely on transcription; pure, verbatim transcription. For example, his 2003 book Day consists of all the words, letters and numbers that appear in the 1 September 2000 edition of the New York Times. The idea of this work is to disassociate the reader from the original context of these words, to reframe the experience of reading a newspaper. In so doing the reader's attention is focused, not on the information the words were originally there to impart, but on the sound and rhythm of the language. Perhaps you've already spotted the similarities between this approach to language and Cage's approach to sound? The reader or listener – the "intelligent agent", as Goldsmith generously dubs us – becomes a conduit through which the work is created: they are, in fact, vital to the artistic process. The idea of the dormant, unread, unseen or unheard artwork has no place here: the act of performance is an act of creation in communion with the audience. Consider that Cardew comment again, that "sound becomes music because of the way you listen to it". If we were to substitute "sound" for "words" and "music" for "poetry", then I think we have a pretty good creed for Goldsmith's artistic approach, albeit one with slightly eccentric grammar.
This kind of working method, labour intensive as it is, does open the artist up to charges of plagiarism, but Goldsmith asks the question "what's wrong with that?" If it's a question of skill then this misses the point of what art is surely about. Art doesn't have to blind us with virtuosity to make us think or feel. And what in the world isn't "found" material? If most artistic endeavour can be seen as a selection and reorganisation from a limited pool of material (the words of a language, the gradations of colour on the spectrum, the notes of a scale) then the answer is not very much. Who was the last person to create the stuff of which their art is made? And does it really matter? The shuffling of these finite elements has, throughout history produced an unimaginable number of unique works (I'm reminded of the books that make up Borges's "Library of Babel"). "We don't need the new sentence, the old sentence reframed is good enough," claims Goldsmith.
So, in 2014, Cage's 102nd year, his ideas are still relevant and vital to contemporary culture: Wehrli and Goldsmith are by no means exceptions in drawing inspiration from him. His centenary year inevitably saw a great outpouring of critical discourse and he is, I think it's uncontroversial to say, one of the most important artists, let alone composers, of modern times. Perhaps it's all been said before. But then... hasn't everything?