Alison Knowles discusses Nam June Paik and John Cage

Allison Knowles recently sent me this summary of her presentation for a panel discussion about John Cage and Nam June Paik:

Zone: Chelsea Center for the Arts
Panel Discussion: CAGE NAM JUNE

Notes about Cage and Paik;
Alison Knowles

I cannot imagine more unlike artists to compare which is what makes it so interesting.
Paik the western man and John the Eastern man. They were well positioned to try and understand each other. Each producing so much for the cultural pot of the time and coming from such philosophical opposite places.

Nam June extremely admired John, as a great pioneer whom he wished to know. He made a date and arrived at his hotel in Cologne. John was busy washing his white performance shirt in the kitchen sink " isn't it wonderful" he said surely with his wide grin and raspy laugh " that there is a fabric we can just wash and don't have to iron". Isn't that a wonderful thing.". Paik was utterly shocked that he would meet for the first time composer of this stature and find him washing out his shirt in the kitchen sink. That John would make no effort at a grand impression but rather be found doing whatever was next to be done.

The famous tie cutting incident we all know is appropriate to Paik and expresses the deep regard he had for John by making an action based in scandal. This was his strategy in performance art. People must be shocked into thinking.

Cage acknowledged Nam June as a force of nature that quite fascinated him.

Paik loved the attention of others and responded with humor and good feeling to everyone. Several years ago one could see him sitting on a bench outside a cafe at the corner of Spring street and Broadway just watching the girls go by.

After a thanksgiving dinner Upstate John and I decided to walk around the house. I don't know what prompted me to ask him what he was up to, what are you doing. With a soft sigh and that wispy voice he said " still in pursuit of emptiness".

Cage was the first composer to allow/ promote that what happens in his music is not what he may have had in mind. He made it possible for sounds, actions, images to exist that he had not conceived of, but rather given permission that sound artists, painters and poets were free to use his methods as well as their own to make music.

The first time I met Nam June was in Wiesbaden Germany at the 1962 Fluxus concert

Dick Higgins and I joined the mycological society of New York led by John Cage and Guy Nearing. I met John looking for mushrooms in the Hudson Valley.

~ From notes supplied by Alison Knowles, reprinted with permission. All rights reserved by A. Knowles.

Alison's work can be seen on her web site at

The Fluxus Blog wishes to acknowledge the generosity of Alison Knowles in sharing her memories and experiences with us and our readers.

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Fluxoidal One from allanr

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Fluxus, according to Wikipedia, is “an international network of artists, composers and designers noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines." Here on Treemo, some Fluxus artists, including allanr, wastedpapiers and miulew, are sharing some audio that is certain to provoke and make you think about your sense of art.

All Art is Political

Regular readers of the Fluxus Blog and others familiar with my writing will recognize that I have often stated that "all art is political". In fact, I have frequently made use of that simple statement in my artwork.

In today's edition of The Globe and Mail (a Toronto daily newpaper) here is an interesting editorial article in the "Comments" section by author Noah Richler. In his article Mr. Richler makes the argument that the novel is an inherently political form of literature. He discusses the novel in the context of narrative theories of understanding the world that we live in. He argues that there have historically been three kinds of meta-narative (grand stories) in human history:

  1. The creation myth: Societies still struggling to survive at the subsistence level have stories that explain the world as it exists for them. These protoreligious narratives place group interests above individual interests, with all members of the tribe subject to forces beyond human control over which they must struggle to survive. There are seldom any human heros in creation myths.
  2. The epic struggle: Societies that successfully overcome natural adversity eventually come into contact with other similarly successful societies. Often this results in conflict over resources and ideologies. Epic stories ususally tells tales in which special individuals lead their tribe to victory in heroic struggles against thier enemies. Richler says that the heroic figure "is there to rally the group or justify the privileged place of some within it".
  3. The novel: In 17th century Europe a new narrative form emerged that was called the "novel". Richler says that, "What was novel about it was the expression of liberal democratic secular societies that vindicated the place of the individual in society and regarded certain basic human rights as inalienable".

The novel is a political art form because it demands that the reader place himself into the lives of its characters. It allows its audience to transcend their own existence by imagining life from the perspective of the novel's invented character. Noah Richter describes the politicization inherent in the novel very well:

It is the mechanism of the imaginitave leap that makes all novels, whether Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment inherently and undeniably political. The novel elevates humans above governments – and gods, which is why it is obnoxious to the epic thinkers who do not subscribe to its more sophisticated values.

Islamists hate novels, while many Western politicians duck their mesage by not reading them. The novel is intensely political – and the narrative cornerstone of developed society. Few in the West recognize its dogma because it is so brilliantly alligned with the higher aims of liberal democracies. But others do.

"But others do." This final short sentence in the excerpt above is loaded with meaning. While the mass audience is oblivious to the political nature of art, artists and political masters are not. Artists struggle daily to express the individual and social narratives that they observe and experience. Political ruling classes struggle daily to suppress those narratives that do not support their agendas while they work to promote those narratives that do support their own agendas. Those of us fortunate enough to be living in Western liberal democracies must remain vigilant to protect our artists. Because our cultural creators are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine – when the canary stops singing disaster is close at hand.

Link to Article