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Friday, July 27, 2012

A small group of tourists recently got more than they bargained for, while glacier-watching in Greenland.

Three stacked aluminum disks control the range, duration and interval for your shot with a design as clean as an egg timer.


A panning companion for time-lapse photography

by  in Tech on 26 July 2012   

The past year has seen the kickstarting of heaps of useful camera tools for photographers and videographers, and the hits just keep on coming. Astro joins the pack as an intervalometer and motion control device for time-lapse photography. Three stacked aluminum disks control the range, duration and interval for your shot with a design as clean as an egg timer. Astro promises to take time-lapse footage to the next level with panning for a more dynamic effect.
The usability of the device is the real clincher. Virtually any camera with a remote output can pair with Astro to control shutter release intervals if the time-lapse function isn't built in to the camera's software. The panning functions—range and duration—are run independently of the camera. Two buttons below the disk are used to determine the direction of Astro's rotation and speed while mounted to a tripod. Astro is also developing an app for Android and iOS that will allow users to program a full time-lapse plan and upload it to the device directly—expanding Astro's capability from simple panning to include accelerated and slowed movements to ease in or out of a scene.
On our recent trip to Zambia, we had plenty of chances to take in Africa's luminous night sky, and a panning option would have helped to take in a broader landscape. While Astro has already blown its $50,000 goal out of the water after a few short days, the device has 31 more days to fill pre-order slots for an initial run of production. Currently, people can pledge to receive Astro in silver and limited edition black for $180 and $200 with delivery expected in December 2012.

The whole embarrassing situation could have been avoided if Pinterest existed then.

Pinterest, Tumblr and the Trouble With ‘Curation’

Illustration by Tom Gauld

Years ago, in my penurious and somewhat traumatic 20s, I got into the habit of collecting interior-design magazines. My parents were splitting, and my family was scattering, and one day I picked up a copy of Elle Decor at an airport and suddenly felt as though I were teleported to Narnia. I didn’t have a house or even the disposable income to purchase nonessentials that cost much more than magazines. But my family moved often when I was growing up, and my mother tried to mitigate this upheaval by reproducing our last house in each new house, while rigorously maintaining a standard of perpetual “magazine readiness.” I guess it had a lingering effect.

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A few years later, I reluctantly lent my collection of magazines to a (now former) friend. He had just bought a house that he had no idea what to do with. I, on the other hand, had nothing but ideas. O.K., they weren’t strictly mine, in the sense that these ideas were acquired, arranged, styled, photographed, published and distributed by entities bearing no relation to me whatsoever. They were mine because I internalized them. I gradually convinced myself that they were me.
Of course, I didn’t realize any of this until my friend returned my magazines to me with dozens of pages torn out, having either forgotten or ignored my admittedly ridiculous request that he make photocopies instead. I felt gutted, but I was much too ashamed to admit it. How could I, without sounding crazy? It was better, ultimately, to let the friendship slide into estrangement.
The whole embarrassing situation could have been avoided if Pinterest existed then. Pinterest is a social-media Web site on which users compile collections of pictures they find on the Internet or just browse the collections of others. The site’s name combines the words “interest” and “pin,” in reference to “pin boards,” which are also known in various creative professions as inspiration boards or mood boards — basically a large board onto which appropriated images (torn from magazines!) are juxtaposed to evoke in the viewer a certain feeling, atmosphere or mood. Once the exclusive province of advertising art directors, designers and teenage girls in boarding-school dormitories, mood boards and their electronic equivalents have exploded online. Not just on Pinterest, but also in the form of dopamine-boosting street-fashion blogs and cryptically named Tumblr blogs devoted to the wordless and explanation-free juxtaposition of, say, cupcakes and teapots and shoes with shots of starched shirts and J.F.K.
This kind of visual catch-bin blog has become disconcertingly common, for reasons that a cultural theorist like Walter Benjamin would perhaps be hard pressed to explain. Who knew there was such a large, mainstream market for artfully arranged pictures of other people’s stuff? Or that “curation,” that rarefied and highly specialized skill, would all of a sudden go viral? Pinterest went online in 2010, and by the end of that year it had 10,000 unique users. By January 2012, that number had increased to 11.7 million, making it the fastest site in history to break through the 10-million unique-visitor mark, according to TechCrunch. For this, it has been valued at $1.5 billion.
I’m not a big Pinterest user (more of a lurker, really), but the over-the-top monetary valuation doesn’t entirely surprise me. Long before I heard of Pinterest, I was already spending too much time on “curated” (read: reblogged) design/fashion/image/inspiration blogs. For me, it’s sites like Apartment TherapyFfffoundPoppytalkOh Joy and dozens and dozens of obscure, exquisite, utterly pointless but oddly compelling Tumblrs. (Some, like the addictive street-fashion blog The Sartorialist, are made up of original photos, but this is more the exception than the rule.)
In fact, in the past half-decade, I’ve probably spent more time fighting the urge to satiate my visual addictions — addictions formed in the process of satiating them, no doubt — than I have actually browsing through magazines. Not because I don’t like magazines. In many ways, I like them better. But they’re too grounded in space and time, too organized and linear, too collaborative and professional to deliver the synaptic frisson available from the stream-of-consciousness image blog.
I used to think this obsession was mine alone. But now nearly everyone I know — and by that I mean everyone who spends vast, barren tundras of time at her computer — goes to Web sites like these to escape, destress, perk up, calm down, feel something, not feel something, distract themselves and (they don’t call it “lifestyle pornography” for nothing) modulate pleasure and arousal. A friend of a friend calls his addiction to sites like these “avenues for procrastination,” but I think there’s something else involved. Like other forms of pastiche — the mix tape, the playlist, the mash-up — these sites force you to engage and derive meaning or at least significance or at the very least pleasure from a random grouping of pictures. Why not dive into an alternative world full of beauty and novelty and emotion and the hard-to-put-your-finger-on feeling that there’s something more, somewhere, where you’re not chained to your laptop, half dead from monotony, frustration and boredom?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How, one might ask, can quantum mechanics have anything to say about the human mind?

Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?

Does Quantum Physics Make It Easier to Believe in God?
July 10, 2012
Not in any direct way. That is, it doesn’t provide an argument for the existence of God.  But it does so indirectly, by providing an argument against the philosophy called materialism (or “physicalism”), which is the main intellectual opponent of belief in God in today’s world. 
Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities --- if any there be. Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”  
Quantum mechanics, however, throws a monkey wrench into this simple mechanical view of things.  No less a figure than Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claimed that materialism --- at least with regard to the human mind --- is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.” And on the basis of quantum mechanics, Sir Rudolf Peierls, another great 20th-century physicist, said, “the premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being ... including [his] knowledge, and [his] consciousness, is untenable. There is still something missing.” 
How, one might ask, can quantum mechanics have anything to say about the human mind?  Isn’t it about things that can be physically measured, such as particles and forces?  It is; but while minds cannot be measured, it is ultimately minds that do the measuring. And that, as we shall see, is a fact that cannot be ignored in trying to make sense of quantum mechanics.  If one claims that it is possible (in principle) to give a complete physical description of what goes on during a measurement --- including the mind of the person who is doing the measuring --- one is led into severe difficulties. This was pointed out in the 1930s by the great mathematician John von Neumann.  Though I cannot go into technicalities in an essay such as this, I will try to sketch the argument.
It all begins with the fact that quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic. Of course, even in “classical physics” (i.e. the physics that preceded quantum mechanics and that still is adequate for many purposes) one sometimes uses probabilities; but one wouldn’t have to if one had enough information.  Quantum mechanics is radically different: it says that even if one had complete information about the state of a physical system, the laws of physics would typically only predict probabilities of future outcomes. These probabilities are encoded in something called the “wavefunction” of the system.
A familiar example of this is the idea of “half-life.”  Radioactive nuclei are liable to “decay” into smaller nuclei and other particles.  If a certain type of nucleus has a half-life of, say, an hour, it means that a nucleus of that type has a 50% chance of decaying within 1 hour, a 75% chance within two hours, and so on. The quantum mechanical equations do not (and cannot) tell you when a particular nucleus will decay, only the probability of it doing so as a function of time. This is not something peculiar to nuclei. The principles of quantum mechanics apply to all physical systems, and those principles are inherently and inescapably probabilistic.
This is where the problem begins. It is a paradoxical (but entirely logical) fact that a probability only makes sense if it is the probability of something definite. For example, to say that Jane has a 70% chance of passing the French exam only means something if at some point she takes the exam and gets a definite grade.  At that point, the probability of her passing no longer remains 70%, but suddenly jumps to 100% (if she passes) or 0% (if she fails). In other words, probabilities of events that lie in between 0 and 100% must at some point jump to 0 or 100% or else they meant nothing in the first place.
This raises a thorny issue for quantum mechanics. The master equation that governs how wavefunctions change with time (the “Schrödinger equation”) does not yield probabilities that suddenly jump to 0 or 100%, but rather ones that vary smoothly and that generally remain greater than 0 and less than 100%.  Radioactive nuclei are a good example. The Schrödinger equation says that the “survival probability” of a nucleus (i.e. the probability of its not having decayed) starts off at 100%, and then falls continuously, reaching 50% after one half-life, 25% after two half-lives, and so on --- but never reaching zero. In other words, the Schrödinger equation only gives probabilities of decaying, never an actual decay! (If there were an actual decay, the survival probability should jump to 0 at that point.)  
To recap: (a) Probabilities in quantum mechanics must be the probabilities of definite events. (b) When definite events happen, some probabilities should jump to 0 or 100%. However, (c) the mathematics that describes all physical processes (the Schrödinger equation) does not describe such jumps.  One begins to see how one might reach the conclusion that not everything that happens is a physical process describable by the equations of physics.
So how do minds enter the picture?  The traditional understanding is that the “definite events” whose probabilities one calculates in quantum mechanics are the outcomes of “measurements” or “observations” (the words are used interchangeably).  If someone (traditionally called “the observer”) checks to see if, say, a nucleus has decayed (perhaps using a Geiger counter), he or she must get a definite answer: yes or no.  Obviously, at that point the probability of the nucleus having decayed (or survived) should jump to 0 or 100%, because the observer then knows the result with certainty.  This is just common sense. The probabilities assigned to events refer to someone’s state of knowledge: before I know the outcome of Jane’s exam I can only say that she has a 70% chance of passing; whereas after I know I must say either 0 or 100%. 
Thus, the traditional view is that the probabilities in quantum mechanics --- and hence the “wavefunction” that encodes them --- refer to the state of knowledge of some “observer”.  (In the words of the famous physicist Sir James Jeans, wavefunctions are “knowledge waves.”)  An observer’s knowledge --- and hence the wavefunction that encodes it --- makes a discontinuous jump when he/she comes to know the outcome of a measurement (the famous “quantum jump”, traditionally called the “collapse of the wave function”). But the Schrödinger equations that describe any physical process do not give such jumps!  So something must be involved when knowledge changes besides physical processes.
An obvious question is why one needs to talk about knowledge and minds at all. Couldn’t an inanimate physical device (say, a Geiger counter) carry out a “measurement”?  That would run into the very problem pointed out by von Neumann: If the “observer” were just a purely physical entity, such as a Geiger counter, one could in principle write down a bigger wavefunction that described not only the thing being measured but also the observer. And, when calculated with the Schrödinger equation, that bigger wave function would not jump! Again: as long as only purely physical entities are involved, they are governed by an equation that says that the probabilities don’t jump.
That’s why, when Peierls was asked whether a machine could be an “observer,” he said no, explaining that “the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge, and knowledge requires somebody who knows.” Not a purely physical thing, but a mind.  
But what if one refuses to accept this conclusion, and maintains that only physical entities exist and that all observers and their minds are entirely describable by the equations of physics? Then the quantum probabilities remain in limbo, not 0 and 100% (in general) but hovering somewhere in between. They never get resolved into unique and definite outcomes, but somehow all possibilities remain always in play. One would thus be forced into what is called the “Many Worlds Interpretation” (MWI) of quantum mechanics.
In MWI, reality is divided into many branches corresponding to all the possible outcomes of all physical situations. If a probability was 70% before a measurement, it doesn’t jump to 0 or 100%; it stays 70% after the measurement, because in 70% of the branches there’s one result and in 30% there’s the other result! For example, in some branches of reality a particular nucleus has decayed --- and “you” observe that it has, while in other branches it has not decayed --- and “you” observe that it has not. (There are versions of “you” in every branch.) In the Many Worlds picture, you exist in a virtually infinite number of versions: in some branches of reality you are reading this article, in others you are asleep in bed, in others you have never been born. Even proponents of the Many Worlds idea admit that it sounds crazy and strains credulity.
The upshot is this: If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is right (as most fundamental physicists believe), and if materialism is right, one is forced to accept the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. And that is awfully heavy baggage for materialism to carry.
If, on the other hand, we accept the more traditional understanding of quantum mechanics that goes back to von Neumann, one is led by its logic (as Wigner and Peierls were) to the conclusion that not everything is just matter in motion, and that in particular there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws.  It then becomes possible to take seriously certain questions that materialism had ruled out of court: If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Submitted from the thousands of examination scripts marked this summer, this year’s bumper crop of comical cock-ups provide some unusual takes on world events

New Round of 'Exam Howlers'
July 19, 2012 - 3:00am
"Every new generation must rewrite history in its own way," wrote the philosopher R. G. Collingwood. But the surreal historical revisions revealed in Times Higher Education’s annual "exam howlers" competition are probably not what the esteemed University of Oxford don had in mind.
Submitted from the thousands of examination scripts marked this summer, this year’s bumper crop of comical cock-ups provide some unusual takes on world events.
"In 1945 Stalin began to build a buffet zone in Eastern Europe," wrote one second-year student in a module on the Cold War.
"[It] conjures an image of Uncle Joe constructing a trestle-table ­'curtain' from the Baltic to the ­Adriatic to keep the rapacious capitalists at bay with canapés, sausage rolls and cocktail sausages," said Kevin Ruane, professor of modern history at Canterbury Christ Church University, who submitted the entry.
Medievalist David Ganz, emeritus professor in palaeography at King’s College London, was amused by one student’s insistence that in the Middle Ages "most books were written on valium," rather than vellum.
Meanwhile, John Fisher, emeritus professor of Latin American history at the University of Liverpool, was surprised to read that "Spain was a very Catholic country, since Christianity had been taken there in the third century BC."
A second howler submitted by Professor Fisher showed one student preferring to err on the side of caution when it came to the past. "In 1493 Pope Paul V, himself a Catholic, authorized Spain to convert the American Indians," the student reported.
Spelling errors again proved a rich source of amusement. Paul Allain, professor of theater and performance at the University of Kent, enjoyed one s­tudent’s essay on Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski and his “laboratory ­theatre," which required a physically demanding style of acting. The student wrote about actor Ryszard Cieślak "straining at their role in the lavatory theatre."
Sometimes context is key. Writing in an exam on the biology of sperm, one student described the 18th-century Italian naturalist Lazzaro Spallanzani as a "priest cum scientist," according to David Hosken, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Exeter.
And academic referencing was taken to a new level in an entry from Bella Millett, professor of ­English at the University of Southampton, who told how a student introduced a quotation from a ­secondary source with: "As Ibid says."
Matthew Hudson, course leader in wine business at Plumpton College in Sussex, submitted numerous student clangers, but one stood out:  “The 4 Ps of marketing: Product, Price, Place, Distribution.”

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/07/19/new-collection-exam-howlers#ixzz216WxiLAm
Inside Higher Ed 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

“I will never make an accidental photograph,” he once said

Face Time
Exploring a world of old man masks and broken doll faces.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard is a marginal figure in the history of post-World War II photography. He took up the practice in the early 1950s, maturing his creative vision until his untimely death in 1972 at the age of 47. This marginal status is due in part to the kind of photographs he made, which are difficult to categorize or to make sense of. “I will never make an accidental photograph,” he once said, noting his distance from documentary photography, the more respected genre of his day. His images are always staged compositions of family and friends or of simple objects. He presents haunting images that sit somewhere between realism and imagination. Meatyard positioned his subjects in stark interiors, lush forests, abandoned homes, and overgrown cemeteries, settings he went searching for around his home in Lexington, Kentucky.  

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s small show of a little more than 40 works confronts you with the particular theme of Meatyard’s obsessions during the 1950s and ’60s. While odd props such as rubber chickens and the body parts of soiled dolls fill many of his works, it is the dime-store Halloween masks depicting crones or hoary men that give his work a strange, grotesque feeling. These masks, on both children and adults, conger and unsettle a trope so dominant in our thinking about photographic portraits. The mask itself has been used by photographers from early in the medium’s history — the playful masked portraits of Countess de Castiglione in the mid-19th century or Man Ray’s surrealist compositions of pale European faces next to wooden African masks in the 1920s, for example. But the metaphor of the mask has become a compelling rhetoric about photographic portraiture, particularly within celebrity culture: Richard Avendon took his candid portraits of Marilyn Monroe at the time Meatyard took up photography. Meatyard plays with this tradition as his images prefigure a kind of photography that makes us wonder about the image itself, about the illusions that photography can create. “The mask is no man,” he once declared, adding, “everyone has a mask on.” His images confront us with masks that erase more than hide, that turn us outward instead of drawing us in toward the psychology of his subjects. Without Meatyard it is hard to imagine Diane Arbus or Cindy Sherman or Duane Michaels, or even some of the portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe.   

When Meatyard took up the camera in the early-1950s, documentary and social realism were dominant genres for the camera’s serious use. Think of Robert Frank’s iconic collection “The Americans,” published in 1958, with its spontaneous moments of captured street scenes presenting subtle layers of lyricism. “The Americans” depict the regional particularities seen through Frank’s travels around the country, turning the social landscape of 1950s America into a kind of sad dream. The series has become an icon of post-World War II photography, and the immigrant Frank a kind of visual poet of the era. 

But Meatyard’s more intimate, shadowy scenes offer a surrealist quality, an intimate, local exploration that conjures larger meditations, what he sometimes called “romantic-surrealist.” Here there are children sitting in fields, or leaning against weathered barns, their tiny bodies casual under the aging masks they wear. We find bruised and soiled doll heads that float in the waters or linger on tree limbs. In one sequence, an adolescent boy wearing a mask of an old man sits on a log, his body relaxed as it faces the camera. In the next photograph, the boy bends forward, knees slightly bent, the top of his head faces us as he holds two masks in each hand. In the final images, only the masks remain, propped against the log that stretches into the nearby pond; the background blurs with watery reflections.

"Untitled" (ca. 1962)

Throughout his work, Meatyard used his family members and neighbors to pose for him, putting them in barns; near abandoned homes; in forest groves overgrown with native ferns, dogwood trees, honeysuckle shrubs, and bittersweet vines with their poisonous fruits. His scenes feel so purely Southern Gothic they look like they emerged from the pages of Flannery O’Connor, or some of the later stories of William Faulkner. Indeed, O’Connor’s writings would be the inspiration for his last, and best-known, series of photographs “The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater,” a collection published after his death.

"Untitled" (ca. 1968)

But gothic or grotesque, two terms that are often used to describe Meatyard’s work, only get at part of the intrigue and power of these images. While summer workshops taught by Henry Holmes Smith, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White influenced his ideas, Lexington writers Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, and James Baker Hall influenced Meatyard’s vision and aesthetics. They formed a small circle of thinkers and artists against the background of a changing South. Meatyard’s photographs are strongly narrative in their composition and staging, turning toward imagined worlds that linger on the margins of reality. While the social realists turned the familiar into the strange, Meatyard’s photographs so often turn the strange into the familiar.

Meatyard, born and raised in Illinois, served in the Navy during World War II, studied for a time at Williams College, before moving to Lexington, Kentucky to work for an optical firm. In 1967 he opened his own optician shop, called Eyeglasses of Kentucky. Perhaps it was his experience as an optician that fostered Meatyard’s interest with how the lens can distort, shift, and turn reality into something unrecognizable. Perhaps this is why his work straddles the divide between realism and surrealism. The dolls in particular float through these photographs as both props and subject matter. In three particular photographs, Meatyard fills the frame with the chipped and damaged head of three different dolls, all decapitated and sitting on wooden planks, their eyes emptied and shattered, though their faces still hold their shape. In other images, dolls float in the forest vegetation or along shallow pools, and we wonder what they are doing there. They look so discarded, so much the refuse of some other time and place. 

The photographer also used mannequin heads, taken from the storefronts of women’s clothing stores. He rests these in darkened woods or sticks them in decaying stairwells. These images contain so much decay, so much that is distorted by the past, by history. Even the masks hold this odd juxtaposition between past and future. Those large, aged heads of men and women on the bodies of children conjure a quite haunting split between youth and old age, fused together in unsettlingly ways. His subjects are so often caught in this moment between past and present, between a decaying history and a youthful future.

"Untitled" (ca. 1962)

Meatyard remained quite reticent to discuss his work. In her catalog essay, historian and exhibit curator Elizabeth Siegel notes that the photographer encouraged viewers to bring their own interpretations to his images, which, for Siegel suggested the ways his photographs “tended to function as Rorschach test for his viewers.”  For her, these photographs of masked children and adults strip away the individuality of any one person, turning the cast of characters into actors who represent something lager. “A mask served to level identity,” she writes, “and erase differences so that viewers could approach a picture with a shared sympathy.” 

But we don’t need to universalize these images to grasp their force. It’s true, the metaphor of social masks is a powerful one, the notion of life as its own everyday performance a running current in contemporary life. This was an idea floating in the air as Meatyard went tramping through the woods with his children in tow, masks and dolls in bags. In 1959, Erving Goffman published his now canonical work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which pointed to the ways our most basic interactions are part of a larger theater of social relationships. Our very identities were now subject of the vagaries of performance. All that we thought true about ourselves and those around us needed to be viewed with a more suspicious eye. Meatyard knew this as well. 

But Meatyard was developing his aesthetic vision of photography’s staged realities amidst the conflicts and violence of the civil rights movement. Let’s remember what was happening in the years when he took up his camera: The Supreme Court’s abolishing segregated public schools (1954); bombings in Louisville, Kentucky in response to segregated housing laws (1954); the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott (1955-1956); sit-ins at lunch counters that began in 1961; church bombings and protests in Birmingham, Alabama (1963); the March on Washington (1964); and voter registration drives of Freedom Summer (1964). These events all swirl around Meatyard’s photographs, turning the trope of Southern gothic into its own haunting past, portrayed in gnarled masks, decaying dolls, limbs floating in trees. 

These photos do indeed erase differences. They create the “no man” that Meatyard claimed. But they also acutely point to a time and place that was changing. His images play with our sense of reality to turn what we think as inherent truths into frightened fantasies about other people. If the masks conjure a universal humanness, they also remind us how much they deny. • 12 July 2012

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

He learned very early to ignore criticism, since he knew perfectly well his work was not ridiculous. Criticism was of no interest. Nor was praise...

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

On love, liberty, and the pursuit of silence.
“Good music can act as a guide to good living,”John Cage (1912-1992) once said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library) is a remarkable new intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists — by longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in the past year, if not decade — remarkably researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.
From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, includingMarcel DuchampJasper JohnsYoko OnoRobert RauschenbergJackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.
The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.
Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space, isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
Xenia Kashevaroff
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:
I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.
By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:
Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’
Cage and Cunningham, circa 1948, as Cage's confusion and despair began to lift. In this classic image, taken at Black Mountain College, the perfection of their partnering seems a force of nature. Why did Cage struggle at first?
Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin
Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.
Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:
Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?
When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.
So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.
To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?
Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:
Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.
What he found was a language of silence and immanence.
In 1964, John Cage was fifty-two years old and had been partnering with Merce Cunningham for two decades. The two men's bright confidence in 1948 has shifted to something calmer: the settled assurance of the bond between them -- one of the great redeeming love affairs in the history of the American arts -- which would endure until their deaths.
Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin
This Cageian inquisitiveness was indeed fundamental to both this personal life and his approach to music — an ethos reminiscent of Rilke’s counsel to live the questions. Cage:
What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.
My composition arises out of asking questions. I am reminded of a story early on about a class with Schoenberg. He had us go to the blackboard to solve a particular problem in counterpoint (though it was a class in harmony). He said, ‘When you have a solution, turn around and let me see it.’ I did that. He then said: ‘Now another solution, please.’ I gave another and another until finally, having made seven or eight, I reflected a moment and then said with some certainty: ‘There aren’t any more solutions.’ He said: ‘OK. What is the principle underlying all of these solutions?’ I couldn’t answer his question; but I had always worshipped the man, and at that point I did even more. He ascended, so to speak. I spent the rest of my life, until recently, hearing him ask that question over and over. And then it occurred to me through the direction that my work has taken, which is renunciation of choices and the substitution of asking questions, that the principle underlying all of the solutions that I had given him was the question that he had asked, because they certainly didn’t come from any other point. He would have accepted the answer, I think. The answers have the questions in common. Therefore the question underlies the answers.
This profound pursuit of questions, coupled with disinterest in criticism, came to define Cage’s aesthetic. Larson writes:
One of the relentless consequences of the choices modernists made was uproar: the convulsions of fear and loathing that arose whenever a new aesthetic proposition appeared on the horizon. Cage’s own life — hardly immune from controversy even now — offers an object lesson. He learned very early to ignore criticism, since he knew perfectly well his work was not ridiculous. Criticism was of no interest. Nor was praise, which seemed to require that he repeat himself. ‘At every point society acts to keep you from doing what you have to do,’ he said in 1973. From the outset, he set off to find his own answers, and he looked to experimentalists for precedents.
One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:
From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.
Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.
Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with ‘love’ in 1948:
‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’
(This sentiment regarding purpose and doing what you love would come to be articulated by many other creators over the decades to come.)
Echoing something Jackson Pollock’s dad once wrote to his son in one of history’s finest letters, Cage advises:
Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.
For Cage, this was tied to bridging the dangerous divide between the conscious and unconscious mind:
There are two principal parts of each personality: the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and directions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one.
In Japan for the first time, on a trip organized by Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono in 1962, Cage immediately set off to D. T. Suzuki's house. Ten years after the debut of 4'33'', Cage honored his ninety-two-year-old teacher and the teachings that had shown him the heart of silence.
Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin
By the 1950s, however, Cage had started to drift away from the Indian spiritual traditions as he became more deeply immersed in the work of D. T. Suzuki and, in particular, his Essays in Zen Buddhism. Larson writes:
Cage’s mind is breaking its shell. It’s not that he has walked away from the Indians altogether, Cage rarely abandoned anyone or anything that affected him deeply. Rather, a new thought (or a series of thoughts) is in the process of emerging. Cage has set out to solve the problems caused by love — his love for Merce, his love for music, and a love that perhaps he can’t name, that arises as a mysterious upheaval of the heart, a spiritual fire that is causing an urgent search for solutions.
Suzuki, in fact, taught Cage something essential about breaking the bounds of Western culture’s most destructive paradigm — its toxic ultra-individualismand attachment to ego:
Suffering builds character and impels you to penetrate life’s secrets. It’s the path of great artists, great religious leaders, great social reformers. The problem is not suffering per se, but rather our identification with our own ego: our divided, dualistic, cramped view of things. ‘We are too ego-centered,’ Suzuki tells Cage.’ The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow. We seem to carry it all the time from childhood up to the time we finally pass away.’
This notion of renouncing the ego was comfortably aligned with Cage’s own dismissal of the emotions, so he embraced it:
[Q:] Since your ego and your likes and dislikes have been taken out of your compositions, do you still view them as your compositions, in the sense that you created them?
[Cage:] Emotions, like all tastes and memory, are too closely linked to the self, to the ego. The emotions show that we are touched within ourselves, and tastes evidence our way of being touched on the outside. We have made the ego into a wall and the wall doesn’t even have a door through which the interior and exterior could communicate! Suzuki taught me to destroy that wall. What is important is to insert the individual into the current, the flux of everything that happens. And to do that, the wall has to be demolished; tastes, memory, and emotions have to be weakened; all the ramparts have to be razed. You can feel an emotion; just don’t think that it’s so important….Take it in a way that you can then let it drop! Don’t belabor it! It’s just like the chicken I ordered in the restaurant: it concerns me, but it’s not important….And if we keep emotions and reinforce them, they can produce a critical situation in the world. Precisely that situation in which all of society is now entrapped!
To liberate himself from the burdens of ego, Cage turned to his now-legendary chance operations — specifically, using the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes) as a key decision-making tool in his compositions. It helped him, as Larson puts, “ask questions of the most fundamental sort.”
Instead of representing my control, they represent questions I’ve asked and the answers that have been given by means of chance operations. I’ve merely changed my responsibility from making choices to asking questions. It’s not easy to ask questions.
I became free by means of the I Ching from the notion of 2 (relationship). Or you could say I saw that all things arerelated. We don’t have to bring about relationships.
Chance operations offered Cage a chance to change his own mind without intellectualizing but, rather, by immersing himself in experiences without judgment and letting them teach him. Indeed, chance and change went hand-in-hand for him:
People frequently ask me if I’m faithful to the answers, or if I change them because I want to. I don’t change them because I want to. When I find myself at that point, in the position of someone who would change something — at that point I don’t change it, I change myself. It’s for that reason that I have said that instead of self-expression, I’m involved in self-alteration.
Cage brought this ethos to his music. Towards the end of 1950, he composed the third movement of Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra by asking questions, tossing coins, and turing to the I Ching for answers. He built a chart of 32 moves that would generate sounds (or silences) as the I Ching told him which number to pick. The remaining 32 of the book’s 64 hexagrams were to produce pauses of various durations. Larson sums up the teaching embedded in Cage’s experience with the I Ching:
It was a moral and spiritual teaching: Use your head. Set up your structure as carefully as you can, then surrender to the experience. Accept all of it willingly and gratefully. Be present for whatever comes. Open the heart to chance and change.
Cage himself put it thusly:
I do accept, I have always accepted everything the I Chinghas revealed to me….
I never thought of not accepting it! That is precisely the first thing the I Ching teaches us: acceptance. It essentially advances this lesson: if we want to use chance operations, then we must accept the results. We have no right to use it if we are determined to criticize the results and to seek a better answer. In fact, the I Ching promises a completely sad lot to anyone who insists on getting a good answer. If I am unhappy after a chance operation, if the result does not satisfy me, by accepting it I at least have the chance to modify myself, to change myself. But if I insist on changing the I Ching, then it changes rather than I, and I have gained nothing, accomplished nothing!
This relinquishing of the self in the hands of pure awareness is something Cage also found in another of his great spiritual heroes, Henry David Thoreau:
Thoreau got up each morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves.
But, for Cage, it wasn’t enough to remove that self-blinding from his spiritual life — he had to remove it from his creative life as well, from his music:
The value judgment when it is made doesn’t exist outside the mind but exists within the mind that makes it. When it says this is good and that is not good, it’s a decision to eliminate from experience certain things. Suzuki said Zen wants us to diminish that kind of activity of the ego and to increase the activity that accepts the rest of creation. And rather than taking the path that is prescribed in the formal practice of Zen Buddhism itself, namely, sitting cross-legged and breathing and such things, I decided that my proper discipline was the one to which I was already committed, namely, the making of music. And that I would do it with a means that was as strict as sitting cross-legged, namely, the use of chance operations, and the shifting of my responsibility from the making of choices to that of asking questions.
This ethos also shaped Cage’s understanding of the arts in general, as in this fine addition to history’s greatest meditations on art:
I think the history of art is simply a history of getting rid of the ugly by entering into it, and using it. After all, the notion of something outside of us being ugly is not outside of us but inside of us. And that’s why I keep reiterating that we’re working with our minds. What we’re trying to do is to get them open so that we don’t see things as being ugly, or beautiful, but as we see them just as they are.
But the practice of pure presence was very much a discipline for Cage:
True discipline is not learned in order to give it up, but rather in order to give oneself up. Now, most people never even learn what discipline is…. It means give up the things closest to you. It means give yourself up, everything, and do what it is you are going to do. At that point, what have you given up? Your likes, your dislikes, etc.
The notion of discipline stands at the odd intersection of structure and nothingness, which permeated much of Cage’s thinking. In November 1951, he gave his famous “Lecture on Nothing,” a follow-up to his “Lecture on Something,” which articulates the osmosis between “something” and “nothing”:
We really do need structure, so we can see we are nowhere.
The lecture concludes:
Everybody has a song which is no song at all: it is a process of singing, and when you sing, you are where you are. All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing.
Perhaps it was this fascination with method and nothingness that led Cage to his obsession with silence, most famously manifest in his 1952 composition 4’33″, and led him to remark:
[S]ilence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.
Implicit to this is, once again, the notion of total surrender to what is. Cage:
There is no rest of life. Life is one. Without beginning, without middle, without ending. The concept: beginning middle and meaning comes from a sense of self which separates itself from what it considers to be the rest of life. But this attitude is untenable unless one insists on stopping life and bringing it to an end. That thought is in itself an attempt to stop life, for life goes on, indifferent to the deaths that are part of its no beginning, no middle, no meaning. How much better to simply get behind and push!
At the same time, Cage observed the dynamic rather than static quality of life itself — the fundamental role of change, once again:
You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change…. It is more mobile than you can imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say it ‘presents itself’; that means that it is not there, existing as an object.
The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.
Embedded in this process-ness of life is Cage’s heartening relationship withboredom:
In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.
In the end, however, Cage’s life — and death — presents us with the grandest challenge to fully embodying his philosophy. In discussing a 2010 exhibition honoring Cage, and the language of its brochure, Larson laments:
The only difficulty with ‘ephemeral and transitory poetics’ is their transitoriness. Exhibitions of Cage’s work seem to be lacking a central core, a cohesion. That unifying voice, of course, was supplied by Cage himself, and he has passed on. We celebrate change and yet we also feel its sting. Zen teachers say, though, just look around you. Where has he gone? He’s still speaking to us.
Cage has become 'the man of the great smile, the outgoing laugh,' his friend Peter Yates remembered. 'Around him everyone laughs.'
Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:
In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.
There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.
[ ... ]
The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?
Not unlike Cage’s music, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists is impossible to distill, to synthesize, to relay. Rather, its goodness is best experienced in full, with complete surrender.

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