Eighty-year-old John Cage seems more clearly than ever to be the single indispensable figure in the experimental culture of the postwar era. As philosopher and provocateur, multidisciplinary artist and father of contemporary chance-determined music, Cage has inspired generations of artists East and West to bridge the gaps between Art and Life. The prime catalyst of this “Cagean revolution” was Zen Buddhism, specifically Cage’s attendance (from 1949 to 1951) at D.T. Suzuki’s classes at Columbia University. Suzuki’s first class in New York, the reigning cultural capital, concerned itself with the Buddha’s final teachings, emphasizing the interdependence of all things in a world of phenomenal abundance. This was the world and sensibility that Cage embraced in all his subsequent writings and works, doing as much to introduce a deliberately Buddhist view into the cultural discourse of the West as any artist alive.

Laurie Anderson is even less conventionally Buddhist than John Cage. Her engagement with Buddhism, emerging from the SoHo art world of the seventies, has continued to be a strong personal interest two decades later. Widely identified as the artist who brought performance art into the cultural mainstream, Anderson works today as an activist, composer, filmmaker, photographer, raconteur, philosopher, and comic. Her newest project, a performance-opera entitled Halcyon Days: Stories from the Nerve Bible, is scheduled to open the Seville Festival this summer. Anderson initiatied a discussion with Cage for Tricycleearly in March 1992; I came for a second session not long afterward, joining them in his comfortable, sky-lit New York City loft, surrounded by abundant houseplants, paintings, and books, and drinking his Cafix—a fig and grain beverage that Laurie also drinks at home. Their common ground was wide: irreverent, funny, and terrific company, both epitomize ideals of cultural leadership and the phenomenon of the avant-garde.  —Robert Coe

Robert Coe’s book Post-Shock: The Emergence of the American Avant-garde will be published by W. W. Norton this year.


A: You seem like such a hopeful person, do you think human beings are somehow getting better?

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.