Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 13, 2012
Branden W. Joseph Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2008. 480 pp.; 93 color ills. Paper $22.95 (9781890951870)

What conceptual, political, and artistic foundation stood behind Tony Conrad’s decision in 1965 to create The Flicker, an enervating, even mind-altering, real-time visual experience which would both contest and manifest a newly configured regime of power presiding over the contemporary subject? This is the question, and, in a sense, the pretext for Branden W. Joseph’s Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage, a thoroughgoing revision of the artistic terrain of the 1960s and its historicization. Joseph’s sub-subtitle, “(A ‘Minor’ History),” itself bracketed and internally qualified with quotation marks, points to the author’s means: meticulous precision, and a kind of Trojan horse strategy in the service of a rather more major art-historical ambition. Joseph’s Trojan horse harbors an estimable array of “minor” figures whose radical practices change history, this history, for good. If registered, Joseph’s new mapping should disperse the “major” names and terms that have for so long defined the postwar canon and its largely modernist models of theorization, models that limit the capacity to seize the expansive territory of experimentation that sparked postmodernism—pertinent now as the DNA of much contemporary art.

Appropriately for the DNA with which he is dealing, Joseph develops his account as a genealogy, using both major and minor models—from the work of Michel Foucault to that of George Maciunas (specifically, in the latter case, the Expanded Arts Diagrams Maciunas used to register the artistic catalysts of the period in relation to Fluxus). Foucault’s “What is an Author?” essay, which also interested Conrad, abets Joseph in dismantling the false constructions that have created the “major” obstacles (Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977, 113–38). As the turn of the 1960s was defined by a shift from direct expression (particularly in painting) to numerous strategies of deauthoring, the use of Foucault’s theoretical and political underpinning seems apt. Asserting Foucault’s “author function,” Joseph unpacks the discourse that has made La Monte Young the central figure in musical minimalism, and positions the latter against canonic minimalist art. In Joseph’s account of the early interaction and collaboration between Young and Robert Morris, for example, with its brilliant deployment of the metaphors of “the tower” and “the line,” which never settle into place but remain dynamic, the two figures “minor-ize” each other, leaving readers with a much more nuanced sense of the work of both. Minimalism in turn, is opened up, and appropriately redefined as an “audio-visual movement” from the outset.

In addition to his nuanced deployment of the Deleuze/Guattari model of the minor, Joseph also looks toward Conrad’s own dispersed “author function,” which performs an essential methodological role here. Joseph’s interest is not to make Conrad more “major,” but to utilize his networked position as the catalyst and justification for rewriting this history. In a complex and dexterous scholarly performance, Joseph suspends multiple matrices of theory, narrative accounts, and specific works (of art and music) as new filters to refocus his history. This is infused with a new layer of historical detail, which Joseph has unearthed over a decade of archival research and interviews. The role of the archive, he asserts, is essential to the minor history, and to the possibility of a new genealogy.

As the minor to Young’s major, Conrad’s biography reorients the story. Having met in New York in 1958, the pair ended up collaborating (along with John Cale, who would become a member of the Velvet Underground) during 1965 and 1966 on the album Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume 1: Day of Niagara. The kernel here is a dispute between Conrad and Young over authorial credit in their band, the Theatre of Eternal Music. As Joseph explains, Conrad’s mathematical background brought as much to the project (of “just intonation,” for which Young became famous) as Young did with his musical gifts. Their fatal falling out changed the story of the next several decades and kept Conrad on the outside, trying to make sense of his heterogeneous path thereafter. The way in which a potentially anecdotal moment of conflict functions inside such an ambitious theoretical and historical endeavor demonstrates the major/minor, macro/micro mode of articulation that Joseph establishes, systematically and consistently, as his methodology. Conrad’s “outside” becomes Joseph’s titular “beyond.”

If Conrad’s career is Joseph’s matrix for rewriting this history, John Cage functions as the “signifier” of music’s utter centrality in to it, echoed in the terms “major” and “minor.” Cage makes a “minor” entrance in a chapter centered on Young titled “The Social Turn,” in which the Cagean “legacy is” reflected and refracted in the de-authoring process evident in Young’s landmark Compositions of 1960. Through these works, Joseph constructs a critique of the widespread historical misreading of Cage. Indeed, Joseph’s erudite handling of Cage is one of the important contributions of the book. As Cage has figured so prominently in Joseph’s scholarship for more than a decade now, he is well equipped to right the wrong that he considers has weakened art history’s grasp of this period. With unprecedented conciseness, Joseph charts five core criteria of the Cagean aesthetic, which he defines as “fundamental to the breakdown of the modernist project and the advent of postmodernism” (76). The criteria that remake the field are: 1) an aesthetic of immanence, 2) composition as non-totality, 3) the privileging of experimentation as a death of the composer, 4) the (related) dismantling of transcendent structures as an address to a new regime of power, and 5) the challenge to the disciplinary status of the separate arts.

Joseph’s erudite characterization of specific Cagean concepts, such as “silence”—that most abused of Cage’s terms—sets a new standard, which is continually reinforced throughout the book as a scholarly imperative. Seized at its highest level of development (i.e., the moment of 4’33” (1952)), “silence” is defined as “non-intention.” Anchored in the composer’s unexpected encounter with sound in the anechoic chamber at Harvard, this definition amounts to a repositioning of the subject in the face of the technological conditioning of experience. For Joseph, silence as non-intentionality—the silencing of the composer/author, the discourse, the rules, the conventions, the address to power—becomes a leitmotif of the book. It is a subtle, even seemingly self-deprecating strategy (like Cage’s), which never veers from the highest of ambitions: to remake an entire field, with the means of one’s own discipline.

Readers are left with a Cage who touches the crux of a moment by articulating a new relationship between form and power. Issuing a corrective to the widespread depoliticization of Cage’s project, Joseph argues that Cage’s dismantling of form, and his privileging of experimental composition, including its unpredictable procedures (chance and indeterminacy), was political: “By 1960, at the latest, Cage conceived form as a particular technique of power, a moment within a micropolitics” (84; emphasis in original). Through what Joseph calls Cage’s “aesthetic of immanence,” the composer challenged the authorial form of composition as a totality transmitted unilaterally to both performer and audience. Joseph argues, “Rather than obscuring or avoiding a political project . . . what Cage put on the table was precisely the connection or articulation of politics and form” (85). Just as Joseph carefully selects words and concepts for how they ramify, Cage’s quest against form should conjure the gamut of that word’s uses in postwar art history, from formalism to the informe, revealing how “the anxiety associated with the dissolving specificity of modernist mediums has never entirely dissipated” (83). The concept of Cagean “theatricality” is equally efficient. For Joseph it signals the composer’s introduction of visual elements into musical performance (and vice versa: the expanded field of auditory/perceptual stimuli unleashed into artistic practice). Of course, “theatrical” was also the insult Michael Fried famously lanced at (art/sculptural, in short, “major”) Minimalism. If theatricality was the enemy for Fried, signaling, the end of modern sculpture, Joseph is right to assert Cagean theatricality as a disciplinary issue.

Thus Young emerges as the figure who allowed a generation to ask, “Who is John Cage?” Since Young was asking the question (albeit petulantly) in 1960, Joseph returns to that moment as critical to the “social turn” of the musical avant-garde, describing the musical capitulation to increased visual and linguistic notation (exemplified by Young’s “word pieces,” the Compositions 1960). Displacing the few oft-cited scores, Joseph’s systematic return to the rest of Young’s output of 1960 and 1961 “minor-izes” him productively by elucidating the legacy of Cage. “Each of Young’s word scores isolates, emphasizes, questions, and usually demonstrably attempts to surpass one or another aspect of Cage’s position” (93). Returning to Foucauldian questions, Joseph adds, synthetically, “Rather than expression, the content or meaning of a word piece might be said to reside in something like the structural transformation of the discourse in which it appears” (95).

One detail overshadowed in this consequential “program” is how these scores address Young’s own generation. In each of the Compositions 1960 the date appears as part of the title. Young’s certainty of his advanced position precludes Cage as the only target of these pieces and their precise, conceptually oriented formulation. So the detail of the date, which few historians interrogate but which forces all to have to repeat it (as in Composition 1960 #3 (1960)), seems aimed, just as importantly, at that year’s critical mass of textual scores entering the record. Young’s main rival on this front was Cage student and future Fluxus artist George Brecht, who refined the Event Score between 1959 and 1961. It is significant that Young chose not to publish the most advanced of Brecht’s event scores to date in his important collection An Anthology (compiled during 1961–62), which would seem to reinforce Joseph’s concept of Young’s selective “author function” in the creation of the discourse. All of this to say that there is additional minor history (or perhaps it should be designated as minor-minor) that is neglected within Joseph’s larger program. This extends to the rather “light” treatment of Simone Forti, thus relinquishing another profound source for Minimalism. (Morris’s phenomenological model, theorized in his “Notes on Sculpture” essays, is not wholly attributable to his engagement with the writing of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but arguably began with Forti’s Dance Constructions, including her Accompaniment for La Monte’s 2 Sounds (1961).) Finally, the treatment of Fluxus, potentially an ideal case of the minor, suffers at two levels: first, Young and Henry Flynt are linked too closely to that group (both have gone to considerable lengths in recent years to distance themselves from Fluxus); second, Fluxus is generalized via a conflation with Happenings, on the one hand, and of its various score models (e.g., Brecht’s Event Scores and Alison Knowles’s Propositions) on the other, which are identified as “word pieces” (Young’s appellation). That the latter remains the main term suggests that Young still controls the discourse.

One particularly fortuitous outcome of Conrad’s biography, and Joseph’s committed scholarship, is the “Concept Art” chapter, which offers an immensely valuable study of the under-explored figure Flynt, Conrad’s colleague at Harvard at the turn of the 1960s. Joseph rolls up his sleeves here to get a handle on Flynt’s rarefied and difficult political project, which has never been so penetratingly interpreted. Its value for Joseph is integral, flagging, as it does, the longstanding tension between Flynt’s concept art and canonic conceptual art. “If ‘minor’ artists retain a place within the ‘major’ history—sometimes a central place,” Joseph proposes, “it is on account of their relation of proximity to the movements and categories engendered by major history and because of the unceasing pressure that they exert upon them” (51). Joseph proceeds to identify the criteria in Conceptual art that “were clearly put forward by Flynt.” For the record, these were: “The turn to language as a material and the subsequent ‘dematerialization’ of the work of art, the emphasis on structure over content, the move from specific artistic means to the category of art in general, an appeal to certain aspects of mathematics . . . a move from aesthetic to analytic propositions . . . even . . . an engagement with tautological structures” (168). Though Joseph narrows the thrust of Conceptual art to “institutional critique,” he adds the tension exerted by Flynt’s concept art to the record, concluding, “Concept art would evolve, in a kind of historical parallel, into a different and in many ways more radical critique of both cultural institutions and institutionalized culture” (169).

Joseph’s book is premised on the conviction that at the end of the 1950s music became the means of recalibrating artistic practice at the cusp of a new technological era. Not only was music the art that could incorporate both real-time and mediated expression (signaled by the intervening presence of the score); but as “the art most aligned with the ‘real-time organization of sensory stimulation,’” it tapped the omnipresent, ongoing societal and artistic reorganization of power (347). By the time Conrad makes his film The Flicker in 1965, described in the book’s last chapter, he acts in an expanded field, which includes Lou Reed and Jack Smith, the latter’s filmic excess comprehending a new deterritorialized articulation of power. The Flicker is Conrad’s startling address of the (un)forming of power. Noting the film’s link to Conrad’s experience with Young and the way it “envelops the audience within an overriding sensory environment in order to lead them to a counterhegemonic perceptual experience” (340), Joseph demonstrates how The Flicker also exceeds that Youngian force. Conrad had become convinced that the new technological epoch’s mode of conditioning thinking required that art react in kind. As Joseph argues, The Flicker “emerged as part of a socioeconomic transformation (one that it helped to make visible and conceivable)” and “acted as both harbinger and disruptor of this new ‘infrastructure’ of control” (351). As such, Conrad’s “solution” to the political forces of that moment materializes as an experiment drawn from all of his experience inside the expanded arts of the 1960s.

Julia Robinson
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, New York University