The dialectic between usefulness and uselessness and the way they have fed into horizontalized practices of interdisciplinary art have a prestigious history in modernism. There is the intention of a purposeful uselessness present in the work of the Dadaists and Marcel Duchamp, for example. Previous to this, early modernism offers the socially determined intention of usefulness in the works of William Morris and his colleagues of the Arts & Crafts movement, particularly preserved in the 1859 Red House, with its red tile roofs and entirely hand-designed interior, in Bexleyheath, and then following this example, in the art and design of the Bauhaus and of the Russian Constructivists. At approximately the same moment as William Morris, we see an equal aesthetic will-to-inclusivity in the Gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner’s processional, mythically based music-dramas. Order is obsessively followed in Wagner—social order, time, and compositional order—while we see around the time of the catastrophe of the First World War (remember that Wagner’s theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk follows another war, the failed 1849 revolution in Germany to create a democratic union of principalities) that artists such as the Dadaists and Duchamp have highly different ambitions toward inclusivity that question and derail artistic, social, and sexual orders—even the order of physics, in Duchamp’s imagination. He, along with the Dadaists, therefore, sought to promote a loosening of laws and lawfulness per se, a deracination, a particular nomadism of rule, while contrary to this, the Constructivists and the Bauhaus prized rationalism and a machinic lawfulness. The social antagonism I speak of in Dada and Duchamp flies in one direction, while Morris, Wagner, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus go in the other. Indeed, Duchamp’s production is always inwardly turned, always hermetic, even in his own thinking of a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, such as La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (1915-23), as the Green Box notes of 1934 indicate. While for the others I’ve mentioned, there is always a strain of collectivity. And the goal of the total work of art—the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner, which Kandinsky also spoke of as “monumental art” and which Gropius invoked in his initial brochure for the Bauhaus as the Einheitskunstwerk (the uniform work of art)—is in service to theater, architecture, light-industrial production, and social good. All of these artists, works, and movements feed into our contemporary idea of the interdisciplinary in artistic production.
Nonetheless, this isn’t a simple historical dialectic. Instead, this is a complex system of fluctuation and exchange. These systems are based on reciprocal relationships of erosion, friction, and fluidity between aesthetics, technologies, and changed sociopolitical topographies that stimulate different pathways of artistic development and contaminate one another. This contamination leads to a hybridization of the “useless” and the useful, which is what happens when the Bauhaus comes to the United States at Black Mountain College—and, in fact, is negatively clarified further in the evolving form of Andy Warhol’s Factory and its profound effect on art and pop culture afterward, as I’ll elaborate on further.
But first, some Black Mountain College facts: the school was established in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, 1888-1968, after he was dismissed as a classics professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and it operated until 1957. Located in North Carolina, near the town of Black Mountain, the college didn’t offer a degree and based itself on the English model of tutorials and independent study at Oxford, where Rice had been a student. Although his inspiration was also based on his earlier education at the Webb School in Buck Bell, Tennessee, which engrained an independence of thinking, focusing on discussion, process, and discovery rather than rote memorization. At Black Mountain, the students were allowed to create their own curricula. No specific track of courses was required, and each student set up their courses with an advisor. No grades were given, though grades were recorded for transferring credits without being given out to the students. The college was divided into two-year programs of junior and senior divisions. The junior years were spent studying an array of subjects, while the senior years were meant for specializing in a field of choice, which was based on independent studies and tutorials. Students had to pass a comprehensive exam that covered the selected first two years’ curriculum. To graduate, there were written and oral exams given by outside examiners, who were eminent in their fields, such as Jacques Barzun, Marcel Breuer, Paul Goodman, and Franz Kline. It was a co-ed school, which was rare at the time, and all the students, along with the faculty, ate together, worked together to maintain the campus, and even built its buildings. The faculty ran the school, and there were no trustees or deans, but there was a remarkable advisory board that included John Dewey, Walter Gropius, Carl Jung, Max Lerner, Wallace Locke, John Burchard, Kline, and Albert Einstein, among others.
Crucial to the school and its historical significance is the arrival of Josef and Anni Albers shortly after the closing of the Bauhaus in 1933. Albers re-established what was called the Grundkurs, the foundation course, from the Bauhaus at Black Mountain. That meant for the art students a basis in materials and the belief in creativity through experiment. Anni Albers took up what she had done at the Bauhaus, too, and taught weaving. Xanti Schawinsky came over from the Bauhaus and continued the theatrical work that he had been part of with Oskar Schlemmer, and Lyonel Feininger did some teaching as well. These ties are significant, but they also point to two distinctions from the Bauhaus that must be made instantly. First, the foundation course does not become the cornerstone of a disciplined and highly ordered pedagogical scheme at Black Mountain. It is simply an offering among many in the loose structure of the college. Second, even though the spirit of experiment was something shared with the Bauhaus, the education at Black Mountain was never wed to the concept of the industrially useful nor was Black Mountain ever subsumed by national political issues, only a democratic ethos under the influence of John Dewey’s 1916 Democracy and Education and its project of an ultimately agrarian-founded individualism that confirmed Rice’s own educational experience. No dramatic shift in government policy tore the college down, as Lenin’s ideological project did to the movement of the Russian Constructivists in the young Soviet Union or as the Nazis did to the already depleted Bauhaus in Germany. The concept of the individual was ultimately liquefied by the state with regard to both the Russian Constructivists and the Bauhaus, while the ideal of individualism was intrinsic to the pedagogical scheme at Black Mountain—a sensibility fostered by the American-type democracy of Dewey, as I’ve just mentioned, along with the deep-seated establishment of psychoanalysis among the intellectuals and artists in America at the time.
This spirit of individualism and self-determination in entrepreneurial capitalism culture will have its own profound influence on artistic practice and its pop imagination—thus, as I’ve noted, Warhol’s Factory, which it can be said unconsciously inherited Black Mountain’s unfettered culture, yet turns the rectitude of that individualism to a premonition of today’s neoliberalist valuations of the commodified self. This is to say that while the Factory shares with Black Mountain an implicit engagement with connectivity and collectivity, its ends are certainly not toward a collective of care. Of course, to speak of the connective and collective is to speak of a network model that is in turn intrinsic to the interdisciplinary, of what I’ll call discipline-objects in a dynamic, vectored relationship, toward a sense of unity, of an ambition toward a Gesamtkunstwerk, which is true of both Black Mountain and the Factory. Yet this is also to say, particularly about Black Mountain and its educational goal, that it was not about the freeing of oneself from a single discipline, but instead about the freedom to bring to one discipline everything else. That is the centripetal seed of interdisciplinarity within the radically decentralized pedagogy of the school.
As important as the pedagogical model of Black Mountain is, the general atmosphere it engendered should be considered as well. As the sculptor Richard Lippold said of his time at the college, there was “the joy of finding this freedom of living unbound by the conventions of society.” There was “the exquisite and delightful balance of the freedom of personal life or activity of the students, free to learn about themselves and their relationship to life, to each other, to anybody who came there.”
In this light, an utterly crucial component of Black Mountain and its legacy is its summer institutes from 1944 (when the first of them was led by Albers in art and in music by Heinrich Jalowetz and Fritz Cohen) to 1953, which brought together an astonishing range of talents. Over the years, a sampling of the faculty and visiting faculty at Black Mountain included: the Albers, the theater critic Eric Bentley, Ilya Bolotowsky, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, John Chamberlain, Robert Creeley, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, the dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille, the poet Robert Duncan, Lyonel Feininger, Buckminster Fuller, Clement Greenberg with Helen Frankenthaler in tow, Gropius, Franz Kline, the critic and literary scholar Alfred Kazin, Jacob Lawrence, the great ceramicists Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach as well as Peter Voulkos, the sculptor Richard Lippold, the photographers Barbara Morgan, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, and Robert Motherwell, Ben Shahn, the poets Charles Olson and Hilda Morley, the great director Arthur Penn, the composers Roger Sessions, Morton Feldman, and Lou Harrison, the painters Jack Tworkov and Ted Stamos, and the pianist David Tudor. Among the students were the artists Robert Rauschenberg, Susan Weil, Kenneth Noland, Ray Johnson, Dorothea Rockburne, Kenneth Snelson, Cy Twombly; the poets John Wieners, Ed Dorn, Fielding Dawson, and Joel Oppenheimer; the writers Francine du Plessix Gray and Suzi Gablik, and the dancer and choreographer Paul Taylor.
Into this extraordinary atmosphere, Cage and Cunningham introduced themselves. They were there first for the 1948 summer institute and then again in the summers of 1952 and 1953. The relationship yields one of the most important works in the history of interdisciplinary art, Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1 of 1952. This is what Francine du Plessix Gray wrote in her casually punctuated journal entry of August 1952, which describes her recollection of the piece:
At eight-thirty tonight John Cage mounted a stepladder until 10:30 he talked about the relation of music to Zen Buddhism while a movie was shown, dogs ran across the stage barking, 12 persons danced without any previous rehearsal, a prepared piano was played, whistles blew, babies screamed, Edith Piaf records were played double-speed on a turn-of-the-century machine…
And Cage remembers the piece this way:
It was at Black Mountain College that I made what is sometimes said to be the first happening. The audience was seated in four isometric triangular sections, the apexes of which touched a small square performance area that they faced and that led through the aisles between them to the large performance area that surrounded them. Disparate activities, dancing by Merce Cunningham, the exhibition of paintings and the playing of a Victrola by Robert Rauschenberg, the reading of his poetry by Charles Olsen or hers by M. C. Richards from the top of a ladder outside the audience, the piano playing of David Tudor, my own reading of a lecture that included silences from the top of another ladder outside the audience, all took place within chance-determined periods of time within the over-all time of my lecture.
Theater Piece No. 1 is an exemplar of a totality of connectedness that pierces the paradigm of art as a formally impervious, bounded thing—an exemplar in a long line that would include at least Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, later Dadaist performative works, and subsequent Surrealist activities—and suggests an uninterrupted reciprocity between artifice and world, between contingency and plan. This practiced indeterminacy is a way to see its distinction from the functionality, for example, of the Bauhaus—or at least as indicated by the rigid structure of its pedagogy from the time of its 1925 incarnation in Dessau. And of course, there is the realpolitik of the fate of the Russian Constructivists, whose practices went from art interacting with life to life (e.g., political life) dictating the means and content of art, ultimately bringing them to dissolution. But what we see in Cage’s piece is something characteristic of Black Mountain’s ambience: a chance-based inclusivity that does not lead to the dilution and destruction of the individualism of artistic practice. Inclusivity is the very substance of an art in which all things are or may be ready-mades that are pulled into the vector of production as directed by the artist as a watchful and fully central exhibitor of presences.
A further thinking along these lines would say that the absence of political argument in the American milieu of Black Mountain (its singular and uncontested assumption of a narrowly defined democratic governance, particularly striking given that prominent members of its faculty and advisory board fled European oppression) and the absence of the intention to destroy the fundamental principles of a “bankrupt” social or aesthetic order, as with Dada and Duchamp, illuminated the makeshift poly-eventfulness of this work by Cage for incidental theater. In fact, there is an intriguing sense of a paradoxically imposed limit of freedom within Cage’s theater piece, which is really a transcription of Duchamp’s notion of “canned chance.” Remember that Duchamp said: “My ‘Three Standard Stoppages’ is produced by three separate experiments, and the form of each one is slightly different. I keep the line, and I have a deformed meter. It’s a ‘canned meter,’ so to speak, canned chance; it’s amusing to can chance.”
Cage called this “purposeless purpose,” and in Theater Piece No. 1 it was bracketed by the time compartments of his plan. As Cage noted in his own description of the work: “During periods that I called time brackets, the performers were free within limitations—I think you would call them compartments—compartments they didn’t have to fill, like a green light in traffic.” Though I would reverse this and call it purposeful purposelessness or, in the terms with which I began, a useful uselessness: finding in the deployment of random events a meshwork of endlessly malleable expressions to be joined. Cunningham exploited chance in his own way, summarized in his idea for Theater Piece No. 1, that no single place on the stage was intended to be the front for the dancer. This allowed an infinitely shifting center for the choreographed work, or rather, in the place of a center is an everywhere that creates a more porous relationship between dancer and audience.
To think across boundaries is to think from within a bounded form. This can be the individual materiality and traditions of an artistic discipline. It can be the architectural structure of a gallery as a container of what we can call “discipline-objects.” Or it can be pedagogy’s formulation as a site of transfer and exchange among disciplines. Each is a concern of spatiality, and the question of space in which the interdisciplinary happens suggests the most basic physical necessity “to house” in the sense of Heidegger’s thoughts about dwelling found in his 1951 essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in which he traces the word for building in German, Bauen, back to the Old English word buan, which means to dwell. He then links buan through a series of variables to the German verb to be, as in ich bin, I am, and makes a bridge between I am and I dwell. Dwelling is to reside in the place of being, in the place of origin. To dwell is a construction of the self, a building of and for the self. To be without dwelling is to be without the roots of origin, to be without the home in which self is. Heidegger goes on to correlate this being-in-dwelling with preserving the self, which is to be at peace in the dwelling of the self. This is poetic, but it is also a metaphor of significance in thinking about interdisciplinarity, in which the home, so to speak, of each discipline must be in its dwelling as discipline-object, while the very nature of interdisciplinarity proposes the deracination of individual discipline-objects that are then conjoined in a new dwelling, a new self that is based on fluctuation, movement, omnidirectionality, asymmetry—in other words, the dynamics of nodes within networks. We see movement in this disciplinary sense based in trauma, as was the homelessness and consequent art of Dada. Yet we also see this in the example of Black Mountain, where the loose interrelation of disciplinary connectivity is one of a far more optimistic dwelling-as-being.
Heidegger, in his thinking about dwelling as the preservation of the self, is describing a form of boundedness. Yet we see in the example of Black Mountain that preservation is a viral condition of collectivity, an uprooting of curricular structure, that sets its example within the democratic context as a means of entrepreneurial selfhood that is at once individualistic and for the group. It comprises a volte-face of decentered centeredness and centered decenteredness, and always centrifugal, always outward toward a horizon of emancipatory imagination. This new mobility as preservation of the self finds itself brilliantly embodied in the pedagogical model of Black Mountain, as it does in the summer institutes. At the same time, it is interesting to consider that the conditions of Black Mountain could have led to a more frequently practiced interdisciplinarity, once Cage had opened the way, and yet they didn’t. Still, what we see seeping into the pores of educational production at Black Mountain is the hospitality of discipline interaction, which, as Derrida says of hospitality, is always a question of the foreigner entering, and here can be understood as a profound welcoming of the material interaction of disciplines, such that their strangeness to one another is engaged, entered into, questioned but embraced, and so becomes a conviviality of disciplines that soon emerges more fully.
“Porousness” and “conviviality” are significant words to describe the environment of practice at Black Mountain. Conviviality is a fundamental condition of the college: the conviviality of shared learning, working, and living together. Porousness can be understood as a dilation that permits the contiguity of activities that traditionally were separated. The condition of erosion precedes this—a wearing away that loosens strictures, such that the porous is an opening in the texture of making. In the context of Black Mountain, pedagogical and existential porousness cohabitate, they dwell together, and are a spatial apparatus of the contingent. For the openness of Black Mountain returns us to the idea of contingency and chance; a reminder of Duchamp’s canned chance, though not to ironic effect. For canned chance exists in specific relation to boundedness, to the deformed meter that is still a meter, to structure and control, and offers another boundary, just as the loosened pedagogy of Black Mountain is at once an opening, while it remains within a specific, if extraordinarily broad and loosened, function.
That’s to say that what we see at Black Mountain is the joining of a casual formlessness of content distribution and a formal transmission of material technique. Within this experiment, any number of nonlinear and contradictory flows emerged, from the self-limiting exercises of Albers to the preoccupation with chance introduced by Cage and Cunningham, to the Projectivist verse of Charles Olson (who was Black Mountain’s final rector), as Marjorie Perloff summarizes this poetry, with “its strong dismissal of ‘closed’ verse and concomitant adoption of the line as coming ‘from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes.’ It is the ‘LINE’ that speaks for the ‘HEART,’ even as the syllable does for the ‘HEAD’: ‘the LINE that’s the baby that gets, as the poem is getting made, the attention.’ Olson’s ideas relate directly to his famous proclamation that ‘FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN THE EXTENSION OF CONTENT.’” This means again an opening of form, and that openness stretches back from Olson’s Projectivist aesthetic to Mallarmé, whose notion of an environmental inclusivity, an ambience of material miscibility and evanescence, returns us to the idea of the porous.
Lewis Hyde writes in his book, Trickster Makes This World: “Before a body can come to life, every separation, every boundary, must be breached in some way; each organ must have its pores and gateways through which something (lymph, blood, bile, urine, electricity, neurotransmitters) may flow. Unless they incorporate internal forces of transgression, organic structures are in danger of dying from their own articulation.” This is the environment in which the trickster thrives, like Hermes, who, as Hyde says, swings on a hinge between dark and light, imagination and rule-giving, truth and lies. Hyde calls Hermes the “god of the hinge” (209), and this can be said of Black Mountain’s education as a pedagogy of the hinge, shifting the joints of conventional educational order in the name of a porous and convivial interdisciplinarity of thinking and making, a momentum of horizontalizing practices.
This isn’t so much a container of random elements as a form of autopoietic assemblage, much as Deleuze describes assemblage as “a multiplicity which is made up of heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns—different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. […] These are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind.” And while this is poetic, it captures the sense of the autopoietic, of self-organization and self-determination permitted by Black Mountain in its inculcation of interdisciplinarity brought into production under the aegis of its democratic demos of students, teachers, and makers. In relation to form and formlessness, in fact in the relation of uselessness and usefulness in terms of the conventional narrative of a curriculum, Black Mountain’s pedagogy of the hinge gave itself the privilege to be less shapely, to become, in Deleuzian terminology, a Body without Organs, a continually re-boundaried, networked body that granted itself a formal formlessness as a progenitive field of contingency and mobility, of a trickster sensibility, as the young Rauschenberg showed himself to be, and as Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1 dilated.
In his essay “Cage and Rauschenberg: Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order,” the composer Peter Gena notes that Rauschenberg’s White Paintings and Cage’s 4'33", done in 1951 and 1952 respectively, “proved to be a profound inspiration to artists of all disciplines. In the winter of 1954, Paul Taylor, a Cunningham dancer who also led his own company, executed Duet, a collaboration with Rauschenberg. It consisted of Taylor standing and a partner sitting—both motionless throughout the performance. In the early 1960s, Nam June Paik produced Zen for Film, a lengthy work of clear film that accumulated scratches, etc., with each showing. Paik preferred to create a ‘living movie’ by meditating in front of the light during the screening, an imposition antithetical to Cage’s premise of non-intention in 4'33". Around the same time, the Austrian Peter Kubelka and the American Tony Conrad independently created imageless films that exclusively employed the four extreme elements of film: light, darkness, sound, and silence. Conrad’s The Flicker, as the name suggests, alternates between light and dark, accelerating to a frenzy with a single tone increasing in intensity and pitch. Kubelka’s 6-1/2-minute film, Arnulf Rainer, employs long sections of light accompanied by white noise, and darkness accompanied by silence.” And of course, it is hard not to think that Rauschenberg’s “Combines” of the 1950s and after weren’t influenced by his time at Black Mountain or that his famous pronouncement, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two),” doesn’t resonate with the thought of Cage and the model of Black Mountain.
But it is just as important to recognize that Cage’s presence at Black Mountain was limited in time and was only one presence among many strong voices, from Albers to Buckminster Fuller, Gropius to Greenberg, Olson to Creeley, to students such as Rauschenberg, Twombly, Noland, and Taylor. The conviviality of voices is what establishes Black Mountain as a viral paradigm for the productive contamination of thinking between disciplines and the proliferation of crossing paths. Black Mountain’s stigmergic environment, its profusion of connections, and its shifting of the joints of verticalized knowledge are its network condition and its triumph. Cage’s version of a networked work that was at once based in Zen Buddhism and an idyllic democratic modernism bears the fruit of Theater Piece No. 1, which burns historically in the mind of cultural practice as a reterritorialization that gave witness to the unclosing potential of formlessness, to a reformulation of what it is to dwell as a mobility of the self-preserving self, to the endless route of the interdisciplinary, and stands as a moment born from the porous spirit of Black Mountain in the history of network aesthetics.
Network aesthetics is concerned with modalities of asymmetrical connectivities among discipline-objects in interaction with what I call viewer-agents, but these are not frictionless encounters. Black Mountain offers an idea of pedagogy as a utopian democracy, which is to say a frictionless model, though the reality of the college, including its social relations and finances, were far from frictionless. Nonetheless, its attempt at a formless unity within a structural form is of particular consequence at our political and technological moment, in which formations of subjectification are under hydraulic duress from both pressures. Self and group are undergoing radical re-formation and will only continue to do so. These pressures are creating new limitations on the self—the self-as-citizen, the self-as-arbiter-of-the-self, while the sudden incursions of artificial intelligence into every fold of life will increasingly and drastically unify the most fundamental ontological ground of self-as-human in contrast with machinic intelligence, such that the idealization of the democratic, free self that Black Mountain embraced offers what can only be called a rearward horizon of nostalgic potentiality and an inquiry into forward rehabilitation.
Steven Henry Madoff is the founding chair of the Masters in Curatorial Practice program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Previously, he served as senior critic at Yale University’s School of Art. He has served as executive editor of ARTnews magazine and as president and editorial director of Alta-Cultura, a project of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His books include Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century) from MIT Press; Pop Art: A Critical History from University of California Press; Christopher Wilmarth: Light and Gravity from Princeton University Press; What About Activism? from Sternberg Press and The Power of the Unseparate: Network Aesthetics and the Rise of Interdisciplinary Art, both forthcoming. Essays on pedagogy have recently appeared in volumes associated with conferences at art academies in Beijing, Paris, Utrecht, and Gothenburg. His criticism and journalism have been translated into many languages and have appeared regularly in such publications as the New York Times, Time magazine, Artforum, Art in America, Tate Etc., as well as in ARTnews and Modern Painters, where he has served as a contributing editor. He has curated exhibitions internationally over the last 30 years in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. He holds his BA in English Literature from Columbia University, his MA in English and American Literature from Stanford University, and his PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University.
 Peter Gena, “Cage and Rauschenberg: Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order,” in the exhibition catalogue for John Cage: Scores from the Early 1950s, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, February 8–April 18, 1992.