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25 August 2010

John Cage's Lonely Grant Application

There were many, many dinner parties at Merce Cunningham's loft over the years, but one in particular comes to mind with regard to the subject of the present blog.

I was preparing food at the long wooden block just inside the kitchen, greeting guests as they came in the front door. Merce was seated on one of the barstools just across from me, and Jasper Johns, one of the first guests to arrive, lingered as he came in to chat. I was in a particularly disgruntled mood, sharing my thoughts with the composer Mikel Rouse, another early guest, about the difficulties of being an artist in today's society. It was a mundane conversation, one of many, this time on the heels, if memory serves, of the dissolution of the N.E.A.'s program of awarding grants to individual artists. "It's virtually impossible to be an artist today" we jointly bemoaned to anyone who'd listen. Jasper snorted a bit, rolled his eyes, and turned to Merce with an aside. "Yes," he said. "It was so easy when we were starting out!"

I was humbled, to say the least, since it is of course true that any artist worth his or her salt finds life difficult for any number of reasons, be it 50 years ago or today. So, apropros this little anecdote, I thought it might interest people to take a look at John Cage's only grant application, submitted sometime around 1940, when he was not yet 30 years old, to the Guggenheim Foundation.  He was requesting support for a Center of Experimental Music at Mills College with the stated purpose of undertaking "research in the field of sounds and rhythms formerly considered not music."

I'm not sure if this will make you feel better or worse, but his application was denied.

Laura Kuhn