Chance Creation

| By (guest author)

John Cage. New River Watercolors, Series IV, #1, 1988. Watercolor on Paper, 26

Mathematician Randall Pruim ended the first installment of his series on randomness and God’s governance by noting that “many Christians have a reaction to randomness that falls somewhere between uneasy and antagonistic” because they think that “taking randomness seriously means not taking God seriously.” While Pruim will continue to explore randomness as a mathematical concept, I’d like to approach the counterintuitive idea that God would “intentionally” use chance processes in his creative work by looking at the practice of John Cage, an artist whose music and visual art was built around the use of chance. One set of Cage’s visual works in particular—the New River Watercolor series from 1988—can help us think about how “allowing” for chance is actually an opportunity for positive and intimate engagement with the created world. I’d like to offer this instance of human making using randomness as an analogy for thinking about how God uses randomness in his own making, and suggest that “chance” is always both limited and guided by the intentions of the creator. To do that, though, we need to spend a little time understanding how Cage used chance in his work.

In the 1950s, Cage began using various methods of “casting lots” to determine how elements of his music would be chosen and arranged—principally the Chinese system of I Ching. His controversial program was to distance himself from his own creative process, and he explored many additional strategies to transform the role of “creator” into one of “observer.” Most famous of these was his musical composition, “4.33,” which consisted of a pianist sitting at the instrument doing nothing at all for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, while musician and audience listened to the ambient sounds of the concert hall. Yet contrary to that main thrust of Cage’s work, a description of the activities during the week-long residency at the Mountain Lake Workshop where the New River Watercolor Series were made suggests that choice, constraint, and intention were integral and inescapable tools in putting randomness to work for creative ends.

Here’s art historian and theorist Howard Risatti’s description of Cage’s plan of action for the New River Watercolors, from the website of artist Ray Kass, who runs the Mountain Lake program and was Cage’s collaborator for his work there:

Following upon [a previous (1983) Mountain Lake workshop] “painting experiment,” stones collected from the New River were sorted into three groups according to size, which were separately numbered; numerous and varied brushes were divided into two separately numbered groups; likewise, feathers to paint with, colors and washes, and papers were also divided and numbered. In this way, chance procedures using pages of random numbers that were now generated by a computer program could be used to determine the specific materials utilized for each painting (e.g., which painting instruments, what type of paper and which colors, how many washes, which stones to paint around, where to locate the stones on the paper).

While this list enumerates all the specific variables that Cage and his team submitted to chance, there was an incredible level of personal engagement with the materials: Cage didn’t just show us drawings of where the I Ching said the rocks ought to be, he (or his assistants) placed them on the paper and used them as guides to paint around. Large custom brushes were constructed to lay on washes of color, and even the paints were hand mixed, combined, and diluted according to his desires.

Cage’s use of chance, then, was not a “hands off” process, but neither was it a matter of total control: Cage selected processes to create a space of play between himself and the materials he used: the feather between himself and the paper, for instance, introduced variability of resistance and spring, its ability to hold paint, the width of the line. All of these things were elements of material ‘freedom,’ areas in which Cage asked the stuff he used to make the paintings to take part in the process—to contribute its own identity to the intentional, purposeful, and determined work of creating “based on chance.” This should not be surprising, as all art, all creation that we can observe, happens as a dialectic between materials and the creator, and such engagement and interaction in no way lessons the purpose of making, the end in sight.

Kass’ book The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors, gives a much more complete account of the tools, processes, and interpersonal reactions between Cage, Kass, and the team of student assistants who helped at almost every stage of the creation of the works. The book goes to great length to honor Cage’s ideal of being present in but not controlling the outcomes (not least by nearly always putting words like “choice” in quotation marks), but the description of his process makes the centrality of Cage’s personal aesthetic and artistic motives inescapable, even more than his physical engagement. What comes through perhaps even more than the way Cage intended to allow chance to ‘guide the creative process’ is that way Cage, himself, not only set the parameters of the chance he allowed into the system, not only engaged directly with the materials during the process, but also exercised judgment over the results, both in process and at the end:

“Cage decided he didn’t want the images of the stones to overlap or go off the sides of the paper. To guarantee this restriction, he created conditions and rules to limit their possible placements.” (p. 51)

“For this single painting [Series IV, #1, pictured above] Cage chose to confine the images of the rocks to a lower area of the paper that represented the proportion of the “golden rectangle. . .” (p. 57)

“While “choice” established much of the work’s nature, “chance” highlighted the intrinsic nature of the materials to reveal a refreshing presence.” (p. 59)

“[H]e initially decided to remove [the first painting of Series III] from the group, and then, liking it more, changed his mind and returned it to the group that would be signed.” (p. 56)

This last note is particularly interesting in that it highlights the fact that Cage was claiming these paintings, naming himself as their author, and was attentive to which ones he approved of enough to call his own. There is no way around the fact that Cage was subjectively as well as objectively the maker of these works: the author of the procedures by which they came to be, but well as the judge (and sometimes redeemer) of the results. For Cage, randomness was a tool, no different than the brushes or rocks or paints is that its specific parameters were chosen at the outset, and always used within the context of his over-arching vision. Perhaps we may likewise think of God’s use of chance—constrained by and tuned to the material conditions he established at the birth of the cosmos—as a way to both engage with and allow freedom for the creation itself.

With any work of art it is reasonable to ask, “Is it beautiful?” or more tellingly, “Would I hang this on my wall?” Seeing Cage’s watercolors for first time without any knowledge of the process or the relative fame of Cage himself, some might be intrigued by the structure of the work (the proportions of the golden rectangle, the overlapping stone shapes, the colors of the paint) while others would be completely uninterested, perhaps even after hearing about how they were made and seeing them in the context of the rest of the New River Watercolor series. But if you had been there in the shop as an assistant, or even observer, if you had been party to the relationships that developed even over the few days Cage spent at the Mountain Lake Workshop, your sense of the beauty of these paintings (and perhaps even scraps of paper Cage used to try out brushes or washes), would take on a different meaning, in much the way we treasure the crayon drawings of our children not because they are spectacular art, but because they are tokens of our relationship.

I make that observation to emphasize one other aspect of Cage’s creative process: that Cage was the instigator first and foremost of relationships of creation. His process created not only paintings but the fellowship that developed as the work was being done. That social, interpersonal dimension is what gives the objects a depth of meaning beyond their material composition, and suggests the particular roles humanity has been given by God. One role is to join into the creative process as lesser, but not unimportant co-creators with him; the other is to observe, recognize and celebrate his activity in the world. Where some will see randomness as evidence of an absent God, our knowledge of this most personal and participatory aspect of creation points us to the God who is with us.

With God’s creation as with human art, we may (or may not) marvel at any one particular “work,” or even think the specifics of how it was made are interesting or attractive; but knowledge of and fellowship with the artist transforms our appreciation of the process as well as its results. When we know the maker, we come to recognize and treasure even the most “random” bits of his handiwork, and name them as his, nonetheless.

For Further Reading:

Ray Kass. The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors, 2011.

Website for John Cage Centennial Festival, Washington, DC. September 2012.





Sprinkle, Mark. "Chance Creation" N.p., 13 May. 2012. Web. 13 December 2017.


Sprinkle, M. (2012, May 13). Chance Creation
Retrieved December 13, 2017, from /blogs/archive/chance-creation

About the Author

Mark Sprinkle

Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia. You can learn more about Mark's work as a writer and artist at hiswebsite.

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