Questions of Trust, Betrayal, and Authorial Control in the Avant-Garde: The Case of Julius Eastman and John Cage

21 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2020

Date Written: 2019


This article examines the now famous conflict that took place in the 1960s between gay, African-American, avant garde composer and performer - Julius Eastman, and gay, white, composer John Cage. Eastman performed a piece composed by Cage in which Eastman sexualized some of its content in a way that outraged Cage. I use the Eastman-Cage case to explore the extent to which conflicts relating to authorial control and interpretation might be resolved outside the confines of copyright law and litigation. Some scholars argue that artists who engage in behavior similar to Eastman's are participating in a kind of cultural critique and dialogue with the original author. Cultural conversations like this only exist in the abstract, however. Real face-to-face dialogue can be messy, especially when issues concerning race, sexuality, and privilege are at play. What I want to explore is not the rights of performers to reshape a work in order to critique it, but how the idea of trust-based dialogue can give us an alternative understanding about the nature of authorial control and interpretation across identity-based differences. Theories of trust and communication from the fields of feminist relational psychology, philosophy, and law will therefore be applied to the Eastman-Cage dispute to see if the outcome might have changed had they simply sat down and talked to each other beforehand. Who knows what future collaborations might have looked like had that been the case, and what current collaborations between artists might look if this kind of dialogue were adopted now.

Note: Copyright 2020 Toni Lester - all rights, not to be used without permission.

Keywords: Julius Eastman, John Cage, Copyright Law, Sexuality, Race, Gay, LGBT, Trust, Dialogue, Free Speech, Arts, Music, Performance, Performance Art, Avant Garde

Suggested Citation

Lester, Toni, Questions of Trust, Betrayal, and Authorial Control in the Avant-Garde: The Case of Julius Eastman and John Cage (2019). Marquette Intellectual Property Law Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2019, Available at SSRN:

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