August 8th, 2010
You know I love a good mystery

I received an email from a reader who suggested that “The Rules” by Corita Kent (which I cited a few posts back) was actually written by John Cage. This same reader (who asked to remain anonymous) claims to have seen in person, this list of rules in typewritten copy on the bulletin board at the Cunningham Studio (very cool).

And so there begins a little investigation on my part. The version of “The Rules” that I posted was printed in the book “Learning by Heart” by Corita Kent and Jan Steward. I happen to know for a fact (because she wrote about him and quoted him) that Corita was a big fan of John Cage (not surprising to me as both of them rank in my top five favorite artists of all time and all of my favorite people in the world are linked in some way to John Cage). The other curious thing is that my memory tells me that “the rules” were printed also in a book about John Cage with a different title and attributed to him.

I did find one link in my investigations that implied that the list was written by John Cage and typeset by Corita but there was no actual evidence for this. On another site I found this info:

As far as I know these “Rules” were the work of Corita Kent , (1918-1986), serigrapher and teacher extraordinare, in which she included a quote from John Cage. The calligrapher David Mekelburg produced them in hand-carved stamped lettering and they were published in Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit , a book begun by Corita with her former student Jan Steward and finished by Steward after Corita’s death. (Bantam 1992). -Trish Johnston, Atlanta, GA, USA

and then I find this one: “John Cage’s words visually formatted by Sister Corita Kent. Cage’s original title is “Some Rules and Helpful Hints for Students and Teachers.”

which confirms what my memory tells me. But…

then I start to put 2 and 2 together, if Rule number ten is a quote:

“We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

Then it stands to reason that the simple act of quoting John Cage, leads many people to believe he is the author. It is quite possible that Merce Cunningham was sent a copy of Corita’s Rules because they quoted his partner (and because they are so good he put them up on his wall.) OR John himself received a copy and put it on Merce’s studio wall. This seems the more logical conclusion to me. The only grey area is what to make of the rules being published in one of John Cage’s books.

(After my husband looks at it he wonders if she is citing John Cage for the whole thing, since his name is at the end of all the rules, the quotes make this confusing.)

So what is the answer? Is it John Cage or Corita Kent?

If you have any information (evidence) that will help solve this mystery I would love to hear it (it will help me sleep at night).

(note: this whole thing brings up one of my big pet peeves with the internet, the lack of citing original sources.)

update: I just found this from a seemingly knowledgeable source:

The “10 Rules for Students and Teachers” that is often ascribed to Sister Corita Kent was actually authored by the composer John Cage. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who knows anything about the relationship between the two. I believe Cage came to know her and Sister Magdalene Mary originally through Peter Yates, but the history is still very sketchy. Thank you.
Laura Kuhn, Director, John Cage Trust

Aug 8 2010
5:17 am
Li writes:

I’m amazed that so many people dont even know who John Cage is. Even worse, the amount of people who think he was in the Velvet underground.

Aug 8 2010
3:17 pm
Jill writes:

Wow, I had no idea. Good detective work so far!

Aug 8 2010
6:16 pm
ana writes:

Speaking of Cage… which book about him would you recommend the most?

Aug 8 2010
11:10 pm
simone writes:

Hmmm…. the Corita Art Center is attributing the rules to Corita.

The only quotes are the ones around Rule 10 which she is attributing to John Cage. I’d love to know more of the story too if anyone knows it. I also went searching for the story of the rules but came up with nothing. PS. Feeling nostalgic…I went to IH High School where we were required to take 2 years of art–love that.

Aug 17 2010
10:27 pm
Sumner writes:

I don’t know Corita Kent, but do have a lot of John Cage books and find no reference to these anywhere. I find them online ascribed both to Sister Corita and to Cage, however none of the Cage attributions give a source. Laura Kuhn is certainly an authority but she doesn’t give a source either! Rule 10 as quoted is in Silence, p. 197, but I don’t see the others there. Which doesn’t mean anything one way or the other since Cage often used large or small fragments of his own writings in the making of new writings. They sound like they could have come from classes Cage taught at the New School in the 50′s. Though the one that sounds the most like Cage to me is #7, which echoes Empty Words p. 186 – ‘People frequently ask me what my definition of music is. This is it. It is work. That is my conclusion.’ – and that was written mid-70′s. I did find this:

i just attended a screening of some amazing films about sister corita (shown in conjunction with an exhibition of her work – info below). one of the films features her telling her students how she follows and believes in john cage’s rules and hints for students and teachers

maybe if you can track down that film you can unravel the mystery.

Aug 23 2010
8:47 am
Mary writes:

I love learning new things from you. Thanks for sharing your joy, wisdom and creativity. I’m looking forward to your new book -

Aug 26 2010
8:32 pm
Maureen writes:

The Los Angeles Calligraphy Society holds an annual retreat at Casa de Maria in Montecito, California. One year David Mekelburg was the guest artist in which he presented a film as well as teaching practices of Corita Kent at Immaculata Heart College. He was one of her students and I believe he also taught there until the school closed. David told us that Sister Corita had a set of rules for teachers and students. On the last day of the retreat he broke us up in two groups (upstairs & downstairs working units) and each group was to create a layout of these rules and he would have it printed. In our group we assigned a rule to each person for them to calligraphy in the style they wanted and then all the rules were collected and assembled in a layout. Several months later we received the formal printed posters of the two groups. He always gave Corita the credit for these rules; it was something she taught to all her new students. We never heard the name John Cage associated with the information.

Sep 11 2010
7:08 pm
Martha writes:

I’ve been reading your blog for some time now but have never posted any comments (too shy I guess) but I really wanted to thank you for posting about the “10 Rules”. I am now teaching a class about classroom management and I’m really surprised that these rules are not mentioned in any of the “formal” books on the subject that I have come across so far. These are phenomenal! Thanks and good luck with your research.

Mar 6 2012
7:43 am
zeel writes:

You can buy the Baylis Glascock directed films as ‘TEN RULES’ as a DVD from the Emmaculate Heart Corita site.
Those films are like condensed art foundation course, truly mind expanding.

Jun 14 2012
3:21 pm
Jill Bell writes:

After reading this blog, I wrote to my friend Richard Crawford who was in on the creation of “The Rules”. I will gladly send you a copy of the Rules David Mekelburg stamped out —they are all over the internet. Here is what Richard had to say:
The rules were formulated in late Fall, “67 or early Spring, ’68. Corita gave us the assignment out of the BLUE in an evening class she taught on Mondays, I believe the name of class was: Art Structure.  We THE STUDENTS “made up” the rules spontaneously.  Corita was magnificent getting “STUFF” out of her students.  (She liked the word STUFF.)  ”None of that stuff…..”   “You know, the good stuff”, she’d say.

Davy [David Mekelburg] and I were first year students…we only had Corita one year.  The rules evolved in two classes.  A key player was Barbara Loste….who had been at the College for a couple of years. I THINK it was Barbara who came up with the Cage quote. The Rules took 2 classes to complete.  We started near the end of one and the following Monday refined them.  Barbara Loste stick printed the rules and took them to a copy place. We got the rules about the 3rd week.

Only later did Davy stamp out the rules…cannot remember the occasion. He used one of the stamp sets Corita had used for one of her Container Corp. ads….(Corita always created pressure for herself, because she waited to the last minute to “DO”  the Ads, all of her commissions….and then she did them quickly….1,2, 3.).  Corita LOVED DAVID’S STAMP SETS because he was “the best carver…..ever.”  He may have stamped out the rules for a short movie he made for the Calligraphy society? Cannot remember. I personally did not have much to do with the rules those 2 classes. What was amazing to me was how Corita worked her magic…giving the assignment, and getting “THE STUFF” out of her students… She was a celeb that last year…and not very happy…..she wanted a life of her own away from the College.  In David she saw a TEACHER….completely different than she………in David, Corita saw “how to create a life of her own in Boston.”  She handed over her classes to him.

WE TOGETHER CREATED “THE ART DEPARTMENT RULES”….we the students along with Corita.  They were pulled out of the BLUE….!

Richard Crawford
Jun 14, 2012

Jun 14 2012
7:36 pm
Barbara writes:

Corita and some of her art students at IHC wrote the rules in 1968. See Baylis Glascock’s film in which we are sitting around a table with in the folk art collection at the college. Corita was familiar with many artists and writers, she read for pleasure and with passion, and often quoted from her readings. Here, in the rules, she quotes Cage as a final touch of wit and freedom!

Jun 21 2012
12:24 pm
Nancy Dalva writes:

Laura Kuhn, the founding trustee and executive director of the John Cage Trust, and a dear and close friend to Merce Cunningham as well as John Cage, is not a “seemingly” knowledgeable source. She is impeccably knowledgeable, knowledge-seeking. I will take this question to my e-mail list of fomer Merce Cunningham Dancers and see what the earliest recollection is of seeing these Rules posted in the Merce Cunningham Studio.
Nancy Dalva
Scholar in Residence
Merce Cunningham Trust

Jun 21 2012
2:32 pm
Nancy Dalva writes:

To follow up, we now have a query going around on facebook and e-mail, as we attempt to date the first appearance on the Merce Cunningham Studio bulletin board. Many students remember seeing these rules, many photocopied them (as did I, in fact). There are images of these photocopies online, including a recent one posted by former Merce Cunningham Dancer Daniel Roberts on facebook. This blog post by a Li Jun Lai, a student of Andrea Weber, (also a former MCDC dancer) at Brown University, shows this photocopied page. Note that the title as Cage wrote it was “10 Rules for Students and Dancers.” Here’s a link to the image:

The timeline is a factor–do you know when Corita Kent first cited them? That would help in providing “evidence” to solve your mystery.

Jun 21 2012
2:45 pm
Nancy Dalva writes:

Further tracking: this blog post
dates the posting of the rules in the Immaculate Heart Art Department in Los Angeles to the 1960s.. There she was visited by Buckminster Fuller, a friend to Cage and Cunningham via Black Mountain college, so now you have him to imagine as a conduit for the rules. We are most interested in what will further be posted here, and post again with any dates earlier than than of seeing the rules at the Cunningham Studio, which in the 1960s would not have been the studio at Westbeth, but Merce Cunningham’s previous domain.
Nancy Dalva
Scholar in Residence
Merce Cunningham Trust

Sep 20 2012
3:51 pm
Janie writes:

I have a copy of the poster referred to above by Maureen, which says: “These rules were made by Corita Kent and art students at Immaculate Heart College at the Society for Calligraphy 1980 Annual Retreat, May 23-26, La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, California.”

In very tiny letters tucked in at the end of Rule 10 (the Cage quote), it says “John Cage”

The poster lists 24 names, including David Mekelburg and my calligraphy teacher, Sid Warne, and several other members of the San Diego Fellow Calligraphers. I believe I bought the poster in a workshop I took with David a year or two later in San Diego, but I may have gotten it through Sid. She told us what a wonderful time they had putting this together. (I used to know which portion she did, but no longer remember. )

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