Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chapter VII - Fluxus

                        “The misunderstandings have seemed to come from comparing 
                                  Fluxus with movements or groups whose individuals seem to 
                                  have some principle in common, or an agreed upon program.”
                                                                – George Brecht

            America in the 1950s was very conservative and there was pressure to conform to society’s norms.  There was a strong economy with vast consumer spending going on.  There were also changes going on in the home and workplace as it became increasingly normal and even expected to have new technological conveniences such as refrigerators, vacuums, televisions, etc.  Underneath all the consumerism and emphasis on projecting the ideal family image there were rising counter movements.  Civil rights groups were forming and protesting racism and the feminist movement was beginning to take root.  There was also the beat generation, a group of non-conformists, which originated in the late 1940s around the writers Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, who had taken up residence in New York City. 
            By this time New York had claimed the title of art capital of the world and had a clustering of artists, writers and intellectuals.  The leading artistic movement, as well as the first internationally accepted American art movement, was Abstract Expressionism.   Art critic Clement Greenberg led the way for the Abstract Expressionists and many were influenced by his famous essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, published in the Partisan Review in 1939.  His essay discussed the avant-garde removing itself from society to raise art to a higher level.  He went on to say that the uncultivated, middle class masses would not likely be able to understand this art and could only appreciate things on a superficial level such as mass produced popular culture “kitsch” items.  Greenberg called for a “pure” art which should not refer to the outside world and should be art for art’s sake.  By pigeonholing art in this way, Greenberg was actually bringing the avant-garde a step back from what the Futurists and Dadaists sought to do.  He was actually calling for art to be elitist and his attitude appeared condescending and pretentious as he spoke of the masses not having the education or cultivation to understand ‘high art’.  The art world would react just as society in general would react when there is pressure to conform, there would be a rebellion.     
            One manifestation of that rebellion came in the form of Fluxus.  Fluxus was a loosely organized group of artists that spanned the globe but it had an especially strong presence in New York City.  Their main focus was on performance art.  George Maciunas is considered the primary founder and organizer of the movement.  He was a Lithuanian born artist who immigrated to America in 1948.[2]    He aptly described Fluxus as “a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp.”[3]  The recognition of the importance of Duchamp and Cage to Fluxus seemed to be a general consensus and was echoed in a statement by Ben Vautier, “Without Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Dada, Fluxus would not exist.”[4]  The artists that were part of the initial formation of Fluxus were, Allan Kaprow, Walter de Maria, Robert Morris and Simone Morris, all of whom were included in plans for an early Fluxus publication.[5]  Other artists that were associated with Fluxus at one time or another were, Claes Oldenberg, Dick Higgins, Jon Hendricks, Geoffrey Hendricks, Alison Knowles, Jim Dine, George Brecht, Jackson Mac Low, Henry Flynt, Al Hansen, Ben Vautier, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman and Ray Johnson, although some, including Johnson, never considered themselves part of Fluxus.  
            Fluxus artists opposed the ideals of Greenberg and the Abstract Expressionists.  Like the Futurists and the Dadaists they did not agree with the authority of the established museums over the world of art nor did they believe that one must be educated to view and understand a piece of art.  Maciunas wanted to tear down the elitist world of art critics, museums and galleries, literally.[6]  He had very definite ideas, which he recorded in manifestos, that fine art and, "at least its institutional forms,” should be, "totally eliminated."[7]  He proposed the obstruction of traffic and subway systems in New York focusing on areas that would affect museums and galleries.[8]  Fluxus musician, Henry Flynt launched an anti-museum campaign and picketed outside of The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1963, with signs that read, "Demolish art museums," and, "Demolish serious culture."(fig.6)[9] 
            With art taken out of museums it would be part of everyday life, it would be everywhere and accessible to everyone, anyone could make it, it would be no more important than a trip to the supermarket, putting your socks on or taking out the trash.  This descends from Cage’s idea that everyday life is more interesting than celebrated forms of art as well as Duchamp’s view on conceptualism.  Fluxus would translate this into the use of everyday objects being presented as art as well as a person’s actions and reactions also being considered art.  Maciunas also wanted to remove the artist's ego from the works of art and even suggested that all works simply be signed - Fluxus - instead of being signed by the artist that created the work.[10]  That way the artist was not elevated from anyone else and any art created by anyone would be equal. 
Fluxus events included audience participation as a way of involving the masses in the making of art.  Such was the 1970 "Fluxfest Presentation of John Lennon and Yoko Ono," where Maciunas made paper masks of John Lennon and Yoko Ono for the audience to wear so they could impersonate Lennon and Ono.[11]  Maciunas involved the audience in the work and made them become the performers.  The use of the audience and masking their real identities spoke about his ideas on taking the ego of the artist out of the piece as well as playing into these thoughts that, "anything can substitute for art and anyone can do it...the value of art-amusement must be lowered by making it unlimited, mass-produced, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all."[12]
            Maciunas wrote the Fluxus manifesto in 1963 with the proclamations to,

                "Purge the world of bourgeoisie sickness, “intellectual,” 
                 professional and commercialized culture, Purge the world of 
                dead art, imitation,  artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, 
                mathematical art, - PURGE THE WORLD OF “EUROPANISM!” 
                  promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART 
                 REALITY  to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, 
                 dilettante and  professionals,"

However, not al Fluxus artists agreed with Maciunas on everything.  Artist Jackson Mac Low wrote the following in 1962 in response to some ideas Maciunas had put forth against culture and museums,

                  “I’m not opposed to serious culture – quite the contrary. I’m all 
                   for it & consider that my own work is a genuine contribution to 
                   it….I’m not against art or music or drama or literature, old or new. 
                   I’m against the overbalance of museum culture…as present-minded 
                   and presently “useful” cultural activities and would certainly like to 
                 see the balance tipped the other way, but I would not want to eliminate 
                                        museums (I like museums).”

It was this type of dissent that caused Maciunas to invariably expel individuals from Fluxus.  In 1963 Maciunas expelled Jackson Mac Low from Fluxus and the following year added Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, and Nam June Paik to that list due to disagreements over what venues these artists were performing in.[15] 
There are other aspects to Fluxus, as Hannah Higgins, daughter of Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, points out in an interview that Fluxus artists, “who came in through contact with John Cage….are going to have a more Zen or experiential sense of the group, which also has a place in Dada…”[16]  Therefore, although there was a group of artists who were all considered to be part of Fluxus they did not all agree on the same ideals and viewed Fluxus in different ways.  As George Brecht put it, “In Fluxus there has never been any attempt to agree on aims or methods; individuals with something unnamable in common have simply coalesced to publish and perform their work.”[17]

1  Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 69.
Jon Hendricks, Fluxus Codex, (Detroit: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1998) 21.

Robert Silberman, “In the Spirit of Fluxus, Minneapolis” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135., No. 1083, (June 1993), 432., (accessed January 15, 2008).
 4 Smith, 19.
5 Ibid., 129.
6 Smith, 25.
Clive Phillpot, Jon Hendricks, Fluxus: Selections from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988), 15.
Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998), 5.
10 Ibid., 12.
11 Smith, 206.
12 Phillpot, Hendricks, 13.
13 Phillpot, Hendricks, 2.
14 Higgins, 77.
15 Ibid., 78.
16 Janet A. Kaplan, Bracken Hendricks, Geoffrey Hendricks, Hannah Higgins, Alison Knowles, “Flux Generations,” Art Journal, Vol. 59, No. 2. (Summer 2000), 9, (accessed March 25, 2008).
            17 Higgins, 70.

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