Friday, January 28, 2011

Chapter VIII - Happenings

 Fluxus was not the only group staging performance pieces during the late 1950s to early 1960s, there were also other types of performances going on which came to be known as Happenings.  Happenings emerged from the Rutgers University campus in New Jersey and included artists who would later be known as the ‘Rutgers Group’ such as Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Robert Watts and George Brecht.[1]  The first Happening was done by Kaprow at Rutgers University in 1958.[2]  Happenings differed slightly from Fluxus performances and generally were more complicated and scripted, like a theatrical work that involved the audience.  Artist Allan Kaprow is credited with coining the term Happening.[3]   There were also performances and installation pieces that involved performance art called "events" or "situations" that today are often considered interchangeable with Happenings. 
There was a cross-over effect with Fluxus and Happenings artists, they often participated in the same venues and they were certainly aware of each other.  Maciunas’ Flux-Mass of 1970, which will be discussed later, took place at Voorhees Chapel on the Rutgers campus and Allan Kaprow and George Brecht flowed in between both movements.  It is therefore difficult to definitively categorize them as two absolutely separate entities. 
Happenings and Fluxus continued into the later sixties and seventies.  Performance art became more accepted and even the preferred form of art for the time.  The art world paralleled the changing American society and became more rebellious and insistent upon change.  The civil rights movement, feminists and the counterculture youth movement became more radical as the sixties went on and America headed into the Vietnam War and enforced the involuntary draft.  The harder the government tried to crush the youth movement the stronger the counter movements fought back and even the chaplain of Yale University, William Sloane Coffin, encouraged students to dodge the draft.[4]  Art historians and critics followed slightly behind the discourse and by the seventies were caught up in a rebellion of their own against formalism and for a more sociological context in art criticism.  It was against this background that there existed Fluxus, Happenings and Ray Johnson.

1 Joan Marter, Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 1.
2 Ibid., 8.
3 Geoffrey Hendricks, Critical Mass: Happenings, Fluxus, Performance, Intermedia and Rutgers University 1958-1972, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), i.
 4 Judith G. Coffin, Robert C. Stacey, Robert E. Lerner, Standish Meacham, Western Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002) 1091.

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.

Chapter VI - John Cage

VI. John Cage: 
                        “One of the liveliest lectures I ever heard…was called Zen Buddhism 
                                  and Dada. It is possible to make a connection between the two, 
                                  but neither dada nor Zen is a fixed tangible.” -  John Cage

John Cage was an experimental composer and as mentioned earlier he taught at Black Mountain College.  He is known for using everyday sounds that are not usually thought of as music in his compositions.  This idea was directly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s use of everyday objects as art.  Cage was quite aware of Duchamp and his ideas and the two met in the late 1940s.[2]  The second influence that dominated Cage’s work was the teachings and philosophies of Zen Buddhism.  He studied Zen in the mid 1940s and it deeply affected his outlook on life and music.[3]  Cage explained his beliefs, "The attitude that I take is that everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration [art] when we become aware of it..."[4]  To him, art was everywhere, everyday life was art and every sound we hear was music or had the potential to be and these daily sights and sounds were more interesting to him than the accepted forms of art and music.  Cage thought that art should be concerned with equivalency of values instead of elevating artistic experiences from everyday experiences - "in this way art becomes important as a means to make one aware of one's actual environment."[5]  This comes directly from Buddhist teachings on the importance of being aware of every moment and present in every moment in life.  Every second is significant and one should always have the awareness of that.  When this is applied to art or music then one is always aware of the potential of every object, act or sound potentially being art.  This also pertains to the teaching philosophy at Black Mountain of art and learning continuously taking place as part of everyday life.  Cage undoubtedly played some part in implementing that concept.
Cage staged a performance at Black Mountain College in 1952 that is considered by some to be the first Happening.[6]  The piece held significant importance to Fluxus and Happenings artists.  It was called, “Theatre Piece 1.”  The piece included the reading of poetry by M.C. Richards, an exhibition of paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, piano playing by David Tudor and dancing by Merce Cunningham.[7]  It was a loosely outlined event that incorporated chance and was very similar to events that took place at the Cabaret Voltaire.[8]  After Cage’s involvement at Black Mountain College he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York in the late 1950s.[9]  Among his students were future Fluxus artists George Brecht, Jackson Mac Low and Dick Higgins.[10]

1 John Cage, Silence, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), xi.
2 Owen Smith, Fluxus: The History of an Attitude, (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 1998), 20.
3 Ibid. 21.
Ibid., 22.
Ibid., 21.
Zommer, DVD.
Smith, 23.
10 Ibid.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chapter V - Dada

“So DADA was born of a desire for independence, of a distrust of the community.
                 Those who belong to us keep their freedom. We don't recognize any theory. We
                  have had enough of cubist and futurist academies: laboratories of formal ideas.
                    Do you practice art to earn money and fondle the middle class?”
                                                                                                              -Tristan Tzara

Dada started in Zurich, in the spring of 1916 during a time of great upheaval and turmoil in Europe.  World War I was drastically changing the lives of everyone throughout the continent and it was hard for anyone to make any sense of the horrific accounts of violence that were being reported.  Many artists, writers and intellectuals who were morally opposed to fighting in the war fled to neutral Switzerland.[2]  The congregation of these artists and writers in Zurich set the stage for nonconformist ideas to flourish.  It was from this group that included Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck that Dada emerged. 
The Dada artists believed that a contributing factor in the war was bourgeois logic and reason.  Therefore, Dada artists took the opposite route from socially accepted logic and reason; they sought nonsense, chaos and humor as an alternative ideology to what had existed up until then.  They saw that society had striven for orderliness, seriousness and rigidly structured lifestyles and it had only led the world into a senseless and massively destructive war, so abandoning logic seemed to be the best alternative.  Hans Richter described Dada in the following;
                   “Dada was not an artistic movement in the accepted sense; it broke over the 
                     world of  art as the war did over the nations. It came without warning, out 
                     of a heavy brooding sky, and left behind it a new day in which the stored-up 
                     energies released by Dada were evidenced in new forms, new materials, 
                                   new ideas, new directions, new people – and in
                                   which they addressed themselves to new people.”

Dada originated at the Cabaret Voltaire, a small bar set up by Hugo Ball and his wife, Emmy Hennings where artists, writers and poets could assemble to play music, recite poetry, show artworks and dance.[4]  Ball made requests to his artist friends for paintings, etchings and drawings to display at the Cabaret Voltaire.[5]  Tristan Tzara, poet and friend of Ball, organized poème simultané, where three or more people sang, spoke or made various noises at the same time to be performed at the cabaret.[6]  Ball stated, “When I started the Cabaret Voltaire, I was sure that there must be other young men in Switzerland who, like myself, wanted not only to enjoy their independence, but also to give proof of it.”[7]  And he was right.  The Cabaret Voltaire drew in artists and writers who wanted to put forth their ideas on the events of the day and create something new and independent.   They wanted to distance themselves from the abominations that were occurring outside of Switzerland’s borders.  As Jean Arp put it,

                            “We had no interest in the abattoirs of the World War and devoted 
                              ourselves to fine art.  While the thunder of artillery rumbled away in 
                              the distance we were putting collages, reciting, writing verse, and 
                               singing with all our hearts.  We were looking for an 
               elementary type of art that we thought would save mankind 
               from the raging madness of those times.”[8]

Dada continued on with certain Futurist ideas and sought to combine all areas of fine art, such as painting, sculpture, poetry, music and dancing.  However, Dada did not agree with the politics of the Futurists.  They often used humor in place of the confrontational attitude of the Futurists.  At the Cabaret Voltaire there were “cabaret shows” showcasing these arts and ideas.  Ball described one of the early shows at Cabaret Voltaire, “Mme. Hennings and Mme. Leconte sang in French and Danish. Mr. Tristan Tzara read some of his Roumanian [sic] poetry.  A balalaika orchestra played popular tunes and Russian dances.”[9]  Dada was, as put by Huelsenbeck, "a rallying point for abstract energies and a lasting slingshot for the great international artistic movements."[10] 
            The Dada movement flourished in several cities besides Zurich such as Berlin and Paris.  Paris Dada focused more on the literary than on the visual arts.  Berlin Dada was more political.  In New York, Dada developed independently and differently from European Dada and centered on the circle of artists involved with Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery.[11]  America was not yet in the war when New York Dada formed in 1913 and New York did not have the geographical or personal closeness to the war that Europeans had.  The New York Dadaists were rebelling against the established art world for different reasons than European Dadas.  One reason for the latest artistic rebellion was photography.  Stieglitz and fellow photographer Edward Steichen were seeking to establish photography as an accepted form of modern art.  This was not an important aspect of European Dada.  News from the European art scene was filtering through to America and was introduced at the Armory Show of 1913 which displayed over one thousand pieces of artwork by modern European artists.  Included in this show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  The Armory show introduced American artists to a new way of thinking about art.  This new way of thinking would eventually open up the doors for everything from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art to Fluxus and to Ray Johnson.
Since there were numerous groups of Dada artists spread across Europe and in New York, it is difficult to pinpoint one set of specific ideals that was incorporated into the Dada movement.  There were often widely varying thoughts on what it should be depending on the city and group of artists involved at the moment.  Generally, they were against the usual bourgeois lifestyle and way of thinking as well as the then accepted aesthetics and theories on art.  Dada artists incorporated chance, humor and nonsense into their pieces.  Tzara, perhaps, best defines the overall feel of the movement in his Dada Manifesto of 1918:
                                So DADA was born of a desire for independence, of a 
                                          distrust of the community.  Those who belong to us keep 
                                           their freedom. We don't recognize any theory. We
                                          have had enough of cubist and futurist academies: 
                                           laboratories of formal ideas. Do you practice art to earn
                                             money and fondle the middle class?[12]

Thus, the basic tenets of Dada were freedom, independence and nonconformity to theory and even to society.  It was the continuation of the artistic revolution. 
The most significant contribution by Dada was the readymade.  Anything and everything could be art according to the intention of the artist and the context in which the object was placed.  Art could be made of anything; words, newspapers scraps, sounds, urinals, even entire houses and art should not have to conform to the established art world’s galleries and museums.  Marcel Duchamp is the artists most associated with readymades today.  Duchamp’s ideas that the concept is what is important in art put him in the position of being considered one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.  His readymade pieces such as Fountain or In Advance of the Broken Arm were everyday objects, a urinal and a shovel respectively, but the naming of those objects and the placement of them in an exhibition transformed them into pieces of art based on the concept alone, not on the actual object. 
Kurt Schwitters, another artist associated with Dada, was interested in blurring the boundaries between the arts.  His ideas were as follows,

                   “My aim is the total work of art, which combines all branches of art
                     into an artistic work…First I combined individual categories of art. 
                     I have pasted poems from words and sentences so as to produce a 
                    rhythmic design. I have on the other hand pasted pictures and 
                     drawings so that sentences could be read in them. I have driven
                     nails into pictures so as to produce a plastic relief apart from the 
                    pictorial quality of the paintings.
                     I did so as to efface the boundaries between the arts.”[13]

Schwitters put his ideas into play with his Merzbau.  This was the transformation of Schwitters’ actual house into a piece of artwork and he described it as, “building an abstract sculpture into which people can go.”[14]  He used found objects and attached them to the existing architecture of his home as well as altering the existing architecture of the house.  It was an ongoing installation piece that Schwitters actually lived in.  A step into the realm of erasing the borders between art and life, he wanted to actually live in his artwork.
            Another element of Dada that would be important to Fluxus artists and Johnson was the element of chance.  Dadaists incorporated chance into their art and there would often be entire works with no aesthetic planning.  In Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, he dropped three meter long threads onto three canvases and fixed them there.  These canvases were then adhered to glass panels.  Duchamp then placed these in an open wooden box along with three pieces of wood cut into the same shapes that the strings had made when they landed on the canvases.  Artist Jean Arp used a similar method in his collages when he would drop paper shapes onto another paper and glue them down without planning out the composition.  Arp would just let the chance of the way they fell decide the placement.  
            Dada concepts such as the promotion of absurdity and humor, the use of chance to create art, the combination of arts and especially Duchamp’s ideas on conceptualism would be the catalyst for the formation of Fluxus and Happenings.  They would also play major roles in performances composed by John Cage that were executed at Black Mountain College and in the performances of Ray Johnson.

1 Robert Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981), xxiv.
Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1997), 9.
3 Ibid., 12.
4 Motherwell, xxv.
5 Richter, 30.
6 Motherwell, xxv.
Marc Dachay, Dada, the Revolt of Art, (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2006), 12.
Motherwel, xxv.
Ibid., 24.
10 Richter, 81.
11 Tzara, 125.
12 Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: the Cathedral of Erotic Misery, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 25.
13 Schwitters, xvii.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chapter IV - The Futurists

                  “We rang for room service and the year 1913 answered: it gave Planet Earth a 
                         valiant new people, the heroic Futurians.” – Velimir Khlebnikov

Futurism is a movement that originated in Italy and was led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.  Futurists announced their existence in 1909 with the publication of Marinetti’s ‘The Futurist Manifesto,’ in the Paris newspaper La Figaro.[1]  No other previous group of artists had so aggressively and provocatively spoken out against tradition.  In the Futurist Manifesto Marinetti called for the destruction of museums and libraries, the glorification of anarchism and the enrichment of, “the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd.”  He wanted a complete break with tradition and history.  He wanted no association with any art that had come before him and the other Futurists. 
Today the Italian Futurists are often remembered only for their fascist political leanings, their paintings and sculptures and their fascination with movement and speed but what is so often ignored are their performances.   Their performances are what set them apart from past artistic movements.  Early Futurist performances consisted of readings of their manifestoes and poetry.[2]  There would also be Futurist painters who would carry their paintings out on stage to display to the audience and short plays performed.[3]  This combination of acting, painting and poetry set up in one venue would set the stage for Dada and Fluxus.  However the truly revolutionary element of Futurist performance was the breaking down of the “fourth wall” to seek an involvement from the audience. 
Marinetti wrote of ways to provoke the audience into action in his Variety Theatre Manifesto of 1913.[4]  Some of his suggestions included gluing people to their seats, selling the same ticket to ten different people and the offering of free tickets to, “gentlemen or ladies who are notoriously unbalanced, irritable or eccentric and likely to provoke uproars with obscene gestures, pinching women or other freakishness.”[5]  The involvement of the audience would be especially influential to Happenings and Fluxus artists and to Ray Johnson.
The Futurists did more than just rebel against tradition and history.  They rebelled against acceptable aesthetics and even aesthetics in general.  They rebelled against the established art world and all of its institutions.  In a new and bold push towards the future they combined areas of arts in a way that had not truly been done before.  They conceived of performance art in the way that we know it today.  Their use of the audience in their performances not only broke down the fourth wall, it broke down all conceptions of what art was up until that point in time.  The Futurists did what Courbet had done to the Salon, they made a break in the art world of the avant-garde.  This break would lead to the attitude we have today of ‘anything goes’ in art.

1 David Britt, ed. Modern Art: Impressionism to Post-Modernism, (New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1999) 177.
Michael Kirby, Futurist Performance, (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. 1971) 10.
3 Ibid. 16.
Ibid. 184.

Chapter III - The Avant-Garde

“An exclusively modern discovery, born only when art began to contemplate itself from a historical view.”[1] - Italian writer and critic, Massimo Bontempelli, on the avant-garde.
The term avant-garde is usually used to describe artists since the mid nineteenth century who have considered themselves as ahead of their time. Originally a French military term, today it is generally associated with the artists and writers who were the “vanguard” of artistic movements and ideas as well as instigators for political change. Aside from the Futurists, avant-garde artists were associated with leftist politics such as communism, nihilism and anarchism. Tracing history one can see that avant-garde movements always arose out of political turmoil and a need for societal change.
Today it is generally accepted by art historians that the artistic avant-garde began with Gustave Courbet, born in Ornans, France in 1819.[2] Courbet lived a life that set a standard for all future generations of artists. The artist, with behavior set by Courbet, would come to be known as a bohemian, a radical, a questioner of society, a mad genius. The unorthodox behavior of the artists would become tolerated and even expected as it was considered part of their genius. Courbet was part of the Parisian bohemian life in the mid nineteenth century and associated with many of his contemporary writers and artists. He was good friends with anarchist and philosopher Pierre Joseph Proudhon.[3] He became involved in French politics and was part of the short lived Paris Commune government arts committee in1871.[4] When the Commune collapsed Courbet was imprisoned and eventually voluntarily exiled to Switzerland.
What is important about Courbet is his rejection of the previous academic artistic movements such as Romanticism. When the Paris Salon turned down his painting for display at the Exposition Universalle, due to his bitter relationship with the superintendent of fine arts, Courbet audaciously exhibited his own work by himself nearby.[5] He displayed The Painter’s Studio, at his own exhibition called the ‘Pavillon du Réalisme’ which competed with the government sponsored exhibition in which he also had paintings shown.[6] This pivotal defiant act was the break in the art world that created the avant-garde. No longer was it necessary for the artist to blindly conform to what the Paris Academie des Beaux-Arts dictated good art was. It was at this point that the artists started to decide what constituted good art and began to refuse dictation from others. Courbet set a precedent that split the art world in two – the established academic French Salon and the avant-garde.
In the second half of the nineteenth century other artists immediately picked up on the trend set by Courbet of deciding for themselves what art should be despite what the Salon proclaimed. For instance, Édouard Manet’s, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, of 1863 was considered an outrage in the Paris art world. The manner in which he presented an unidealized nude female who looked directly at the viewer was unprecedented. Manet, in turn, had an influence on the Impressionists, who held their own exhibits separate from the Salon. They had their own ideas on what they wanted their paintings to convey and it was not what the Salon decreed. This line would continue on with Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, the Expressionists and so on.
Another group that formed in the later nineteenth century was the Symbolists. Symbolism was originally a literary movement associated with poets Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Stephan Mallarmé who reacted against accepted poetic conventions of the time. They also upheld the idea that artists and writers should be eccentric and act out irrationally in public and private life as it was part of their “genius.” Rimbaud perhaps has the best known quote on the subject, “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses.[7] There developed a belief that this unorthodox behavior and a “derangement of the senses” which would come to be done through alcohol and absinth, especially in the last decade of the nineteenth century, were conducive to creativity.
The ideas of the Symbolist poets soon reached into the art world. Symbolist painters did show at the Salon on occasion but were often rejected and some exhibited their works with the Impressionists.[8] Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau are two of the best known Symbolist painters. They wanted to express ideas symbolically in paintings and thought that any image depicted in a painting should not be seen at face value but as something that was representative of an idea.[9] The Symbolists wrote manifestoes on their beliefs; they were unhappy with the materialism of society and believed that they could change things through art and writing. They had an interest in occultism and brought in a new spiritual aspect to art that did not simply focus around the Catholic Church.[10] Spirituality would later play a significant role with the Abstract Expressionists.
It should be said that the Symbolist painters seemingly did less for the avant-garde movement than the Symbolist poets who opened the door, if only a crack, to a second break in the art world. Their emphasis on acting out and especially the antics of Rimbaud and Verlaine likely led to the artist acting out as part of his work and not just as part of the creative process. The Futurists would be the first group to truly incorporate this into a form of art.

1 Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald,(Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968) 14.
2 Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, Courbet in Perspective, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentics Hall Inc., 1977) 6.
3 Georges Boudaille, Gustave Courbet: Painter in Protest, (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society Ltd. 1969) 31.
4 Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, Courbet in Perspective, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentics Hall Inc., 1977) 21.
5 Linda Nochlin, Courbet, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2007) 184.
6 Ibid.
7 Wallace Fowlie, trans., ed., Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, A Bilingual Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966) 377.
Edward Lucie-Smith, Symbolist Art, (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1972) 74.
9 Ibid., 59.

10 Rose-Carol Washton Long, “Occultism, Anarchism, and Abstraction: Kandinsky's Art of the Future,” Art Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1, (Spring, 1987), pp. 38. (accessed December 12, 2008).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chapter II - Ray Johnson's Life

"Ray wasn't a person; he was a collage or a sculpture, a living sculpture. He was Ray Johnson's creation." - Billy Name
Ray Johnson was an intensely private person so there is not a great deal known about his childhood or early career. Even his close friends felt that they did not truly know him. The following is what is known and documented about Johnson's life. Ray Johnson was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 16, 1927 to Eino and Lorraine Johnson.[1] He had no siblings. He kept extensive scrapbooks and these give a small glimpse into his youth. While we can get an idea of Johnson’s academic and social activities through his scrapbooks there is no known record of his personal thoughts or feelings.
He attended Loren M. Post Intermediate School in Detroit and kept his certificate of admission to high school. He then continued on to Cass Technical High School and kept his admission ticket to the commencement exercises, dated January 31, 1945 as well as his certificates of winning first and second place in various poster contests. He kept information on taking summer art classes at Oxbow art school in Saugatuck, Michigan, being a high school member of the Red Cross and doing work at the Civilian Defense Volunteer Office in Detroit during the war years.[2] He painted animals on the wall of the children's wing of the Kiefer Hospital in Detroit.[3] In addition to this he was vice president of his school's Advertising Art Club and a member of the Junior Art Club.[4] It seems he had much going on for a teenager, whether prodded by his parents or done on his own is not known. Although considering the vast amount of artwork he would turn out in his life it would seem that he was on the ambitious side.[5]
Johnson attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina sometime between 1945 and 1948.[6] Black Mountain College can best described as an experiment in art education that combined all areas of the arts such as music, dance, poetry and studio arts. It was an incredible feat that such a place was able to exist at all in the conservative American south at that time in history. In the documentary, Fully Awake, Black Mountain College, it was said that, “An influx of artists and intellectuals came through not only to teach, but also to work collaboratively on their own projects.” The faculty consisted of a number of the most respected artists in the twentieth century, such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef and Anni Albers, Willem De Kooning, Jacob Lawrence and Robert Motherwell.[7]
Black Mountain differed from other colleges in that the faculty owned and operated the school.[8] Another difference that set Black Mountain College apart from others can only be described as an experiment in communal living as students and faculty worked together on everything from farming their own food to constructing the buildings.[9] Black Mountain College had only 1,200 students during the time it was open from 1933 to 1956.[10] An important aspect of the teaching philosophy there was the emphasis on making no distinction between work and play and learning was to constantly take place in and out of the classroom.[11] This notion of the student being in a perpetual state of learning had significant meaning to Johnson and introduced him to the concept of the lack of a distinct line between art and life for an artist. Johnson would soon come to believe that art should always be taking place, even throughout mundane day to day activities. It was to be the ruling philosophy throughout his entire life.
During his time at Black Mountain College, Johnson took classes taught by Josef Albers and met artist Richard Lippold, with whom he would have a twenty-five year intimate relationship.[12] John Cage, who would have a powerful influence over Johnson and the Fluxus movement, was teaching at Black Mountain while Johnson was there.[13] Cage’s ideas of Zen Buddhism applied to music affected the way Johnson thought about life and he would eventually apply Zen Buddhist philosophies to his own art.
When Ray Johnson came to New York in 1948 it was possibly the one of the very few places in America for the nurturing of a young avant-garde artist. There was an immense amount of pressure in the United States at that time to conform to society which was in large part due to the Cold War and fear of Communism. In the late 1940s the American government started their blacklisting of anyone that they considered part of or sympathetic towards communism. A majority of those on the list were in the movie industry and included actors, writers, directors and musicians. Whether their involvement was real or imagined did not matter as once someone’s name appeared on the list it became next to impossible for them to find work. People were being threatened with incarceration and were socially shunned for the political beliefs they held or were thought to hold. In the 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked the fires of Communist fears and began accusing any politically left leaning public figures of being Communists. When this type of oppressiveness is put in effect in a “free” country there will be a complete inability to contain the inevitable counter-movement. It was against this social background that Fluxus, Happenings and Johnson’s Nothings were born.
When Johnson came to New York City he moved into a tenement on the Lower East Side.[14] John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Lippold also lived in the same building.[15] They not only lived in the same building but they also socialized with each other. The combination of talents and ideas exchanged between these men certainly benefited them all. Although Cage seemed to be the driving influence for Johnson and many Fluxus artists, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Lippold all likely affected each others’ works. Some of Cunningham's dances had certain Zen, yoga-like qualities to them. Lippold’s sculptures had elements of spirituality. The golden wires in his works looked like rays of light. The works of Johns and Rauschenberg included humor and used mixed media combinations. These aspects all have a place in Johnson's art.[16]
In addition to those living in his building Johnson also corresponded, performed and exhibited with other known artists of the day such as Andy Warhol, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Joseph Cornell, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt and more. Certainly, they were stimulated by each other creatively and by the energy of the city. In an interview Johnson stated, "…you're not just influenced by artists. You're influenced by places and years and other people and irritations and problems."[17] The combination of artists, dancers, musicians and writers and the concentration of them in New York City at that time in history created a fertile ground for the next avant-garde movement.

Scott Watson, ed., Ray Johnson: How Sad I am Today…, (Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2001) 134.
Photocopies of Ray Johnson’s original scrapbooks from the collection of William Wilson, December 2007.
Muffet Jones, Ray Johnson: Correspondences, ed. Donna de Salvo and Catherine Gudis, (Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999), 202.
Cass Technical High School 1945 yearbook, Detroit, Michigan.
5 William S. Wilson’s collection of images of Ray Johnson's scrapbook and yearbook. 
Jones, 1999, 202.
American Masters: Black Mountain College, (accessed June 17, 2008).
Black Mountain College, an Introduction, (accessed June 30, 2008).
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Fully Awake, Black Mountain College, DVD, a film by Cathryn Davis Zommer and Neeley House, (Elon, NC: Elondocs Production, 2007).
12 Ibid.
13 Frederick A. Horowitz, Brenda Danilowitz, Josef Albers, the Bauhaus, Black Montain College and Yale, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2006), 34.
14 Ibid.
15 Jones, 2001, 32.
16 Michael Kimmelman, "A Collage in Which Life = Art = Death," The New York Times, October 6, 2002, (accessed September 22, 2007). 
 17 Sevim Fesci, "An Interview with Ray Johnson, 17 April 1968," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3/4. (2000), 20. (accessed May 25,2007).