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This would look perfect above our sofa!

It might be true that most of the visual art being purchased, is bought purely for its utility as wall decoration. It may also be true that a majority of visual artists are content creating an oeuvre of pretty pictures. But good art, real art, serious art, transcends decoration. The best art is analogous to the best literature—it makes us think. It causes us to question. It induces wonderment.

Ancient cave drawing, artist unknown

Artists attempting to create work that is capable of defeating the demon of decor are faced with considerable challenges. Historically, even in non-Western, or ancient cultures, the most culturally important artists would have their creative fates enslaved to religion. Whether it was Catholicism or Animism, the role of the serious artist was often the role of shaman. Artists that wanted to tackle tangential projects needed to find a way to support themselves. They often also needed to find a way to protect themselves, since when art was meant to serve religious orthodoxy, any art that failed in that regard was often considered threatening. Usually with disastrous consequence to art and artist alike.

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel detail.
Detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo.

Nevertheless, the most important art of every era and culture transcended mere decoration. Even if the artists creating it were slaves to their cultural masters. Very few artists at work before the 18th century have left us a body of work that transcends any combination of religion, politics, or decoration. One possible exception being the brilliant polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, whose private sketches serve only his own purposes.

Some time, I'd place it near the end of the 19th century, visual artists in the Western European tradition, began to break free of the shackles of cultural and religious hegemony. A new phenomenon  emerged. The idea of artists creating art that was purely for their own interests. The best (most commonly referenced) example of these were the Impressionists. A group of artists who tried to push the limits of observation and experimentation to its limits.

Finally, there was an art for artists.

Starry Night Over the Rhone
Starry Night Over the Rhone (Nuit Étoilée sur le Rhône). 1888, Vincent van Gogh.

The seeds of demonic decoration were thus sown...

The art of the Impressionists is today considered to be beautiful. In its time it was considered revolutionary. Radical. Even dangerous. Art for art's sake, art created by artists for their own purposes was virtually unheard of until this time. It was an art that truly defeated the demons of decoration. And yet...

Today the art of these radical artists adorns dorm rooms on cheap poster paper. It can be found on coffee mugs and pillow cases, or trampled underfoot on cheap throwaway rugs. Only a tiny minority of artists and art history buffs still appreciate this art for what it truly was, and should truly remain.

As the twentieth century dawned and progresses, the same fate seems to have overtaken nearly every major art movement. Non-representational art such as abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction, and even pop art, have moved from underground artist studios, through avant garde galleries, to the walls of banks and multinational corporations.

Ellsworth Kelly paintings from an exhibition at the Marion Goodman Gallery

Once again, what began as a revolution in visual representation, ended with a whimper, on the walls of Ikea furnished apartments in suburban cultural wastelands.

There must be some way out of this place!

I am far from the first artist to notice this phenomenon. It is a big reason that I was attracted first to Dada, and later, to Fluxus.

Dada emerged from the ashes and ruins of the First World War. Artists, sickened by the death, destruction, and depravity of warfare, needed an art that could not be usurped. That by its very nature was resistant to being hung on walls to decorate living rooms and bedrooms. Art that would be difficult. Art that would be meaningful, precisely because the semiotic references and inferences would be non-obvious. Art that was for a revolution that could not be co-opted by men with money, or powerful people with mainstream (but ultimately destructive) agendas.


Allan Revich performs while reading the Dada Manifesto

Fluxus began in the 1960s, but grew out of a similar confluence of disillusionment and experimentalism. Fluxus was generally much less nihilistic than Dada, and was more self-consciously concerned with the media and cultural milieu in which the associated artists worked. Fluxus artists tended to create works that could be documented, presented and re-presented, even sold or traded; and yet remained somewhat ephemeral, and difficult to usurp commercially into the dominant culture.

Fluxus Manifesto by George Maciunas
Fluxus Manifesto by George Maciunas

The two most common "products" of Fluxus artists were the Fluxbox or Fluxkit, and the Event Score. Fluxkits were either limited or open editions of collaborative works. Sometimes offered for sale, and often traded among the project participants. Often the works were traditionally attributed, but were left unsigned, making their commercial values difficult to quantify. Even in the case of some of the groups most famous members, like Yoko Ono, works can be located for sale today for prices that would bankrupt commercially oriented artists like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons.

Where can we go from here?

Aye, there's the rub. It seems that artists who want to create serious art that is capable of defeating the demons of decoration are in bind. In a sense there really is no way out of it.

One might try creating ugly art, but even art that some feel is ugly, will be found to be attractive enough for someone's wall. There are subject matter games that can be played. For example, while even the most "difficult" abstract (non-representational) art will find a home on the wall of a bank or law firm, nudity and sexually provocative content is still taboo in the staid world of corporate interior decoration. But even sex and nudity are now consumed as entertainment and titillation, and not so much for artistic integrity or conceptual intentionality.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.
~ William Blake, circa 1793, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Opening the doors of perception

There is no way to escape the demons of decoration when it comes to any work of art that is intended to be hung on a wall. Works that exist in three dimensions (sculpture) is similarly doomed to decoration. Still, there is a way to create art that transcends its own destiny.

  1. Do it anyway. Artists creating two or three dimensional works can continue to create work that is layered with meanings that go beyond the decorative. While their (our/my) work is mostly consumed because of its decorative value, the work will always have more embedded in it for the artist, and for whatever minuscule audience cares to search for it. I've tried to accomplish this in my paintings and drawings by working with asemic text, and by using minimalist landscapes to suggest deeper layers of meaning. Something approaching a religious experience accessible even to hardcore atheists.
  2. Do the Dada. Dada may be dead, and Fluxus might be getting long in the tooth, but that does not prevent either of these memes from remaining viable alternatives to working within the confines of the mainstream art markets. Chaos, confusion, entropy, revolution, and even downright silliness are fabulous ways to create artwork that is interesting, dynamic, and highly resistant to commercialization or decor.
  3. Expand into other media, primarily temporal oriented media. Performance art, sound art, light art, action art, and any other activity that is hard to capture and package. Sure, you'll need a trust fund or a day job, but so what? You've broken the shackles of commercial conformity.
  4. Mail art, and other forms of inter-artist exchange. Why not break free of the art market and gallery scene completely? Artists have been sending each other small pieces by mail for decades now. Mail art is unjuried, unsold, and unfettered. With the Internet it is now easily possible to connect with other artists around the world, and to begin creating, sending and receiving art through the postal system.
  5. Web based art. Whether you build a blog, use a website, or participate on social media, the web is full of options and opportunities to create and exchange visual and multimedia content. Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are full of wonderful and eclectic artwork and visual content. Yeah, I know... "if it's free, then you're the product". But what the heck. Be the best damned product you can be, and get busy.

Dada meets fluxus dolls and false teeth

 

 

 

Is Fluxus still relevant in 2016?

Let me make it easy for you dear reader. The (short) answer to this question is an unequivocal, "YES!"

If you're still reading, I'll assume that you have some interest in knowing why Fluxus, a "movement" from the early 1960s remains relevant (and dare I say important?) in the early years of the twenty-first century. Let me answer this in three parts. What Fluxus was. What Fluxus is. Why Fluxus is still important.

  1. What Fluxus Was:
    This question has been answered many times, by many people, so I'll provide an answer here, but won't dwell upon it. Fluxus grew out of the art and attitudes of the avant-gardes in America, Europe, and Japan in the late 1950s. It was heavily influenced by a group of artists at Black Mountain College, and by the composer John Cage (who in turn was influenced by Zen Buddhism). By the early 1960s a small group of artists collected around the Lithuanian-American artist George Maciunas, who coined the term, "Fluxus" to describe the group and the art that they were making in 1961. One of those artists was the American, Dick Higgins, whose background in academia provided the group with much of its theoretical legitimacy.

    Higgins drafted a 9 point set of criteria that he felt described what Fluxus was.…there are some points in common among most Fluxworks: 1 internationalism, 2 experimentalism and iconoclasm, 3 intermedia, 4 minimalism or concentration, 5 an attempted resolution of the art/life dichotomy, 6 implicativeness, 7 play or gags, 8 ephemerality, and 9 specificity. Later, Ken Friedman (an early member of Fluxus, and later, a respected Fluxus historian), expanded Higgins original 9 points into a 12 point thesis. And later still, Allan Revich (a contemporary Fluxus artist and theorist; and author of this blog) condensed the essence of Fluxus into a simpler and more elegant, 4 points. These four points are the essential elements that bind the Fluxus of the 1960s to the Fluxus of today:

    1. Fluxus is an attitude. It is not a movement or a style.
    2. Fluxus is intermedia. Fluxus creators like to see what happens when different media intersect. They use found and everyday objects, sounds, images, and texts to create new combinations of objects, sounds, images, and texts.
    3. Fluxus works are simple. The art is small, the texts are short, and the performances are brief.
    4. Fluxus is fun. Humor has always been an important element in Fluxus.
  2.  What Fluxus Is:
    Today a number of artists throughout the world continue to work in the traditions and manner of Fluxus. These artists internalize the Fluxus attitude, and integrate it into their art-making. They mostly eschew the hyperactive capitalist pig-feeding frenzy that the so New York based art market has spawned, as well as the fluffy decorative object flea market that exists outside of the big money world of investment bankers and status-starved billionaires.

    In the early 2000s a group of Fluxus artists, bound together at first by the online "Fluxlist" community (co-founded by Fluxus co-founder Dick Higgins) began to once again host and attend major international Fluxfests. First in New York City, and later in Chicago. These festivals have mostly been organized by St. Louis based, Keith Buchholz (first with help from Allan Revich of Toronto and support from the Emily Harvey Foundation in Manhattan, and later with help from artist Bill (Picasso) Gaglione and curator Tricia Van Eck). This group of artists has remained true to the Four Fluxus Ideas.

  3. Why Fluxus is Still Relevant:
    The ideas and ideals of Fluxus form a perfect counterpoint to the twin evils currently dominating the international art market. Fluxus practices run completely counter to unbridled greedy capitalist money games, and to the reams of decorative pap and crap of the poster shops and home-decor markets.

    Fluxus practice also provides the only real counterpoint to another emerging problem of the contemporary art scene—a problem that I consider more dangerous to art than even the big-money art market; academia. Partly because of the art market, and partly because of new political agendas (all of which are politically important), the academy has become completely dominated by hyphenated arts. Feminist-art. Liberation-art. Gender-art. Theme-art. Arts Informed Research art. As I mentioned (in parenthesis above) the ideas and ideals behind these politics are not a problem. In fact (IMHO) it's "high time" that issues like gender and feminism became mainstream in academia! What is a problem, is that art that is NOT infused with another agenda seems to have become completely lost in the academy—with the sole exception of institutions bent on producing MFA graduates ready to compete in Money Game Art.

    Finally, Fluxus provides something that the only other real alternate art movement, Dada, does not. Fluxus provides a sense of levity, and hopefulness, that is not necessarily a core part of Dada. Dada has its roots in the post WWI world of despair and hopelessness, so it's often sad and nihilistic.

    Fluxus may be the only artistic practice still capable of providing the special combination of gravitas and levity from which truly great and important art emerges.

1

There have never been really solid lines demarking where Fluxus starts and stops.

To my mind there are some things that are clearly Fluxus and others that are clearly not Fluxus, but there is a heck of a lot of grey in between. For example, I am not currently aware of any pure audio art (sound art without a background event score or visible performers) that was made or exhibited during the first Fluxus era. But I think that sound art is the ultimate expression of Intermedia, and Intermedia is/was fundamental to understanding Fluxus.

The writing of event scores, performance of event scores, fluxboxes, fluxkits, and the type of work typically included in a fluxbox (visual poetry, experimental poetry, drawings and texts, small found objects and multiples) probably constituted the majority of work that could easily be classified as Fluxus. But even in the first Fluxus era, the scope of Intermedia and work presented as Fluxus by its practitioners extended beyond those forms.

In the era of the Internet the world of Intermedia has become the new normal. It seems only natural that the combination of technical media intersections and online social networking should lead to a renaissance of new Fluxus that while not the same as the old Fluxus, is never-the-less a natural extension of it. I believe that the group of artists that I am associated with is a natural extension of Fluxus, and that we are indeed a legitimate new Fluxus community.

I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic ... I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds.

The quote above is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, as found in Ken Friedman's essay, Fluxus: A Laboratory of Ideas, in the exhibition catalog for Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life, currently on view at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.

While I am far from certain about how Ralph Waldo would react in the presence of Fluxus activity, he does seem to foreshadow and important element of the Fluxus philosophy. His is perhaps a more eloquent version of one of my own quick catchphrase explanations of Flluxus... "Fluxus makes the mundane magical". Of course, Emerson was speaking about Fluxus in 1837, more that a hundred years before Fluxus even formally existed!

The Fluxus dead or alive argument is simpler than many people on both sides make it out to be.

Fluxus was a group of artists in the 60s and 70s. The group largely disbanded after Maciunas died. Ergo Fluxus is dead.

BUT... That group of artists set an idea in motion. That idea (or attitude) is Fluxus. The Fluxus idea, attitude and way of being and artmaking is as relevant today as it was then. Ergo Fluxus lives.

I can see the attraction of the first statement for those whose primary objective is to profit from Fluxus, but  ss a living, breathing, Fluxus practioner, it seems pretty obvious to me thatthe second statement is more accurate.

There have never been really solid lines demarking where Fluxus starts and stops.

To my mind there are some things that are clearly Fluxus and others that are clearly not Fluxus, but there is a heck of a lot of grey in between. For example, I am not currently aware of any pure audio art (sound art without a background event score or visible performers) that was made or exhibited during the first Fluxus era. But I think that sound art is the ultimate expression of Intermedia, and Intermedia is/was fundamental to understanding Fluxus.

The writing of event scores, performance of event scores, fluxboxes, fluxkits, and the type of work typically included in a fluxbox (visual poetry, experimental poetry, drawings and texts, small found objects and multiples) probably constituted the majority of work that could easily be classified as Fluxus. But even in the first Fluxus era, the scope of Intermedia and work presented as Fluxus by its practitioners extended beyond those forms.

In the era of the Internet the world of Intermedia has become the new normal. It seems only natural that the combination of technical media intersections and online social networking should lead to a renaissance of new Fluxus that while not the same as the old Fluxus, is never-the-less a natural extension of it. I believe that the group of artists that I am associated with is a natural extension of Fluxus, and that we are indeed a legitimate new Fluxus community.

Fluxus has a new manifesto, (FLUXUS MANIFESTO FOR THE 21st CENTURY). What does this change?

  1. The New Manifesto Changes nothing:
    George Maciuanas, Dick Higgins, and Ken Friedman did a very good job of defining Fluxus and describing what it is. Fluxus does not need anybody to do redo the excellent work already done in this regard. The Four Principles that I enumerated much later are NOT a new definition. I wrote them as a response to a need that I identified for a a quick and simple description of what Fluxus is, for those (frequent) occasions when people without previous experience or exposure to Fluxus request an explanation. I think that I succeeded, and that the four principles provide a reasonable explanation that should satisfy any casual inquiry, while still remaining true to the intentions of the more sophisticated explanations. If there is ever a conflict between one of the Four Principles and a historically or technically more accurate example, the historical truth must prevail.
  2. The New Manifesto Changes Everything:
    Contemporary Fluxus artists have thrown off the last yokes of dependency on the old generation of Fluxus insiders. The contemporary artists know that they are Fluxus artists and do not need to ask for permission or even opinions as to their status as Fluxus artists.Artists were doing Fluxus before Fluxus was even named. In the 1960s and 1970s a group of artists centered themselves around George Maciuanas and called themselves and their work Fluxus. After Maciuanas's death some of these artists continued making Fluxus works and others dispersed or followed new ideas. Over the years new artists began working with Fluxus ideas and creating new Fluxus works. Some of the original Fluxus group thought this was exciting and interesting. Some of the original Fluxus group, along with parts of the commercial art market that dealt with Fluxus as commodities whose value was dependent on perceived scarcity, found this development threatening. The newer artists were confused by this schism as they attempted to assert their own identities as Fluxus artists while seeking the guidance and respect of the remaining original Fluxus artists.

    It became clear to the new Fluxus artists that certain parts of the old and established Fluxus community were never going to accept them as anything other than a group of child-like appendages whose role must be limited to the promotion and celebration only of the work done by themselves. This state of affairs was not acceptable to a group of autonomous artists who saw (and see) themselves as a continuation of Fluxus, not as a subsidiary appendage.

The Fluxus Manifesto for the 21st Century asserts that contemporary Fluxus artists are proud of their Fluxus heritage, are continuing to celebrate the work and achievements of the Fluxus artists who came before them, but are no longer dependent upon them for support or for opinions on their legitimacy or perceived lack thereof.

Fluxus lives and we are Fluxus!

Fluxfest New York 2011 is coming soon to New York City. April 11 through April 17, 2011. Some venues have been secured, some are being negotiated, and one appears to have backed out. It's hard for me to understand why a venue that has a strong history of supporting Fluxus would withdraw support from a Fluxfest, but from what I understand, this particular space was more comfortable hosting reproductions of old historical Fluxs works than in supporting the work of newer and emerging Fluxus artists. Why would this be?

As new artists see the possibilities of working within the Fluxus milieu there has been an incredible renaissance of Fluxus works and performances. New scores are being written. New artworks and texts are being created, and new artists are celebrating the accomplishments and legacies of the earlier generation of Fluxus artists. Many people who have been associated with Fluxus over the last 50 years have shown themselves to be very excited about the new Fluxus awakening. Artists and works that were on the verge of fading into oblivion are suddenly in the forefront of consciousness of the arts community. Apparently the new Fluxus phenomenon is not universally being welcomed by all though. Is Fluxus dead or is it alive? Was it a movement, and idea, or is it an attitude? Who were the Fluxus artists? Who can claim to be a Fluxus artist?

I think that there are two basic and long-standing definitions of what Fluxus is, and that is what complicates answering the question, "who is a Fluxus artist?"

1) The Silverman Collection Fluxus: Fluxus as defined by collectors, and historians with powerful vested interests in confining Fluxus to specific times and places. They prefer a tight and tidy definition, generally around the idea that Fluxus began with George Maciuanas, and it ended when he died. George died died, the circle dispersed. Fluxus ended.

2) The "Fluxus Attitude" as decribed by Owen Smith, and the Fluxus Idea as described by Dick Higgins and Ken Friedman:  Dick and Ken collaborated on the 12 Fluxus ideas. In fact, these are Ken's own words,

Dick explicitly rejected a notion that limited Fluxus to a specific group of people who came together at a specific time and place. Dick wrote, "Fluxus is not a moment in history, or an art movement. Fluxus is a way of doing things, a tradition, and a way of life and death."

For Dick, for George Maciunas, and for me, Fluxus is more valuable as an idea and a potential for social change than as a specific group of people or a collection of objects.

As I see it, Fluxus was a laboratory. The research program of the Fluxus laboratory is characterized by twelve ideas:globalism,

  1. the unity of art and life,
  2. intermedia,
  3. experimentalism,
  4. chance,
  5. playfulness,
  6. simplicity,
  7. implicativeness,
  8. exemplativism,
  9. specificity,
  10. presence in time, and
  11. musicality.

My own 4 point summary is derived from a combination of this idea and of Owen Smith's idea of Fluxus as an Attitude, along with examples of the actual work produced and held out to be Fluxus work by Fluxus artists, to wit:

  1. Fluxus is an attitude. It is not a movement or a style.
  2. Fluxus is intermedia. Fluxus creators like to see what happens when different media intersect. They use found and everyday objects, sounds, images, and texts to create new combinations of objects, sounds, images, and texts.
  3. Fluxus works are simple. The art is small, the texts are short, and the performances are brief.
  4. Fluxus should be fun. Humor has always been an important element in Fluxus.

I'll leave this post with a few more words from Forty Years of Fluxus:

"...The first Fluxus disappeared a long time ago. It replaced itself with the many forms of Fluxus that came after.

The many varieties of Fluxus activity took on their own life and had a significant history of their own. It's unrealistic and historically inaccurate to imagine a Fluxus controlled by one man. Fluxus was co-created by many people and it has undergone a continuous process of co-creation and renewal for three decades."

And, so it goes. Fluxus ended for one group of artists and continues forward in the capable and spirited hands new generations of Fluxus artists.

Hello, my name is Allan Revich, and I am a Fluxus Artist.

Fluxus, since many people still have never even heard of it, continues to have the ability to surprise. But the advantage is, most people have been influenced by the ideas or have experienced Fluxus even though they don't realize it. There is more subconscious precedent in the back of people's minds today than there used to be in the past which provides resonance and people have the ability to connect with it even if they are not sure why. So there is often an almost guilty recognition among some that they 'love this kind of stuff' even if there is something of a disconnect. For artists this disconnect comes from the belief that Fluxus is a historical event – a closed circle - that is long over and do not realize that it continues to live and grow through the present generation of practitioners and that they could be a part of it in the present if they feel the connection.

Regardless of what Fluxus ever was or is now or shall be in the future, it is first and foremost a community of people who communicate and work with each other in the context of Fluxus – of Fluxus as an attitude, as a tradition, as a trajectory, as a point of view. Fluxus has always been experimental and has always challenged boundaries – famously, the boundaries between high and low art or the boundaries between one medium and another and ultimately the perceived boundaries between art and life.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that Fluxus artists do not recognize any boundary between the past and the present or between insiders and outsiders. The Fluxus community today is a self organizing, porous organization. Membership in this community is based on interacting with other members of the community and participating in group projects. The more one participates, the more of a core member one becomes. It is that simple. It is a matter of interconnectedness. That is what makes any community.

If virtually anyone could become a part of the Fluxus community, and anyone can, then the question might then arise, “But is what all of these people are doing really Fluxus?” That seems like a good question. It could be suggested that the recognition of what is Fluxus would need to emerge from the activities of the members of this community and the ensuing dialog around those activities. As a group dedicated to Fluxus, it is inevitable that certain things will come to be regarded as Fluxus and many other things will not. It is really a matter of consensus within the group. If the group remains open and experimental then what is Fluxus amid what they are doing will be recognized and favored as such – everything else will not be. Since Fluxus is open by nature, new ideas can and will emerge, these new ideas will find their way into the canon of Fluxus if they are in accord with the general nature of Fluxus as accepted by the community thus allowing for change and transformation which are, in themselves inherently Fluxus.

During the founder’s time, George Maciunas was the ‘chairman’, the man in charge of deciding what was Fluxus and what wasn’t and he often changed his mind. In his absence, the Fluxus community is not restricted by the limitations of a single individual’s vision. As an experimental idea Fluxus at its core, is democratic by nature rather than hierarchical. When looking at the definition for hierarchy there is a relevant quote: "it has been said that only a hierarchical society with a leisure class at the top can produce works of art". It could be said that Fluxus challenges that view in that works of art can be made by anyone in any society depending on how one defines what constitutes works of art.

In Fluxus, power is no longer invested in a single individual or small group of insiders deciding what or who is or isn't Fluxus. The power is, rather, invested in the community. Each individual in the community is in charge of his own domain and responsible for his own place in the network without approval from any ‘superior'. This is cleverly alluded to in a recent work by Keith Buchholz who, using a well known Maciunas work: NO SMOKING, removed the ‘S’ making a new work: NO MO KING meaning 'no more king'.

Fluxus today, equipped with the examples set by Maciunas and the other seminal members, has the capacity to grow and expand according to the ‘Laws of Fluxus’ established through precedence rather than the decrees and judgments of an individual authority. Are you a member of the Fluxus community? You ought to be.

Cecil Touchon, Director
The Ontological Museum
http://ontologicalmuseum.org

Copyright © 2011 Cecil Touchon
reposted with permission

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