In the late 1950s and early 1960s artists were beginning to feel that western art was reaching a spiritual and philosophical dead end. Modern western art had exploded in the vibrancy of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s and through most of the 1950s. Then critics and artists became concerned with the concepts behind the art that artists of the time were making. Color Field painting and Minimalism were the mainstream manifestations of this conceptual shift. When combined with the machinations of the art market and its need for expensive commodity objects, art ended up being massive, meaningless, and expensive. What began as artists doing what artists have always done, creating art based on their ideas, ended up becoming a market-driven orgy of excess. Zen, Wabi Sabi, and the East-meets-West work of neo-missionaries like John Cage offered artists a way out. The Event Score happened to be one of the most direct ways for artists to hold on to their artistic integrity without abandoning the conceptual advances that art was making at the mid-century dawn of the postmodern era.
Event Scores have become one of the signature artworks that have come to define Fluxus. On the surface, Event Scores bear some similarities to the Happenings that were made famous by Allan Kaprow, but there are some important differences. Kaprow’s Happenings tended to be long and complicated affairs, sometimes taking entire days to complete. The typical Happening was also a tightly scripted affair. Event Scores are nearly always very brief, and the instructions often deliberately are meant to encourage the score’s performers to improvise and invent their own interpretations of the score. There is a certain irony to this difference given that the term “happening” has come to be associated with the freeform hippy-fests of the 1960s in popular culture, while the much more freeform Events never had the same impact on popular culture.
There are several characteristics that typify Event Scores:
- Brevity - most Event Scores are short, even in those instances when the event itself has a longer duration; the score that describes it is usually very brief.
- Modesty - the typical Event Score concentrates attention on every day actions; like a Zen koan, by focusing on the mundane we learn to become more aware of the profound.
- Musicality – Event Scores are similar to music composition, the performances are similar to music concerts, and they represent the Intermedia intersection of the disciplines of art, music, poetry, and performance.
- Simplicity – there are seldom requirements for special tools, skills, techniques, or locales in order to execute the performance of a score.
- Temporality – a self-evident, and self-referential presence in time and space is an important aspect of most events.
Most of the artists who were associated with Fluxus over the years incorporated Event Scores into their artistic oeuvres. Artists for whom the Event Score was an especially important part of their work included Ken Friedman, George Brecht, who coined the term, and Yoko Ono, whose book Grapefruit gained widespread popularity, partly because of Ono’s association with the Beatles and with John Lennon, who contributed an introduction to the book.
Cecil Touchon, a contemporary Fluxus artist and gallerist, is currently organizing a new, major exhibition of Fluxus work. The work has been produced by artists who are working in the Fluxus tradition - some of whom also incorporate historical Fluxus event scores into their made-today work. Temporality has always been an important factor in Fluxus, and Cecil has shared with me a short article on the subject, that will form part of the exhibition catalog for Fluxhibition #2. I have taken the liberty of sharing part of this essay with readers of The Fluxus Blog.
When it comes to the history of fluxus it is best to think about and
study it as little as possible. History has very little to do with fluxus.
All products of fluxus activity are intended to be forever present and
should never be thought of as being a part of some historical moment.
If a fluxus product has a sense of being old or dated or historical it
may be seen as a limitation in the design of that particular product.
The design of a fluxus object or a fluxus score should always be seen
in the context of timelessness and to some degree transcend any
specific culture but be more aligned with pop culture on a global level.
If an artist spends enough time with an idea, he should be able to
strip it of any sense of being of a certain time or place...
...Many preexisting fluxus works will pass the test of time and scrutiny,
others will not. However, even the silliest of scores will find a
resonance at the right moment and with the right personality of artist
for whom such works will seem as if written with him or her in mind.
Cecil Touchon dec 26 2006
Stay tuned for more information about Fluxhibition #2 as it becomes available!
Fluxus—a name taken from a Latin word meaning "to flow"—is an international network of artists, composers and designers noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines in the 1960s. They have been active in visual art and music as well as literature, urban planning, architecture, and design. Fluxus is often described as intermedia, a term coined by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins in a famous 1966 essay.
My friend and fellow artist, Keri Marion wrote a detailed response to my article, Postmodernism Revisited, which I have published (with her permission) in full below. I like her point of view and mostly agree with what she writes. My point about postmodernism being better described as "late modernism", refers more to philosophical relativism than to postmodern art and cultural activity.
Here is what Keri has to say:
"- Pre-modernism was defined by powerful external forces like the church and the monarchy. "Reality" was whatever the chief or the shaman said was "real"."
There's also the fact that we are learning creatures. The "Old Masters" were interpreting space as "reality" in the sense that they were attempting to depict the three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional space. This served both a learning purpose and a functional purpose of recording history visually. Of course, we all understand that the recording was created from one person's perspective, and therefore completely unreal or non-relative in Modernist terms. The Church and Monarchy had great influence on the propaganda that was to be displayed, yes, but truthfully it was the "visual image maker" or "artist" that created the work, therefore in reality it was completely up to (more often than not) "him."
Think Carravagio, the dirty-foot master! The only reason his pieces were commissioned was because he was so skilled at what he did - otherwise, he was more of a nuisance to the Church. Things don't change that much, really.
"- Modernism was characterized by humanist rationality - the search for "universal" truth - think of Descartes, Voltaire, Spinoza, Darwin, etc."
In the quest for learning and exploring, as humans are naturally driven to do, Modernism found itself in the midst of a technological revolution: Industry. Of course the Modernists started to explore their reality in a flat way. Why continue working in three dimensions when you can consider the medium itself, offering a new sort of validity? The Modernists, like every era, were seeking Truth. They were no longer interested in depicting pictorial images because the "truth" was that "this is a canvas" or "this is paint from a tube" or "this is wire" or any sort of self-referencing material is what it is and nothing more than that.
"- Postmodernism in my view isn't really "post" modernism at all, but a term used to describe late modernism."
I believe Postmodernism actually is Postmodernism. It is clear to me that the ideas presented in Contemporary Art (the genre, not the timespace) are, in fact, established from a different point of reference and in that Postmodernists seek a different truth than Modernists. In some ways Postmodernists can revisit the Old Master philosophy of "pictorial art" but then take it further: dissect it, rearrange it, use it in different contexts, etc. There are some crossovers in every era - some people working way ahead of their times and other people working way behind the times. Either way, one can clearly see a shift in art-making since 1970.
"1) Eclecticism - there is no longer the need to find the "One Right Way", or the Universal Truth. Every person has their own version of what is real. ***This is sometimes misunderstood to mean that all versions are equally valid*** I think that this is what you (rightly) object to."
I think this clearly marks the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism. The term I've like to use in the past is "metahistorical" meaning in Postmodernism we can't say "this is truth" or "that is truth" because we recognize the perspective. What is truth for me isn't truth for you. We have our own version of what is real because reality is conceived by our experiences. In other words, we see with our experiences, not with our eyes. That marks the biggest, most solid difference between work made today and work made 400 years ago. And yes, it gets a little muddy here and there because every era had free-thinkers.
I do agree that the definitions of these things are "high minded parlour games" but at the same time I think it's fun to discuss. Thanks for giving me an excuse!
Make Nonsense out of Something
There are several ways that postmodernism has been defined. One of the ways that it has been defined is as troubling to me as it is to many PoMo detractors. That being so-called "moral relativism". When human beings can no longer tell right from wrong we cease being human beings. I think that view is a corruption of postmodernism. Just because everyone has their own version of reality does not mean that each view is of equal value. If someone's reality is that it is OK for people to suffer needlessly - well my reality is that that person is wrong and should be stopped. But... for me postmodernism is mostly a descriptive term for the era that we live in.
Here is how I would describe it:
- Pre-modernism was defined by powerful external forces like the church and the monarchy. "Reality" was whatever the chief or the shaman said was "real".
- Modernism was characterized by humanist rationality - the search for "universal" truth - think of Descartes, Voltaire, Spinoza, Darwin, etc.
- Postmodernism in my view isn't really "post" modernism at all, but a term used to describe late modernism.
It includes two broad, basic, concepts.
1) Eclecticism - there is no longer the need to find the "One Right Way", or the Universal Truth. Every person has their own version of what is real. ***This is sometimes misunderstood to mean that all versions are equally valid*** I think that this is what you (rightly) object to.
2) Baudrillard's "simulacrum" - the copy without an original. This can best be seen in American television. TV shows an idealized fictional reality which people then emulate and which television then reflects back to them again. Another way of thinking about this is as a hall of mirrors, an endless reflection of reflections.
Beyond those two key factors postmodern philosophy becomes very muddled and confused as it begins to get tied up in knots. It becomes completely useless as a basis for anything besides high-minded parlour games. I mean once people start using rational, logically constructed arguments to "prove" that logic and rationality don't matter, the whole exercise becomes ridiculous.
From an artists point of view postmodernism is really just something to have fun with. Artistic eclecticism opens the doors to all kinds of creativity. Video art, sound art, language poetry, etc. are all examples of postmodern artistic expression. Also, since art has always tried to reflect back an interpretation of the artists reality, the simulacrum is already "built-in" to an artists life and, I think, always has been.
- Jean Baudrillard
- Charles Bukowski
- John Cage
- Leonard Cohen
- Marcel Duchamp
It has taken me a while to get to this entry. Duchamp, for me, ranks with John Cage as a figure of such incredible importance to the arts that it is simply not possible to sum him up in a few short sentences. At least not with a sense of justice. But then, since I did it for Cage, I'll do it for Duchamp too! Just remember that this is only the twenty second elevator speech version. Duchamp was active in the early part of the 20th century primarily as a painter. While even his paintings were revolutionary for their time (he included the dimension of time, taking cubism to another level - and cubism was already considered revolutionary), his real revolution came with his exhibition of the "ready-made" as a work of art. He turned a urinal 90 degrees, called it "Fountain", and signed it "R. Mutt", he brought a shovel into a gallery and called it, "in advance of a broken arm", and he exhibited a found bottle rack as a finished sculpture. His actions angered and confused the general public, and also most of the artistic elite. People ridiculed him and his work. But these simple actions by an artist changed art irrevocably and forever. These works forced people to ask not only what is "good art" or "bad art", but "what is art"? What can be art? What makes an object art anyway? Who can make art? Who can decide what is or is not art? Marcel Duchamp changed not only the world of art. He changed the world.
- Allen Ginsberg
- Albert Einstein
- Karl Marx
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Andy Warhol
- Jean Baudrillard
- Charles Bukowski
- John Cage
- Leonard Cohen
He was never closely associated with Fluxus, and his work falls pretty neatly into the modernist traditions of art and writing. So, why have I chosen to write about Cohen in The Fluxus Blog? I guess that the first connection that can be made between him and Fluxus is that one could make the argument that as a poet, singer, and songwriter, Leonard Cohen is engaged in the original Intermedia form. What could be more Intermedia than the intersection between poetry, music, and performance? I think that the argument is valid. But it is not overwhelmingly convincing. Fluxus was also about experimentation, humor, and postmodern philosophical ideas. Never-the-less, I think that poetic minstrels, like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, at the dawn of the postmodern era, deserve a place at the Fluxus table. I chose Cohen primarily because of one stanza in one song. The song is Famous Blue Raincoat, and the stanza speaks about a friend who has moved into the desert to build a small home and plans to live off of the land. Cohen says of his friend, "You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record." And for me, this moves Cohen's work outside of the modernist realm and into the realm of postmodern reflections on meaning and language.
- Marcel Duchamp
- Allen Ginsberg
- Albert Einstein
- Karl Marx
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Andy Warhol
Fluxus artist Walter Cianciusi has just published his wonderful new book of event scores, and it is available for purchase from Amazon.com. Event Scores has already received favourable reviews, including a review by Ken Friedman, one of the original Fluxus artists who himself produced numerous event scores. Friedman writes in part, "While there is still energy to be found in interpreting classical event scores, it is difficult to write new scores that convey the lively energy of earlier contributions. Cianciusi does this with works that balance subtle humor, meditative reflection, and a good sense of the tradition these works inhabit..."
I am certain that any fans of Fluxus will find Walter's Event Scores to be fabulously good flux-fun!