The creation of any work of art is a semiotic exercise.
The study of semiotics is concerned with the use of signs and signifiers, primarily as they are used in language and linguistics, but also in other forms of communication including visual art. Historically, artists have been concerned with how best to represent the way people in the artists' culture experience reality. Artists throughout history have struggled with the problem of representation. They developed rendering techniques like perspective drawing and shading. They developed new techniques to render color with pigments suspended in various binders and eventually gained portability with oil paints in tubes and water colors in small blocks. Artist also began to incorporate different symbologies and to incorporate the prevailing cultural iconography into there artworks, as they struggled to move beyond pure visual representation into religious and later emotional representation. Eventually artists became so competent at representing prevailing cultural realities that they began to rebel and to attempt to represent their own individual perceptions of reality. This development coincided with the technology of portability using oil paint tubes, and so was born Impressionism. More inward looking artists began experimenting with cubism not long after this.
Then everything changed.
The optimism of technological innovation gave way to a profound pessimism and despair among many artists in Europe after the first World War. Many artists had seen first-hand the death and destruction rendered upon men by their fellow men with the aid of technology. Some artists felt that modern western culture had reached its end-point and that there was no longer any need to represent a fatally flawed reality. Reality was horror. But artists, being artists, had to created something – but this new "something" would be a rejection of all that came before – it would be an "anti-art". Thus, out of the ashes of the "Great War", arose dada. Dada played with language and images in new and unexpected ways. Randomness, chance, and chaos were introduced as virtues for the first time in Western history. Dada turned the art world (and the music world and the literary world) on its head. But… as radical as dada was, it was still concerned with traditional ideas of representation. In a semiotic sense dada changed the signs and signifiers, and changed what artists intended to signify too. But it was still a "modern" (as opposed to postmodern) art form. Anti-art was still art and dada was still art concerned with representing the cultural, historical, political, and sensory realities of the day.
Another world war.
After the end of the second world war, returning soldiers and educated refugees gave the United States a sense of renewal, hope and even optimism. Artists and writers began to think about the idea of representation itself. Artists began asking themselves if it was even necessary to try to represent any reality outside of the work of art itself. Art was created for its own sake. The work of art broke free of its moorings to any external reality. Each artwork became an autonomous object in its own right. Semiotics seemed no longer necessary. Art didn't have to represent anything. The seeds of postmodernity were sown. Eventually art theorists began to recognize that it was not possible to abandon semiotics. Everything signified something. Even an abstract expressionist painting that was created to exist as an autonomous object represented something. It represented the idea that it was created as an autonomous object. An idea that was so profound that it was widely rumored to have received CIA financial support in order to assist the United States in its propaganda efforts against the Soviet Union.
As artists began to realize that there was no way to break free of the semiotic activity inherent in their modern creations they began to gravitate to a postmodern world view. They began to use their art in new ways as tools to actively explore the semiotics involved in its creation. Art was created that referenced other art. Art was created not only for its own sake but outside of the art market system entirely. Artists created work that was never sold but was only traded with other artists. Art was created that was about creating art. John Cage experimented with music that was concerned only with the building blocks of music, which are pure sounds and the human perception of those sounds. Out of this new postmodern semiotic experiment and experience came Fluxus. Artists like George Maciunas and Dick Higgins started looking at all the media available to them, and then at how different media interacted with each other, and tried to create work that reflected the "intermedia" spaces and places that media met each other.
Fluxus represents the beginning of postmodern visual art. A small group of nearly forgotten artists and "oddballs" in the late 1950s and early 1960s changed everything. Those of us who continue to celebrate their work, and to create new explorations of the questions that they asked hope to see Fluxus recognized for the revolution that it represented.