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.
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.
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 (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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
John M. Bennett has been (and continues to be) a prolific author and publisher of avant garde poetry and experimental writing. He is an active and inspirational member of the contemporary Fluxus community, and along with his wife, Cathy Mehrle Bennett, is also an active participant in the international network of mail artists.
Since 1974, Luna Bisonte Prods has published a wide variety of experimental, avant-garde, audio, and visual literature in a wide variety of formats by artists from all over the world. Among the authors and artists published are such major and emerging figures as Ivan Argüelles, Sheila E. Murphy, Jim Leftwich, Andrew Topel, Carlos M. Luis, Scott Helmes, Jake Berry, John M. Bennett, Susan Smith Nash, Al Ackerman, Bob Heman, Richard Kostelanetz, Charles Henri Ford, Dick Higgins, Robin Crozier, Peter Ganick, and many others.
Thursday, May 25. Opening reception, connections… Don E Boyd and art networking. 4 to 7 PM, Joan Flasch artist book library, school of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Dinner to follow, at Italian Village.
Friday, May 26th.
Meet at 9 AM at Patisserie Toni for breakfast, followed by a visit to concrete happenings, the Wolf Vostell show at University of Chicago. Bring flyers, postcards, handouts … let them know we were there !
At 4:30 pm we regroup at the MCA plaza for Flux/Resist. A guerilla art parade with street performances which joins the larger public protests at trump tower. Bring signs, banners, handouts, ask others to send signs to carry …
8pm New York Correspondance school of Chicago Yearly meeting and dinner.
The berghoff restaurant.
Saturday May 26th
10am breakfast meet up at Patisserie Toni ,
12-12:30 arrive at UNUM Gallery .
Performance from 1-4? PM .
Dinner to follow at FEED.
End the evening with the Nightcap Party at Schwalbe House. Wear your favorite nightcap, bring your Ukeleles.
VIto Acconci, performance and video artist, who was hugely influential in the New York art world, and in the world at large, died on Thursday, April 28th in NYC.
Like many in my generation, I first became aware of his work in the early 70s through his piece, “Seedbed“, in which he built a ramp in a Manhattan art gallery, and lay hidden underneath it – masturbating while visitors walked above him. I fell in love with the idea of pushing art to new limits, and the feeling of artistic freedom and liberation from the constraints of the canvas.
The International Museum of Collage, Assemblage and Construction (collagemuseum.com) with the International Society of Assemblage and Collage Artists (collagist.org) in Santa Fe, New Mexico invites you to contribute to our celebration of the 100 year Anniversary of DADA! Because The Archives are in Santa Fe, we will also be setting up our first annual Mexican Style Ofrenda (offering) to honor our artistic ancestors. This year we will be celebrating the collage/assemblage Dada artists including Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, Man Ray, John Heartfield, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Raoul Hausmann, etc.
The International Post-Dogmatist Group’s Office of the Postulator-General will also be holding a historic Canonization Ceremony for Master (Herr) Kurt Schwitters of Hanover at the opening!
WHAT TO SEND: We are asking you to make a collage in the spirit of Dada such as using chance operations or any other dada technique – send a Merz work – an object for the Ofrenda dedicted to one or more of the DADA artists – send an collage or assemblage homage in the style of one of the DADA artists – Keep it smallish – 14×11 inches or smaller. Ready to hang is best.
TERMS: There are: NO FEES, NO JURY, NO RETURNS! Your contribution WILL be exhibited and will become a part of the permanent collection of the IMCAC Archives for possible use in future exhibitions and/or publications.
DOCUMENTATION: Your contribution will be exhibited beginning with the opening November 4, 2016 and continue through January 2017. The works will be on permanent exhibit online on our 2016 inventory blog under “Dada Centennial” with a possible catalog produced.
DEADLINE: Please have works in by October 29, 2016! (late works will be added to the exhibition but please be on time if possible) NO TIME TO FRET, JUST DO IT.
Send works to:
Dada Centennial: Day of the Dead
4810 West Alameda Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87507
George Maciunas (1931–1978) was a co-founder, and the self-appointed leader of Fluxus, an international community of artists, which was especially active in the United States, Japan, and Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the Fluxus network continues to thrive in the traditions established all those years ago by Maciuanas and his contemporaries.
George Maciunas, “Fluxshop Stationery (recto)” (nd), offset, printed in black, 13 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches (The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York)
Manhattan-based artist and filmmaker Jeffrey Perkins, who met Maciunas several times and has long been associated with many of Fluxus’s key figures, has been gathering research material and shooting interviews with surviving Fluxus luminaries for George, a documentary film he is producing that will chronicle the life and achievements of the avant-garde group’s legendary leader.
What characteristics of an artwork serve to identify a piece as belonging to, or related to, Fluxus?
Historically many artists working in different media have related their work to Fluxus. Some of these artists belonged to a group surrounding the Lithuanian-American artist, George Maciunas, and the American artist, Dick Higgins. After the death of Maciunas, Higgins continued to promote Fluxus, eventually attracting a new generation of artists to the (non) movement, through the co-founding of an Internet mailing list—the Fluxlist. This new group of artists has continued the artistic practice of the first generation, while working towards maintaining the relevance of all generations, into the 21st century.
So what is Fluxus, and how can you know it when you see it?
The Fluxus artistic philosophy can be defined as a synthesis of four key factors that define the majority of work:
Fluxus is an attitude. It is not a movement or a style.
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.
Fluxus works are simple. The art is small, the texts are short, and the performances are brief.
Fluxus is (usually) fun. Humor has always been an important element in Fluxus.
Fluxus artwork almost always exists in one (or more) of these three forms:
Event scores are similar to short musical scores or theatrical setting descriptions. Some are designed to be performed, and some are written to be read and imagined without ever actually being performed. Of those that are written to be performed, some may be designed to be performed only once and recorded (through written, photo, or video) documentation, while others are written so that they can be performed repeatedly. Associated artists who have made extensive use of event scores in their work include Yoko Ono and George Brecht. The musical compositions of John Cage and the “Happenings” of Allan Kaprow are also closely related to Fluxus event scores.
Fluxkits, also sometimes call Fluxboxes, are smallish (usually no larger than a shoe box or briefcase) objects, that are collections of other objects that hold meaning to the artist, and can be interacted with by the audience. Fluxkits have been produced as multiples in editions, and as unique, one-of-a-kind objects. Interactivity can consist of examination of the contents, rearrangement of the objects, or games in which the rules often resemble event scores. Artists who have received attention in the art-oriented mass media for their fluxkits and fluxboxes include George Maciunas (who coined the word “Fluxus”), Ay-O, and George Brecht. The first Fluxkits probably resulted from fresh interpretations of the work of dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, and have continued to influence present day Fluxus and mail artists.
A third indicator of relatedness is the concept of “Intermedia”. The important Fluxus artist, Dick Higgins, described Intermedia as a myriad of emerging genres that spilled across the boundaries of traditional media. In the intersections between the arts, mixed-media forms coalesced: Happenings, performance art, kinetic sculpture, and electronic theater (Higgins). Higgins suggests that Fluxus artists explore the territory that lies between art media and life media. The difficulty in using Intermedia as a determinant to identifying a particular artists or artwork as Fluxus is that it is not easy to identify what kind of objects exist in “the territory between art media and life media”. However, performance art, video art, installation art, mail art, and time-based artworks are closely related even if not identified as such by either the artist or art critics.
It is safe to say that any work that closely resembles an Event Score or a Fluxkit/Fluxbox, is either Fluxus, or is closely related. It can also be argued that the combination of artistic intent (the artist states that the work is “Fluxus”) with an intermedia presentation, is Fluxus.
And while I am aware of artists that believe that their work is Fluxus because they say it is, that claim, without other evidence, should be considered spurious.