This question has been asked before, and I have answered it in this, The Fluxus Blog, before. But that was a long time ago, and the question, “What is Fluxus” continues to be asked.
For readers looking for a simple answer, contemporary Fluxus artist, Allan Revich has summarized Fluxus into just four characteristic ideas:
Four Fluxus Characteristics
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 everyday found objects, sounds, images, and texts to create new combinations of objects, sounds, images, and texts.
Fluxus works are simple. Art is small, texts are short, and performances are short.
Fluxus is fun. Humour has always been an important element in Fluxus.
While these four principles are not absolute, they represent an excellent shorthand to understanding Fluxus.
For readers interested in learning more about the dual nature of Fluxus, please read on.
The answer to “What is Fluxus” has two parts:
Part One: Fluxus as an Idea
Fluxus cofounder, Dick Higgins saw Fluxus as an idea, a way of being in the world. It was more that a movement, and more than a group of specific artists. He elaborated this point of view very concisely in his short paper, “A Child’s History of Fluxus“.
Higgins 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.”
The artist and art historian, Owen Smith, has published extensively on the subject of Fluxus as an Attitude. His book Fluxus: History of an Attitude, is highly recommended.
Part Two: Fluxus as a Group of Artists
The Fluxus Movement began in the early 1960s, founded by George Maciunas and Dick Higgins, and built on ideas first articulated by artists like John Cage and La Monte Young, both of whom are primarily known as composers. There was significant influence from the Dada movement of the early 20th century, and from ideas circulating at Black Mountain College in the late 1950s.
A number of other contemporary events are credited as either anticipating Fluxus or as constituting proto-Fluxus events. The most commonly cited include the series of Chambers Street loft concerts, in New York, curated by Yoko Ono and La Monte Young in 1961, featuring pieces by Yoko Ono, Jackson MacLow, Joseph Byrd, and Henry Flynt; the month-long Yam festival held in upstate New York by George Brecht and Robert Watts in May 1963 with Ray Johnson and Allan Kaprow (the culmination of a year’s worth of Mail Art pieces); and a series of concerts held in Mary Bauermeister‘s studio, Cologne, 1960–61, featuring Nam June Paik and John Cage among many others. It was at one of these events in 1960, during his Etude pour Piano, that Paik leapt into the audience and cut John Cage’s tie off, ran out of the concert hall, and then phoned the hall’s organisers to announce the piece had ended. As one of the movement’s founders, Dick Higgins, stated:
Fluxus started with the work, and then came together, applying the name Fluxus to work which already existed. It was as if it started in the middle of the situation, rather than at the beginning.
Maciunas especially, believed that he was creating a movement that was club-like. He was famous for pronouncing which artists in his circle were either “in” or “out”. This has had some significant effects on the perceptions of Fluxus after his death. Fluxus cofounder Dick Higgins saw Fluxus somewhat differently. He (and many of his contemporaries) saw Fluxus as an Idea. An idea not bounded by dates in time or membership lists.
The artists active in Fluxus today share the idea of Fluxus as an Idea.
Tenth Annual Fluxlist Fluxfest:
to be Held in Toronto in 2019
Chicago 2017. Performance of event score by Allen Bukkoff
The first Fluxlist Fluxfest was held in New York City in conjunction with Matthew Rose‘s 2009 A Book About Death event at the Emily Harvey Foundation. Over the decade since then, the Fluxlist has presented at least one Fluxfest every year. First in NYC, and then in Chicago, with occasional other Fluxus festivals in other cities and states.
For the first time ever, Toronto, Canada has been chosen as the site for the Fluxlist Fluxfest.
Venues are being lined up. Dates are being firmed up. But mark your calendars today for the third weekend in June!
Planned dates (2019):
Thursday June 20th for “meet and greet”, though Sunday June 23rd.
A clip from the show at Emily Harvey, as part of Matthew Rose’s ABAD
Performances from Fluxlist Fluxfest 2011 in New York City.
Performances at Printed Matter
From Lanny Quarles introduction to John’s most recent collection, SESOS EXTREMOS
SESOS EXTREMOS by John M. Bennett
After having read John M. Bennett’s poetry almost daily for 20 plus years, you would think I would have something very definite to say about it, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading it all these years, is that things can change in an instant. At first you think some of the pieces you’ve been reading are hardcore concrete poetry, poetry of and maybe to the physicality of words, of expression, the mechanicality or instrumentality of thought, but then that year, you happen to meet or watch a performance by John and you’ve got the book in your hand, and suddenly you realize that a certain percentage of the poems, or even of any given poem, might suddenly become a very succinct notation for performance, an agile, well oiled vocal performance where some strange fog is playing the ‘john-horn’ or its fog suit avatar. In short, that the poem was made as such for a specific purpose (in one sense), but also that it is still concrete poetry, or it’s concrete sound poetry mapped to a visualization, and its functionalization as such is also visually important because it realizes a unique cultural production which is both solipsistic and immensely social and referential.
There are the collaborations, the works inspired by travel and friendships, poems in Spanish and French, and an engagement with the entireties of several avant-garde traditions and anti-traditions. There are hacks, riffings, homages, fever dreams, and obsessions galore! Like an oozing tarantula of snapping human jawbones carved from Olmec jade, or the Zapotec lightning amoeba Cocijo, the poetry of Dr. Bennett works its way into the crannies of your soft green brain, it sticks on your neck like a stain inspecting the muddy blowhole you call a mind. It’s literary peyote, both sacred and profane, but also scared because it’s making propane in the cave and the only light there is from an illuminated turtle language (with fire legs in its shirt) and there’s some gelatin left over which is already living in a bowl on your mantle and it has its own flag, the stone hand, ALTO! who knows how it got there, John may have picked it up on his shoe in the jungles of Mexico riding with the revolutionaries until they got lost, or found.
In short, John M. Bennett is a national treasure and an international man of mystery. Is he a mild-mannered librarian or a fluxist master? Is he camping in a hole full of beans? Possibly. Whatever it is he’s doing, he’s doing it just fine and will probably continue to do it, no matter what we think.
Fluxus and Minimalism emerged at about the same time, and in reaction to the same tendencies in the art world. Both sensibilities evolved partly as a reaction against the post war (WWII) dogma of Abstract Expressionism. More importantly, they were both artistic revolutions against the art establishment. But there was an important difference that cannot be ignored. Whereas Fluxus had its roots in the anti-art aesthetic of Dada, Minimalism had its roots in the same milieu as the art world that it rebelled against. Inevitably, Minimalism became subsumed into that art world. Fluxus remains to this day as a small but important bastion, standing against the tyranny of artistic orthodoxy.
I like Fluxus. I create Fluxus artworks.
I like Minimalism. I create minimalist artworks.
I see myself as an anti-artist, and an artist, at the same time. And this causes me some cognitive dissonance. How does one resolve this dissonance?
There remains a core commonality in Fluxus and Minimalism, despite their differences. Both Fluxus and minimalism are meant to be accessible. Both rejected a prevailing aesthetic that was being imposed by critics, historians, academics, and a ruthlessly mercenary cabal of collectors and art dealers. Both stood out as artist-centred, and artist organized. And even though the “art stars” of Minimalism moved into the realm of art dealers and collector/market driven commercialism, the minimalist (deliberately not capitalized “m”) aesthetic and life-orientation remains accessible to any artist who is drawn to it.
The two works above are some of my most recent pieces, in which I’ve attempted to merge the anti-art ethos of Fluxus with the minimal aesthetic of Minimalism. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded with my new series of works on paper, but my goal is to hang on to the minimalist aesthetic and my inherent Fluxus sensibilities.
And of course, I can never really leave the Fluxus community and the “fluxiest” aspects of Fluxus, in which Intermedia supersedes any single medium.
Allan Revich (me), throwing a pebble into each corner of the universe. Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2010
Fluxus and Minimalism emerged at about the same time, and in reaction to the same tendencies in the art world. Both sensibilities evolved partly as a reaction against the prevailing orthodoxy of the gallery/collector oriented art world.
This article is not about the 21st century minimalist lifestyle.
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.