Worlds In Flux:
A Transcendence Of Ideology, An Ideology Of Transcendence
by Peter Frank
Presented at the opening symposium for "Fluxus East" at the Bunkier Sztuki in Cracow, February 9 2008.
As it was intended to be, Fluxus is many things to many people. For some it is a political expression. For others, it is an expression against politics or, more to the point, around politics. It is a unified movement for some; for others, it is an almost circumstantial coming together of like-minded people – or at least people who think they share some attitudes and practices with one another. Fluxus practice means one thing in one place, another thing in another place. Even the historical roster of Fluxus participants changes from position to position, commentator to commentator, Fluxus artist to Fluxus artist. In the end, it seems, Fluxus was and remains a union of anarchists, a conspiracy of the distracted, a phalanx of rabbits.
As we well know, George Maciunas, native of Kaunas in Lithuania, resident of New York and Wiesbaden and Massachusetts, tried to unionize these anarchists, focus the conspirators, and lead the rabbits onward to the ultimate victory of socialism. Typically, and fortunately, it was Maciunas’ idiosyncratic version of socialism towards which he strove. And typically, those accomplishments of Fluxus that can be truly identified as communitarian, cooperative, and even “socialist” were brought about through Maciunas’ brilliance and tireless work, as well as the brilliance, cooperation, and devotion of his colleagues.
Maciunas may or may not have believed in a top-down socialism, but he practiced a bottom-up, “do-it-yourself” collectivism that inspired some, affected many, was emulated by a few, and was duplicated by none. Whether he was organizing and disseminating Fluxus work and thought or creating the artists’ cooperative living arrangements that lay the groundwork for the artists’ neighborhood of SoHo, Maciunas came up with his ideas largely alone, labored in near-solitude, and was at least as likely to alienate as to persuade his artist peers and the wider world – especially the wider world of officialdom, the bureaucracies whom Maciunas needed to secure his real estate concepts and deliver his eccentric packages. At one point he was being pursued both by the city of New York and an arm of the Mafia. And none of his friends or admirers could adequately help or protect him from being heavily fined or from losing an eye. Maciunas doubtless would have wound up in jail or murdered, had ill health not ambushed him first.
The story of Maciunas’ life, sad and hilarious, sounds familiar, doesn’t it. It could have been written, at least in parts, by Gogol, by Kafka, by Bruno Schulz, by Robert Musil, by Sholom Aleichem, by any of scores of writers who took the pulse of life in central and eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries and made art of its tribulations and ironies. The Lithuanian native may not have been any crazier than any other hypo-manic megalomaniac; art and life are full of such people, and we must remain grateful that, despite their own pain and peril and our discomfort, the few who do great things are not medicated enough to suppress their drive. But however universally human Maciunas’ quixotic nature and blind idealism might have been, his feisty embrace of the absurd and love-hate relationship with authority was grown in the soil between the Elbe and the Volga.
Fluxus, as Maciunas would proudly point out, was a sensibility that transcended boundaries. It was as Japanese as American, as Brazilian as French, as Danish as Australian. But, just as Kafka’s stories make as much sense in Urdu as they do in German and the photographs of Witkacy frighten Koreans as readily as they do Poles, Fluxus translated into a universal practice, a sensibility nurtured at least as much in the dark humor and passive resistance of eastern European life as in the can-do American spirit or the conundrum thought of Zen. In Fluxus, many easts met many wests.
In its dependence on personal contacts and friendships and on the circulation of limited-edition objects and texts, Fluxus has existed within the art world less as a stylistic common cause on the level of Pop art or Minimalism than as an agreement among friends. Even though Maciunas had a modernist’s fondness for manifestos, the voice of Fluxus speaks not with an operatic roar but with a conspiratorial, or perhaps seductive, whisper. Fluxus has been less a movement than a kind of artistic, and commercial, samizdat.
Furthermore, that samizdat has circulated far beyond the world of visual art. After all, Fluxus bridges not only geographic polarities, but artistic disciplines. Indeed, it not only bridges such disciplines, but fuses them. While a phenomenon in the discourse of visual art, Fluxus has also figured crucially in new music, experimental literature, and radical theater. Furthermore, the Fluxus samizdat has circulated not just among the artists and composers and writers and performers, but among their audiences as well. Fluxus stood, and still stands, for the simplification and democratization of all these creative forms, empowering the audience as well as artists themselves. Indeed, it grants any and all those audience members who had not recognized themselves as artists the permission to make art.
Ultimately, Fluxus has functioned as a zone of free play in and among all the artistic disciplines, a zone where the rebellious and the curious, the awkward and the mercurial, the restless and the innovative, the timid and the suppressed could not only find their own minds and voices, but could find one another’s. In the west, this zone of “free play” has overlapped other zones of creative activity almost invisibly. It has functioned for many artists as a permanent alternative to standard models of artistic practice and dissemination, and it has functioned for many others as a temporary alternative, a laboratory for unreasonable but urgent ideas. Deliberately elusive, this zone infiltrates the entire realm of creative practice, but pretends not to exist.
When Fluxus emerged, and for a long time afterward, those who relied upon this zone – in particular, those whose artistic output issued entirely from it – were regarded as clannish and aloof, and at the same time as total pranksters interested only in playing tricks, not in making art. The bearers of the Fluxus standard in the west, Maciunas not least, encouraged this unflattering regard with their near-secretive interrelations and their low-impact public presentations. The normally intimate nature of Fluxus work made both those interrelations and those presentations inevitable, and the occasionally scandalous nature of such artwork contrasted grotesquely with the disconcerting delicacy or elegant simplicity of the work itself. (Think, for instance, of Nam June Paik’s composition for Charlotte Moorman, Opera Sextronique (1967) – which put poor Charlotte in jail.) As a result, Fluxus was dismissed as an extended joke played feebly on the art world by a small band of hippies. In the absence of substantial gallery, publication, or performance exposure around the world, that small band came to rely on itself for coherency – itself and a body of admirers that continued to widen almost entirely through word of mouth.
Charlotte Moorman performing Nam June Paik's Opera Sextronique, 1967.
Like every other form of samizdat, the samizdat of the telephone – and the fax machine, and now of course the Internet – is a luxury enjoyed by those who live under benign governments. Those who suffer under more repressive regimes must be more circumspect. But by circulating material that reiterates, closely resembles, or improves upon that available in freer societies, those on whom an iron curtain has descended maintain the experimental verve of the modern era and the eternally resistant soul of Till Eulenspiegel and Corporal Schwejk. Fluxus, it can be argued, took the form of a samizdat in the west because its organizer and guiding spirit was a child of eastern Europe. Perhaps or perhaps not; but Fluxus could certainly return to eastern Europe at a time of severe constriction and breathe a little life into a few hearts.
Vytautas Landsbergis, Maciunas’ childhood friend and his only Fluxus correspondent in the USSR itself, remembers life after Khruschev’s tentative thaw as “deadly stagnation.” In Poland, according to the late Emmett Williams, the period was described as “the heavy days.” While the 1960s and ‘70s and even ‘80s were decades of vital change, even upheaval, in the west, the rulers of the eastern bloc made sure that little if any such dancing went on in their streets. Even though Stalinist fascism had passed out of fashion, the self-appointed custodians of communism maintained a presence as pervasive, humorless and enervating as that of any Savonarola or Ayatollah. In the face of such totalitarian fundamentalism, shaping as it did the datebooks and maps and photo albums of almost everyone east or north of Vienna, even satire was a deadly risk. Defiance was futile.
Among the very few spices available for this gray goulash was the scripted, even regimented silliness that Fluxus provided, the ludicrous and seemingly meaningless acts it proposed. These could be exercised in private and occasionally, when the political weather did not seem too inclement, in public. The officials, in their smug obtuseness, would not comprehend what the activities suggested. True, when the paranoia that poisoned everyone else’s lives wet the boots of their overseers, public exhibitions would be destroyed and outdoor performances, no matter how innocent, would be interrupted and dispersed. But cleverness was built into Fluxus. As Milan Knižak can tell you, you had to know the playing field much better than the police did.
Of course, no matter what the police may have thought, Knižak and Landsbergis and Julius Koller and Endre Tot and so many others – right back to Tadeusz Kantor, perhaps the bravest and most extravagant of all of them – were not proposing regime change. They may have been dreaming of it and preparing for it, but they knew better than to advocate it. Rather, they were doing something at once more benign and more subversive: they were demonstrating models of activity, and thus of thought, that could exist on both sides of that iron curtain, and that had different but parallel meanings on either side. On the west side of the curtain such activity implied a freedom of imagination; on the east side, it implied a freedom of thought. A gesture done in a park or in a café, in a classroom or in someone’s kitchen, or even read on a page, suggested a way of understanding the world that met that world at a 45-degree angle – or maybe 55 degrees. It had everything to do with quotidian existence and nothing to do with quotidian existence. It gave examples of how to see life, and even see your way through life, by transcending the bounds of the ideology that dictated your life. East or west, such activity on the Fluxus model meant getting above the everyday even though you couldn’t get past it.
Milan Knizak, Broken Music, 1983.
As the joke goes, under communism, man exploits man. Under capitalism, it’s exactly the reverse. Neither system encourages great spiritual flight or aesthetic insight, restricting access to such transcendence to the privileged few – who can be depended on to squander such access on material acquisition. Living in and under either system – or, in fact, any other hierarchical system of social organization, such as theocracy, military dictatorship, or mob rule – requires the subjugation of nearly all one’s sensibility. Maciunas’ socialism with a lunatic face was a logical response to the reactionary corporate capitalism of his America no less than to the fascism that had overwhelmed his native land; and the sometimes boisterous anarchism of his friends in Fluxus was a similar response to the near-universal spiritual impoverishment of the postwar era.
As a result, Fluxus proposed, and I think still proposes, an ideology of transcendence, a mindset that takes one above the constricting principles of political and social conduct in one’s own society, no matter what they happen to be. This builds on the “aesthetic of indifference” that motivated the work of artists who influenced Fluxus, figures such as Marcel Duchamp and John Cage who found aesthetic gratification where there was supposed to be none by regarding the quotidian as illuminating. But the ideology of transcendence does not mean that life itself, with all its struggles, can simply be ignored. Rather, the praxis that attends such an ideology provides insight into new solutions for abiding problems. It led George Maciunas to construct the artists’ co-op; it led Joseph Beuys to create a political movement that helped give rise to the Greens; it led Nam June Paik to turn television into an art form; it led Yoko Ono to revolutionize popular music; and it led dozens of artists in eastern Europe to find ways around the perceptual as well as political oppression that enveloped them. In the latter case, or cases, the ideology of transcendence was turned on its head, and became a transcendence of ideology. And I want to thank all of you here who have been responsible for this praxis, for this ideology, and for this transcendence for providing me, from my adolescence on, with my own path into art – my own phalanx of rabbits.
Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum; art critic for Angeleno Magazine and the L.A. Weekly; and a published poet (The Travelogues, Sun & Moon Press, 1982).