Sunday, April 26, 2009

Art in a State of Fluxus: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Neo-avant-garde Social Movement

The notion that a (mostly) pacifist artistic movement could possibly function as a catalyst of active social change might strike some as impossible, if not at least difficult in potential execution. The motivation behind the international collective of the Fluxus movement, nonetheless, strove to advance their goal of reaffirming “everyday life and its natural, often humorous, relation to art” in an attempt to separate itself from the growing consumer-driven tendencies of a postwar era, among other driving forces to be discussed at length. The foci of this paper’s analysis of the Fluxus movement will initiate with a description the incipient structure of Fluxus as a social and artistic movement; follow the flow (or, if I may, the flux) of the overarching substantive qualities of the movement; and finally, spotlight the organizational visual and rhetorical style of the group’s neo-avant-garde artistic output.

From the Roman circus to New York Vaudeville: The Incipient Structure Stage of Fluxus

While many point to John Cage as the instigator of the Fluxus movement, it would be more accurate to say that Cage’s music and art were the inspiration for the instigation of the Fluxus group, especially to one George Maciunas, a Lithuanian-born anti-artist who is the credited “maniacal organizer” and individual responsible for really jump-starting the movement in the early 1960s. While there was no overt, dominating leader of Fluxus, one can easily argue that Maciunas was responsible for bringing together likeminded individuals whose unification was realized in the striking similarities of their visual style and the underlying message of their collective artistic vision. While consistently rejecting consumerism (a move which some would argue is at odds with any group wishing to display their “products” (read: artworks) in the public sphere ), Fluxus understood that the “product” they were indeed “selling” to the public through the vehicle of their movement was not physical but indeed an ephemeral “ideology, particularly its program for change” via artistic output.

The group’s aim was to produce a reaction “against the heroics of Abstract Expressionism and the commercialism of high Modernism” with the goal of “expanding the boundaries of art” through public performances and gallery shows made available to the public. To support his agenda Maciunas gathered local and international personalities including the noted first video artist Nam June Paik and his wife, video sculptor Shigeko Kubota; musician, minimalist, and instruction painting artist Yoko Ono ; event score composer/artist Alison Knowles; and conceptual artist and avant-garde composer George Brecht.

A unifying force for all members was at least a familiarity with Eastern philosophy and an outlook on Buddhism not as a way of life but as a foundation for representation and creative stimulation. Maciunas was responsible for penning the movement’s Manifesto, a brief, one-page document known as The Fluxus Codex. As Alexandra Monroe details in an exhaustive compilation of the female artist’s life and work Yes Yoko Ono, Maciunas “reached back to such diverse sources as the Roman circus[…]and Byzantine iconoclasm” while also taking inspiration from the more contemporary “Dada and Futurist sound poetry, abstract calligraphy[…and] Vaudeville” when conceptualizing the way that the movement would interface with the outside audience. Self-designated motivated leader of the group, Maciunas understood that “social movements[…]must rely on ideological and social commitments from their members” in order to succeed in their goal, which was his reason for drafting The Fluxus Codex.

The Fluxus Codex: The Overarching Substance of the Movement

What I do I do not wish blamed on Zen…I often point out that Dada
nowadays has in it a space, an emptiness, that it formally lacked.
What, nowadays, America mid-twentieth century, is Zen?
- John Cage

On the surface, the artistic and social movement known as Fluxus that grew out of myriad inspirations in response to numerous anti–art and postwar anti–consumerist tendencies seems to be thoroughly steeped in Eastern philosophy and Buddhist religious signifiers; however, while John Cage (arguably the educator and creator most responsible for the inception of Fluxus) was highly influenced by Zen and Taoism, a reaction to these Eastern influences of key member Nam June Paik is telling: “I react to Zen the same way as I react to Johann Sebastian Bach.” In other words, the movement’s roots in Zen were simply a creative and interpretative jumping-off point as opposed to a constant, insistent referent; to Cage and his successors, Zen was just “one conceptual tool in the Fluxkit”. Therefore, the work of John Cage and his followers in the Fluxus movement should not be considered Buddhist or Zen, because, as Cage reminds his audience: really, what was Zen in 1960s America?

The study of Fluxus as a social movement would be remiss without explicitly stating the problem situated behind the group’s motivations for creation and public interface. Through their art and “happenings”, Fluxus hoped for "the gradual elimination of fine arts[…]motivated by the desire to stop the waste of material and human resources[…]and divert it to socially constructive ends[…targeting] nationalist and hierarchical cultural traditions that had led to the social catastrophe of the first World War." All of these (notably environmentally- and socially-concerned) motives are outlined beautifully and succinctly in The Fluxus Codex, in which Maciunas penned his desire to “Purge the world” of these evils. This “purging”, however, was not to be done by violent or negative means, but instead through the group’s minimal appropriation of materials when creating their art, event scores, and happenings.

The major narrative for the movement attempted to escape negative rhetoric in order to completely embrace the “spontaneous, unmediated experience” of creation, while simultaneously never taking it as seriously as their precursors in Expressionism. The teachings of Buddhism and the artwork that makes references to its philosophies was far from drastic or menacing in tone: the Buddha is almost consistently depicted as a happy, smiling, rotund individual, far from heroic or somber. A parallel can be drawn here between Buddhism’s humorous, light-hearted aspects and the Fluxus movement, which strove to “temporarily have the pedagogical function of teaching people the needlessness of art including the eventual needlessness of itself” ; in other words, through Fluxus’ clever event scores, including Knowles’ The Identical Lunch; Paik’s “visual equivalent of Cage’s 4’33”” entitled Zen for Film; and numerous other happenings that bubbled up from Fluxus, a self-contained sense of humor was enacted in order to connect with their audience, a tactic which cleverly avoided group alienation from the broader public. Despite, as Baas points out in her text Smile of the Buddha, “the overtly political nature of the enterprise, Fluxus products were leavened with considerable humor” which the members hoped would allow more public participation and support than alienation and rejection.

While the Fluxus movement is certainly not as prolific in the contemporary art scene, event scores are still being performed to this day by Knowles, and Paik was an integral figure in the creation of unique video art up until a stroke rendered him paralyzed in 1996. It is no coincidence that most cite 1978 as the end the prolific thrust of the Fluxus movement; this was the same year as founding member Maciunas’ death. Fluxus remains in spirit, and has influenced several postmodern multi-media artists with its core values and ideologies.

Minimalism, Performance Art, and the Fluxkit: The Visual and Rhetorical Style of the Movement

When one enters an exhibit focusing on the neo-avant-garde Fluxus movement, one does not encounter loud splashes of color or wild video installations; on the contrary, one will encounter minimalist (often in subject and in size) video installations, naked canvas and parchment paper, and simple tri-chromatic screen prints. The entire wall at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum dedicated to the instruction paintings of Yoko Ono includes nothing more than rows of framed parchment upon which are inscribed tiny Japanese characters in modest black ink with translations offered below each column of frames.

As mentioned above, tenants of Expressionism and abstract art were a far cry from the rhetorical visual style of Fluxus; rather, in coherence with their environmentally-driven goals of minimizing waste output, Fluxus’ rhetorical style was visually represented through pencil drawings, photographs of event scores, sepia-toned books and lithographs, a slightly humorous multi-media collection of tools entitled Fluxkit, and even a simple rectangle of white light projected on a wall from an exposed roll of film . In this way, Fluxus’ and its organizer Maciunas’ style can certainly be found in ordinance with Herbert W. Simon’s description of the rhetorical strategies of an intermediate social agenda: somewhere between the passivity of the moderate and the intensity of the militant.

While Fluxus indeed had a unique social goal that can been seen as a less militant version of the contemporary “green” movement with similar sentiment found also in AdBusters magazine and other anti-consumerist modern-day art movements, Fluxus was not alone in their era. The 1960s, ripe with social reform, was also the chronological home of neo-Dada, Happenings, the Beats, and the Bay Area conceptual art movement. Possibly the unique quality found in Fluxus that separates it from its contemporaries is its consistency in style despite geographical differences among artists.

Not So Much a Problem as an Issue: A Summation of the Fluxus Social Movement as an Un-Aggressive Force

There is no solution because there is no problem.
- Marcel Duchamp

There is no problem because there is no solution.
- Shigeko Kubota

Kubota and her contemporaries in the Fluxus movement recognized that although their goal was to do away with the consumerist, hierarchical standards of past cultural and social eras, there was ultimately no concrete solution to the problem of consumerism in an inherently capitalist society. While enthusiastic about the group’s art and the rhetoric surrounding their visual styles, it can be argued that even Maciunas understood it was impossible to “purge the world” of everything that he believed called for purging. As stated above, Maciunas’ and Fluxus’ goal was to temporarily inform people about their beliefs and their Codex, with the knowledge that movements come and movements go.

Even so, characteristics of Fluxus remain with us today in our postmodern society: certainly multi-media visual art projects and performances can attribute their invention and creation to Fluxus artists, along with remix artists such as Sim Sadler and Johan Söderberg who take pre-existing footage and edit it to music in order to construct social commentary. Although a movement that withered with the death of its key founding member, Fluxus remains at the heart of all artistic movements that want to enhance the life experience of its members, contributors and the interfacing public through more than simple aesthetic means. Because for members of Fluxus, the movement was not just about creating art; it was a way of life. For as a movement “decidedly rowdier and more socially committed than the American Abstract Expressionists […Fluxus] wanted to give art back to the social realm.” Those were its aims, and as argued here, it’s ultimate successes as a social movement.

(I couldn't figure out how to insert linked end notes, and therefore not much is cited. I will attempt to change this into in-text citations soon.)

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