Writing about Fluxus is difficult for me. While Fluxus occupied much of my life, there is a gap between what I do now and what I did in the past. I look at my work to find myself wondering why I did things, why I made things, and what I thought at the time. I can tell you what I did, but I can’t explain why, at least not as I once did.
I inhabit the body of the person who made those works, but I am not the same person.
2,000 years ago, Plutarch wrote about Theseus, the legendary king and founder-hero of Athens. The ancient Athenians preserved the ship in which Theseus supposedly went to Crete to slay the Minotaur before returning home. As the centuries went by, the ship grew old and parts of the ship decayed. It became necessary to replace the rotting parts. At first, it was a board here or a rope there. Eventually, most of the original material had been replaced, and some parts had been replaced many times.
Philosophers ask the question that has become known as the Theseus Ship Paradox. Is the ship as it is today still the Ship of Theseus? Philosophers ask this question about human beings, too. On the one hand, we have some kind of identity as ongoing beings. On the other, we change as time goes by.
When I think about myself, I find myself wondering whether I am still whoever it is that I was when I did the things I did. Plutarch quoted the well-known fragment of Heraclitus known as the Theory of Flux: “It is not possible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state.” Another translation of the fragment states, “Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.”
The Theory of Flux is often described as a theory of Fluxus. It’s certainly a theory that describes me.
August 14, 2020
“Cold Mountain is a house
Without beams or walls.
The six doors left and right are open The
hall is blue sky.
The rooms all vacant and vague The east
wall beats on the west wall At the center
— Han Shan
“You give the appearance of one widely traveled, I bet
you’ve seen things in your time.
Come sit down beside me and tell me your story If you
think you’ll like yesterday’s wine.”
— Willie Nelson, 1971
Fluxus emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the world ignored us. The world still ignored Fluxus in the 1970s and the 1980s. Things began to change in the 1990s, but there was a price. People reshaped the story of Fluxus to suit the needs of those who told it. The Fluxus idea became a reflection of the time and place in which the story was told. Our legacy isn’t what it used to be.
Fluxus wasn’t a single forum with a unified purpose. It was a loose and flexible community. Each Fluxus member had his or her own purposes: artistic, philosophical, economic, and political. In some cases, there was no purpose at all. Fluxus was in great part a group of people who came together because they didn’t fit anywhere else.
Different participants had differing goals, and some of us achieved some of our goals. But Fluxus didn’t influence art or music in systematic ways, and Fluxus failed even more decisively to influence politics and economics.
George Maciunas invented a paradoxical version of Marxism that only existed in the theoretical world of George’s planned economy. George’s notion of Fluxus as an antidote to the art world gained no traction. Things worked out in quite a contrary way. After a half century of silence and neglect, Fluxus was registered in the pantheon of modern art.
In the 1970s, George Maciunas advertised an event with the title Fluxus Presents Twelve Big Names. People came to a theater expecting to see a performance featuring the work of twelve famous artists, perhaps even hoping to see the artists themselves. When the audience was seated, what they saw was a set of slides projected on a screen—each slide bearing the name of one artist in huge type. Today, many of the big names could be Fluxus names, George Maciunas among them. One could imagine this as the conclusion to a Kurt Vonnegut novel, ending with the phrase “so it goes.”
A stranger moment still occurred in 2013 when the Museum of Modern Art acquired the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection. This was an odd turn for anyone who remembers the Fluxus in the 1950s and 1960s. So it goes.
What isn’t strange is the way that recent historiography often transforms Fluxus artists into footnotes on our own lives. The 1992 exhibition at the Walker Art Center was a case in point. Fluxus works, projects, and reconstructions filled the entire museum, but the exhibition neglected the Fluxus experience. Several halls were filled with cases containing two, three, and four examples of the same box, as though the boxes somehow epitomized Fluxus.
The curators represented my entire life with four boxes. Dick Higgins did even worse. Not a single work of Dick’s appeared in the exhibition. The Walker library had all the Something Else Press books, and Dick appeared in a few performance photos, so the curators argued that Dick was represented in the show. So it goes.
Carolee Schneemann was the only neglected artist who did well. The museum allocated Carolee an exhibition case for her work with an essay complaining about the exclusion of her work from Fluxus. Carolee’s complaint was quite reasonable, and she should often have been included when she was left out.
The Walker exhibition got that call right.
Fluxus sought to engage the world beyond the normative art world. Understanding Fluxus requires understanding the world in which Fluxus emerged. This requires a sense of the interests, engagements, and cultural affiliations that typified the artists and their interactions. These form the background to Fluxus, and the laboratory of experimentation that framed Fluxus.
Curators sometimes say, “The work speaks for itself.” I disagree. The work is itself—but it only speaks in context. By the time that critics and historians began to publish on Fluxus, that world had disappeared. To speak of these issues as though they are plain and self-evident erases much of Fluxus. The people who created Fluxus disappear in this account, while the story transformed George Maciunas into an imaginary commissar controlling an art project rather than treating him as the artist and designer who published Fluxus multiples and built the co-op houses that transformed SoHo.
This vision reduces Fluxus from a complex phenomenon to a shadow of its former self. It’s like shining a strong light on a three-dimensional object: the shadow becomes more prominent than the object itself. One can no longer see the object in all its complexity. Fluxus as art is the flat shadow of what Fluxus was.
“Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me; ‘Tis
fourfold in my supreme delight And threefold
in soft Beulah’s night And twofold Always.
May God us keep From Single vision &
— William Blake
“It’s time for you to leave now, William Blake. Time for you to go back to where you came from.”
“You mean Cleveland?”
“Back to the place where all the spirits came from... and where all the spirits return. This world will no longer concern you.”
— Jim Jarmusch
Fluxus and Fluxus Artists in the Art World
The Fluxus people worked with interdisciplinary, intermedia phenomena, but Fluxus was located in the art world. For some of us, it was a forum of last resort—or perhaps a case of wishful thinking. Art had more room for the unclassified and the unclassifiable than other venues, or so we thought.
Disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, political science, or economics didn’t have the freedom that art afforded. There was no room in those worlds for amateurs.
Fluxus wasn’t professional. Dick Higgins celebrated this spirit with a motto: “Don’t let the professionals get you down.”
The professions have little tolerance for amateur activities. Economics is a profession. The ministry is a profession. Chemical engineering is a profession. We found ourselves in the art world by default. But the art world is a profession as well, or it pretends to be. We treated art with a combination of genuine passion and cavalier indifference.
Fluxus people treated art in disrespectful ways. Or perhaps we simply didn’t respect art institutions. Serious participants in art respect their institutions. Even the institutional critique school of art involves serious artists criticizing institutions as a way to belong to them. People like Al Hansen, George Maciunas, and Albert M. Fine didn’t respect the art world. Robert Filliou, Carolee Schneemann, and Dick Higgins were suspicious of it. We had unrealistic ideas about art and the art world. In turn, the art world had little place for us. We made no sense to most art historians, curators, or critics.
Some Fluxus people managed to survive in the art world, and some even prospered. Take Wolf Vostell, for example. Wolf made wonderful art works. Wolf, Alison Knowles, Geoffrey Hendricks, Robert Watts, Nam June Paik, and Joseph Beuys were all artists with a position in the normative art world. Geoff and Bob were art professors with a good salary. Others made objects that dealers could position as art—or perhaps as relics of some kind. Joseph Beuys was an example. He was also an art professor, and so was Nam June Paik. Few of the rest met the expectations of art dealers or art departments.
Influence Without Acknowledgement
Nearly no one in the art world saw Fluxus as something serious enough to consider. That explains how we managed to be influential without acknowledgement relative to our contributions.
Fluxus people weren’t part of the serious art world, not even for people who knew about what we were doing. Since what we did didn’t count as art, there was no point in acknowledging us. At the best, people saw Fluxus as a kind of primitive art, outsider art, or folk art. Serious artists drew on our work as source material, but artists don’t acknowledge source material if it comes from outside art.
Consider the way that Picasso drew on African art. Learning from the work of non-European artists and drawing on the patrimony of other cultures, Picasso was a cultural magpie who brought sources together, shaping them into new art with generative pictorial genius and plastic skill. Nevertheless, those who criticize Picasso for cultural appropriation often don’t identify the specific sources or cultures on which Picasso drew. While we have some knowledge of the masks and artifacts he collected, these are rarely discussed—and we have no way to identify the individual artists who made the masks. Those works and Picasso’s work arose in different cultural traditions. One tradition was embedded in the lifeworld of a people. The work constituted a cultural heritage of ideas and traditions belonging to a people rather than to an individual. The other tradition reflected or drew on many cultures, but the expression was that of the individual master artist.
Acknowledged artists draw on common sources, especially artists acknowledged as important. There are many forms of permissible use. It is culturally permissible for high culture to draw on common sources without explicitly acknowledging the sources or locating the creators of the original work. This is the case when high art draws on popular culture. This was the case for pop art. Roy Lichtenstein drew on comics. Andy Warhol drew on mass-market products, tabloid news photos, or anything that caught his eye.
Consider a thought experiment. Imagine that the human species achieves intergalactic travel with instant transportation. Imagine that we discover a universe with hundreds of thousands of inhabited planets. Many planets have an atmosphere and structure that enables human beings to visit them. In this universe, humans establish a trans-galactic travel network with a system for eating, paying for the goods and services, and so on.
Now imagine that a New York performance artist in the year 2650 visits one of these distant planets as the first human from our earth to do so. Imagine that the artist sees something quite ordinary in an everyday activity among the creatures living there. The artist carefully and exactly reproduces this moment of daily experience in a performance piece that the artist premieres in New York to great acclaim. The artist never mentions the source or discusses it… he simply enacts the moment that he discovered, presenting it as an artwork. What is the status of the artwork in terms of the action and its sources? Is this minor sequence of daily actions a work of art when the originators enact it?
Does the artist owe anything to the inhabitants of the distant planet? Is the work a new work inspired by what the artist saw? Or, if it is exactly the same series of gestures and actions, is it plagiarism? Is the question even relevant? After all, the creatures whose activity an artist reproduces are the inhabitants of a distant planet. Their lives and culture are entirely different to our own.
They have no relation to what New York artists do. What difference is it to them that someone reproduces a fragment of their lifeworld for performance and delectation on a planet far away?
Something like this happens now in some kinds of art. Some Fluxus event scores artists reproduce moments of life. This happens in some of my scores. Seeing something or thinking about something I saw occasionally led to an event score. This is also visible in many of the scores that capture a moment of daily experience. Alison Knowles’s salad piece adapts a moment from daily life that existed long before Fluxus. The identical lunch event was another example—the score was originally an entry in a restaurant menu. Brecht’s on-off-on piece takes places in rooms and buildings billions of times every day. So does Brecht’s “Exit” score. Albert M. Fine’s piece at the Sistine Chapel has been performed for centuries by people walking into the chapel and out again.
None of us usually saw any reason to describe or discuss the origins or sources of the work. But this brings me to how the art world saw us. Consider watching someone from outside the art world make and serve a salad, adapting this to an event score. Then consider someone within the high art world hearing of an idea by one of the Fluxus people. Based on the reputation we had, it was hard to say what we were. Some of us seemed to say that we had nothing to do with art. Imagine that an artist—a real artist with appropriate institutional participation—borrowed some of our ideas. Would that have been a significantly different case to the case of a Fluxus person adapting a gesture that he noticed watching someone eat a pastrami sandwich?
This is not quite the right way to put it, but the idea moves in a direction I have been considering. Perhaps I am an unreal artist if you compare me with people who consider themselves real artists. If real artists considered Fluxus people to be primitives and charlatans, why would they acknowledge the ideas on which they drew? It’s possible to understand why artists ignore Fluxus at the same time that they take and adapt the work and the ideas.
Perhaps it is difficult to grasp the Fluxus story because it is large and tangled. To tell the story well requires that one account for too much. This is difficult. It is a difficult phenomenon with roots in several worlds.
A Sojourn in Saskatchewan
In March and April of 1972, I spent six weeks at what was then the University of Saskatchewan in Regina. It is now the University of Regina. There was still a fair amount of Greenberg worship in Saskatchewan when I was there, linked to the artists of the Regina Five and to artists who saw themselves as Canadian torchbearers of the abstract expressionist legacy.
The local heroes were the painters known as The Regina Five—Ron Bloore, Ted Godwin, Douglas Morton, Ken Lochhead, and Art McKay. They spearheaded Canadian abstraction during the late 1950s and the 1960s.
Regina also had a group of younger artists who had gone to art school in Chicago. They idolized the Hairy Who artists, a group in the larger constellation of Chicago Imagists. The Hairy Who acolytes attended a talk I gave at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the university’s art museum. The talk was advertised widely: the topic was the work of Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Mieko Shiomi, and other Fluxus people. At my talk about Fluxus, the local artists made it impossible for me to speak. The Hairy Who youngsters didn’t come to learn anything about Fluxus. Instead, they peppered me with a barrage of interruptions and loud comments. Each time they stopped the lecture, they bombarded me with questions about the Chicago artists in the Hairy Who. I knew little about the Hairy Who, so I was always on the wrong foot.
The School of Hard Knoxville
Another incident I remember took place at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. One art professor stood up at the end of the lecture. He spoke in an exaggerated country drawl. He berated me and criticized my ideas, bracketing his comments with a frequent statement to assert his position as the representative of some kind of real art, down-to-earth and homey. Before launching into each item in his critique, he’d say, “I may just be an old country boy, but …”
This kind of thing happened to me through much of the 1970s. People weren’t contesting philosophical or critical ideas. They never discussed ideas. They were saying that everything I did and said was wrong. But I’m not sure that a tenured university professor qualifies as an old country boy, no matter how rude and ignorant he may be.
When I think of old country boys, I think of a beautiful duet by Randy Travis and George Jones from the 1990 Travis album titled Heroes and Friends:
“There’s a lot of truth, you know, In our kind of songs:
About the life you’re living
And how love’s done you wrong. As long as there’s a jukebox
And a honky tonk in town It’s good to know there’s still
A few ol’ country boys around.”
For me, there is a bridge from the cultures of the past to our cultures of the present. We live in a world that others built for us over years, decades, centuries, and millennia. We inherit the traditions those cultures leave in their wake, but it’s an uneven inheritance, and our place in it depends on time, chance, and on the choices we make. Country music represents a layered series of traditions. In the Jones and Travis duet, you hear the meeting and interaction of many traditions. Those traditions include Celtic fiddle music; guitars with musical elements dating back to 12th-century Spain and the Arabic music of Northern Africa; guitar counterpoint in the background to emphasize and heighten the melody; vocal traditions in that inflect English folk music with cantorial touches from Jewish and Islamic singers; and steel guitar—an instrument rooted in Africa, born in Hawaii, and imported to the American South.
When I was a boy, my father taught folk dance and square dance. His main work involved directing a nursery school and kindergarten in New London, Connecticut with my mother. They also taught dance classes in the evenings. In the summers, my father had a folk dance class at Connecticut College.
People would gather one night a week on a big lawn between the old buildings. He’d play music from his immense collection of records, and he’d call the square dances himself. I’d listen to those records at home in the evenings and on weekends. Today, we’d call it world music. When I hear great traditional country music, I feel the world singing up through the roots.
Waylon Jennings once summed up his approach to music—and to life: “If we don’t leave ‘em anything else, I think we leave ‘em this one thing, that there’s always one more way to do things, and it’s your way, and you have a right to try it this one time.” Jennings and Willie Nelson brought that philosophy to “outlaw country,” and then to The Highwaymen, a group they formed with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson in the late 1980s.
For me, Fluxus was a lot like that. Fluxus was the right to try it our way this one time, this one life we get to live. I’m sorry the old country boy professor thought that I represented such a danger to art. Today, I understand people who saw us as a threat to their world and their worldview. The Tennessee professor makes sense to me now. So does the nasty behavior of the Hairy Who disciples in Saskatchewan. My existence was an affront to them. I was an amateur in their professional world. Everything I seemed to stand for suggested that what they did was barely worth doing.
The challenge is a challenge to a paradigm, a worldview, a perspective of understanding and conception. What we did was a challenge to what people conceived of in terms of their worldview. For that matter, I was just as much an affront to people like the Bay Area conceptual artists. But most of those folks were also real artists.
From On the Road to On the Road Again.
“On the road again
I just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is makin’ music with my friends And I
can’t wait to get on the road again
“On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again And I
can’t wait to get on the road again”
— Willie Nelson
For the twelve years between 1967 and 1979, I traveled around the United States and parts of Canada in the Fluxmobile. I sometimes worked as a visiting artist and once or twice as a visiting professor. More often, I just traveled, spreading information about Fluxus and the Fluxus artists. Over the years, I went to 46 of the 50 United States. The only states I didn’t visit were North Dakota, Wisconsin, Hawaii, and Alaska. I drove and flew. I went from north to south or south to north at least fifty times, twenty or thirty times from the Pacific to the Atlantic, west to east and east to west. In between driving tours, I made lots of cross-country flights and regional airport hops.
During those years, I often stopped at museums and galleries to meet with curators and directors. I made those visits when I came to a city with a museum or art center. I showed the Fluxkit. I talked with museum people about the other Fluxus artists and their work, and I talked about my own work. While I did exhibitions of my event scores and other work when I was a visiting artist, there was little interest for Fluxus in museums and galleries.
Museum directors usually agreed to meet me. When we met, they seemed to see me as a creature from another planet talking about something that made no sense.
Two memorable meetings involved gallery and museum directors at the University of California.
At one point, I went to visit Peter Selz when he was director of the Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley. I brought a complete Fluxkit suitcase, as well Fluxboxes, Something Else Press books, and wooden boxed editions of Ample Food for Stupid Thought by Robert Filliou and Wolf Vostell’s multiple. I also brought works by Milan Knizak and Ben Vautier. I hoped to interest Peter in a Fluxus exhibition. I made a small display of these for him on tables and chairs.
Peter looked at the things for a while without a word. Then he started rocking back and forth on his heels. Spreading his arms wide, he slowly began to clap his hands together forcefully. He clapped his hands with palms cupped to create a loud, cracking sound. After a few claps, he started to speak with his distinct German accent.
“Well [clap!],” he said, “this [clap!] is [clap!] certainly [clap!] in-ter-est-ing … [clap!] but [clap!] I [clap!] don’t [clap!] think [clap!] it [clap!] is [clap!] for [clap!] us.”
Then he stopped talking and clapping. He thanked me for coming and walked off to leave me surrounded by boxes and artworks.
Another memorable visit took place at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Someone had seen my work and told the director of the art gallery about me. That was David Gebhard, the architectural historian. I don’t recall how Gebhard heard about me, or even how we got in touch. I was living in Berkeley at the time. I spoke with Gebhard on the phone. He suggested that I visit him the next time I was in Santa Barbara.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I drove the Fluxmobile regularly between the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego. The first time I drove south after the conversation, I went to see David. The day that I left, I grabbed a selection of objects and projects from my studio, threw them into a box, and took them with me. When I got to Santa Barbara, we spoke for a while. Then he asked me to bring in my work. I went to the Fluxmobile and fetched the box. I brought the box into his office, opened it, and unpacked the objects, placing them on the floor, along the length of a wall.
He looked at the objects for a while. Perhaps it was a long while. I am not sure, but it seemed that way to me.
Finally, he looked at me and said, “But these are just ordinary objects.”
At first, I thought he understood my work quite well. Later, I realized that he saw these objects in a very different way than I did.
I spent the 1960s and 1970s living through hundreds of conversations and memories of this kind. I must have visited several hundred galleries and museums without a single sign of interest for Fluxus, and only a couple project possibilities for my own work. Even places that seemed to become interested lost interest. This was even the case with a promised major gift. One example involves the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.
In 1973, Lefty Adler was director of the La Jolla Museum of Art. The museum went through several changes over the years. Now it is the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. At an opening, I was talking with Lefty about Fluxus. Lefty was a big fan of Christo’s work, and he lamented the fact that the museum did not have any examples of Fluxus. I’m recalling a conversation from half a century back, so it might not have been that way at all—but one thing led to another, and I invited Lefty and the curator—Jay Belloli—to see the material. I offered it as a gift to the museum. Lefty welcomed the gift.
I packed up an enormous load of works. There were many original works. There was also a large set of multiples from Edition Hundertmark, and many of the Fluxus boxes that George Maciunas had sent me. I took all the material to the museum. The museum didn’t have to do any conservation or much organizing. The gift was massive, and everything was in prime condition. It was simply a matter of documenting the work, registering it for the collection, and housing it. I waited for something to happen with the collection. I kept in touch with Lefty as I did with the other museums and collections where I gave work. In 1982, Lefty was forced to leave the director’s post under the cloud of a scandal that involved personal gifts from the artists he had been exhibiting. The museum had not yet done anything with the collection. Year after year dragged on, and the museum did nothing.
Not long after Lefty was fired, I told the museum that they must either develop the collection or ship the work to the Fluxus collection at the University of Iowa. They packed it up in a few large crates and sent it. When I went to Iowa to unpack it, I found much of the work, but not all. What they sent was a jumble. Some Fluxboxes and a Fluxkit disappeared entirely. At the same time, they threw in strange items that I had never seen. These were odd pieces that never belonged to me—it’s as though they threw in anything they came across that seemed to be inexplicable.
Museums didn’t seem to care much about Fluxus work. With the exception of Joseph Beuys, they treated our pieces like documentary ephemera. If we were lucky, they’d place them in the library or the four-drawer vertical file system that many libraries used for loose material in the years before the web. At one point in the late 1970s, I found some material on Fluxus in the vertical file system at the library of the La Jolla Museum, including some of the correspondence I had with Lefty. The library had a copy of The Aesthetics. It wasn’t part of the library collection. It was in a folder in a four-drawer file cabinet.
Today, it seems that those decades of my life have simply vanished. All the time I spent crisscrossing the US and Canada, doing performances and shows, presenting my work and performing Fluxconcerts just evaporated. So did the conversations with museum directors and curators who seemed to think that I was an odd specimen who turned up uninvited and didn’t leave soon enough.
Then there is the endless story of artists.
Nearly everywhere I went, I found groups of artists imitating what was going on in New York—or imitating what had been famous in New York a decade earlier. By the late 1970s, there was some interest in conceptual art. This made little difference for Fluxus people. We weren’t the famous New York conceptual artists one could read about in Artforum or ARTnews.
In the late 1970s, things looked a little brighter… but they weren’t. During the Jimmy Carter presidency, there was a short-lived upsurge of artists creating alternative spaces and artist-run galleries. Part of this development was made possible by the flow of federal funding to the arts, and by occasional matching funding from states. Some states even started to develop arts policies. The Carter administration gave a lot of attention to art. Much of this had to do with the fact that the late Joan Mondale was a major advocate for the arts.
Mrs. Mondale was the wife of Vice President Walter Mondale. Joan Mondale was an effective arts advocate. Whatever interest might otherwise have been on the agenda was multiplied dramatically with the wife of a vice president driving an attention campaign. Mrs. Mondale was nicknamed “Joan of Art” for her efforts.
Those years saw massive increases in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition, there was a great deal of funding for employment and training programs. While these programs were not arts-funding measures, the programs were often written in such a way that art centers and non-profit organizations could use employment and training programs to hire people.
The funds didn’t permit permanent employment, but they often permitted full-time employment for the duration of the program grant.
Some people became extraordinarily clever at writing grants and securing program funding from many available sources. Carl Loeffler at La Mamelle in San Francisco was a genius at this. Carl was very fluid. Every issue of the La Mamelle magazine had a different format. His exhibition programs and projects changed all the time. He developed new ventures as new funding programs came available while closing and terminating any programs for which funds were no longer available. Carl made keeping programs funded to employ artists into an art form in its own right. Whether the programs had artistic or intellectual merit was another question—but no one had to account for artistic or intellectual merit. The key was more or less doing what you more or less said you would do within the time allocated. When the time was over, no one seemed to care about what had actually happened. The National Endowment for the Arts had little use for artists who weren’t embedded in the normative networks of galleries, museums, and universities. Fluxus people were outside that system.
At one point, James Melchert became Director of Visual Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC. Jim had been a ceramics artist and a professor at University of California at Berkeley. He knew almost everyone in the Bay Area. We met from time to time when I lived in San Francisco and Berkeley. A couple years after Jim got the job at the Endowment, I ran into him. He seemed genuinely happy to see me. We talked about his work and activities. At one point in the conversation, he said, “We’ve got to get you down to Washington to work with us.”
By this, I think he meant serving on one of the committees or another. That was the way into the system. People built networks and made connections by serving on these committees. They knew one another, they shared information, they learned how to apply for grants. Most important, they approved each other’s grants. The National Endowment for the Arts used what it referred to as a peer review system. This is not double-blind peer review of the kind one sees in journals, or peer review of the kind one sees in science grants. In that world, peer review means evaluating, critiquing, and constructively contributing to the development of an article or a research project. At the National Endowment for the Arts, the term “peer review” mimicked the language of federal science funding. It referred to people who were deemed peers to one another looking at one another’s work. But the peer review process was not blind. National Endowment committee members decided who would receive a fellowship or funding.
Was the system good or bad? Jim never did get me down to Washington, so I never found out.
National Endowment for the Arts programs did little harm, but they probably did little to create a deeper or richer culture. The artist fellowship programs reinforced the existing art world and the culture around it. The Endowment supported and reinforced the existing art market. It helped artists who were embedded in the normative art world to dig in deeper and do better. When the National Endowment for the Arts was spending millions of dollars a year on individual artist grants, Fluxus people saw no funding. When Congress killed the individual artist fellowship system in the wake of a scandal involving controversial work by a fellowship recipient, we didn’t see any funding either. There was no difference to us. But one aspect of the National Endowment for the Arts funding programs did affect Fluxus and Fluxus people. When the Endowment funded individual artist grants, it advanced the work of people who wanted little to do with us or our ideas. Because the system was closed to us, National Endowment for the Arts helped to build higher walls to keep us out.
As I write this, I recall two similar conversations.
James Sterritt was a sculpture professor from Washington University in St. Louis. He had a large, well-funded visiting artist program. I’d run into him from time to time at conferences or openings. Jimmy was a large, hearty guy. He was a macho sculptor. We never had a serious conversation that I can recall. Jimmy was always working the room, looking for someone more important than me to chat up. He had a terrific memory for names, and he knew who I was. He’d always say a few nice words. Then he’d slap me on the shoulder and say, “We’ve really got to get you out to St. Louis!” before moving on to the next conversation.
We must have had that short conversation a dozen times. “We’ve really got to get you out to St. Louis!” At some point, I thought “What’s stopping you? You’ve been saying this for years. You’ve got a large program and a massive budget. I’d be delighted to visit.”
The other conversation took place more recently with a retired professor who once chaired the art department at a major university. We knew each other back in the 1970s. Not long ago, he told me that he had hired Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles to work at his department. The problem is that they never worked at his university, so he couldn’t have hired them.
Now, fifty years later, my friend remembers that he hired them. I don’t think he was lying: he probably believed this to be the case. He had them out to lecture at a festival once. In his mind, I suppose this has turned into hiring them.
Today, Dick has been dead for twenty years. Alison is old and increasingly famous. Lots of people remember working with them. Dick wanted a university post, but he never found one. He died at the age of sixty, struggling to survive. He was often in desperate financial straits, doing odd jobs, typesetting, proofreading—anything he could. He was always worried about insurance coverage, financial worries, stress, and poor health.
I find myself irked that my friend remembers himself as a great friend of Fluxus who hired Dick and Alison when he had those kinds of jobs at his disposal. He was a smart guy and a good artist. He knew how to play the game, work the National Endowment for the Arts, and succeed in the university. He wasn’t an enemy of Fluxus, but he wasn’t a friend. In the 1970s, he dismissed Fluxus in as a curious but insignificant artifact of the 1960s. His interest in our work grew in retrospect. The Silverman Fluxus collection is at the Modern. Carolee Schneemann and Yoko Ono both won the Golden Lion in Venice. These days, we have lots of old friends. It resembles the large number of people who now claim that they studied in John Cage’s composition class at the New School. Back then, you could number students from the Cage class on fingers and toes. Looking back from the claims people have made in recent years, it would have been a crowded classroom.
During the long, dry years, between the 1960s and now, we survived. We supported one another—or some of us did. We kept publishing and finding ways to keep our projects alive. Fluxus people did the work that kept ideas, projects, and work circulating long enough to make a moment of recovery possible.
The Unacknowledged Fluxus
The neglect of Fluxus took wings with Lucy Lippard’s book on conceptual art, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Lippard was negligent in her failure to recognize Fluxus for the kinds of art that she describes in Six Years.
In case after case, Fluxus artists were predecessors to the issues that she includes and the artists that she covers. This is not an issue of whether the Fluxus work or the artists were better or more interesting. Some were, some weren’t. It remains the case that Lippard neglected work between the middle of the 1950s and the starting date for Six Years. The book included only a few minor citations to our work. One was a brief note on Some Investigations, a pamphlet of my essays pointing back to earlier work.
Lucy’s neglect of Henry Flynt annoyed me. Henry is a pain. He is often grumpy and ungracious. He nevertheless deserves credit for coining the term “concept art.” The later artists who came to practice conceptual art owe him a debt that has never been acknowledged.
It is even the case that Henry did not mean by “concept art” what he wrote in the essay. For years, Henry complained about the essays in which I describe concept art in a way different to his meaning. At one point, Henry finally explained why he feels that I never understood concept art as he intended it. My definition was based on Henry’s exact words—and this interpretation also supports relevant issues from Dick Higgins’s idea of intermedia.
When we were talking about this, I pointed out to Henry his exact words. In the 1959 concept art essay published in An Anthology, Henry wrote, “‘Concept art’ is first of all an art of which the material is ‘concepts’, as the material of for ex. music is sound.” Henry acknowledged that he wrote those words. But this wasn’t what he meant.
What Henry had in mind in using the term “concept art” was some kind of argument with Greek mathematics. At least that’s what I got out of the conversation. Henry had no interest in the work of Fluxus people like George Maciunas or me for whom concept art was actually “an art of which the material is ‘concepts’, as the material of for ex. music is sound.” For Henry, that explicit definition covered far too much art that he did not see as concept art. Neither did the next sentence, “Since ‘concepts’ are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language.” I think that the second sentence may not follow from the first—but it covers a great deal of conceptual art that Henry disavows as having any relation to concept art.
Some of the most important concept art works involve concepts without language. A good example is Metered Bulb, a 1963 work by Robert Morris. This work has neither language nor text, though one might argue that the piece presupposes a grasp of language and cultural understanding. When I asked Henry to name the artists he sees as concept artists, he named only four: himself, La Monte Young, Robert Morris, and Christer Hennix. I said to him, “That’s only four people.” Henry replied, “That’s all there are.”
Given his frequently ungracious behavior, Henry turned a lot of people against him. Even so, his contribution deserves respect. No one can deny his priority in developing the term “concept art.” Henry’s work warrants priority of publication. It precedes conceptual art. Henry’s definition covers much of what came later. He was a key predecessor to many of the conceptual artists, and many people who knew his work fail to acknowledge him or his influence.
If you compare Henry’s artwork with that of the later conceptual artists, it is often less interesting. Compare his work, for example, with that of Joseph Kosuth. Joseph is a far more interesting artist than Henry. Dick Higgins felt the same way. I recall several occasions when Dick pointedly criticized Henry, comparing him unfavorably with Joseph Kosuth.
Joseph’s work has a depth and brio that is absent in Henry’s work. Joseph’s pieces are light and energetic, where Henry’s are flat and plodding. But the fact remains that Henry coined the term concept art, using it long before anyone else, and he deserves priority on this.
Stories, Narratives, Memories
It’s been a long time since I started writing these notes. It’s difficult to remember who I was when I did my work, and my experience of Fluxus was different to that of the other Fluxus people. George Maciunas urged me to take Fluxus to places where the others didn’t go, so I traveled.
My friends and colleagues exhibited and performed in the art galleries, museums, and concert halls of major metropolitan art centers. I organized exhibitions and concerts anywhere I could. Sometimes these were university galleries or art museums. More often, it was in public parks, street corners, churches, and our own Fluxus centers. We also had the Fluxmobile, a Volkswagen bus fitted out with storage and exhibition equipment that folded up neatly to leave a riding and sleeping space.
While my friends exhibited and performed together in New York and across Europe, I presented their work and my own across the United States and Canada. I knew their work better than I knew them, and the rest of them knew each other far better than they knew me.
Not only was my experience of Fluxus different than theirs was, my life was different.
When I worked for Dick Higgins as the general manager of Something Else Press, Dick gave me what turned out to be advice that shaped my life. While I had never studied art, Dick made a point of telling me not to rely on art for a living. He said I should get an education that enabled me to work at something entirely different. I took my PhD in human behavior. While I dipped into art and out of it, I was also an entrepreneur, a publisher, a designer, and a consultant. Life took me to Finland for a year in 1987, then—in 1988—to Norway, where I lived for two decades. While I made a living as a consultant and worked with art projects, the Norwegian School of Management offered me job in 1994 as professor of leadership and strategic design. In 2008, I moved to Australia as Dean of the Faculty of Design at Swinburne University of Technology. Now, I serve as Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies at Tongji University in Shanghai and Visiting Professor at Lund University in Sweden. These are interesting jobs, and quite demanding. I use most of my time for research and writing.
It’s been a quarter century since 1994. Before 1994, I did many things to make a living. Some were connected to art, other not. After 1994, this changed. Dick didn’t think about one thing when giving me what turned out to be good advice overall. The jobs that freed me from the art market disconnected me from the art world. Most of my Fluxus friends were connected to art or music for most of their lives, or they made a living teaching art or music. My case was different. My work was quite visible. To some artists, the fact that I taught at a business school meant that I had somehow been transformed into someone with no right to participate in art.
A meeting with an artist from Poland who was a visiting professor at a Norwegian art school sums it up. My friend from Poland brought another artist to meet me when I lived in Norway. The other fellow was a minor conceptual artist from Israel. He knew my name from Fluxus, and he was curious about what I was doing. When I told him about my work, he looked at me as though I had become a creature from a horror movie, like a werewolf under a full moon. He lost all interest in my ideas and my work, and he said, “You’re not an artist! You should help real artists. Open a gallery! Sell art!”
Perhaps I will say a little more someday. This is as good a place as any to end for now.
“In my first thirty years of life
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles. Walked
by rivers through deep green grass Entered cities of
boiling red dust.
Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal; Read
books and wrote poems on history. Today I’m
back at Cold Mountain:
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.”
— Han Shan
Ken Friedman was the youngest member of the classical Fluxus group. He worked closely with George Maciunas and Dick Higgins, as well as collaborating with Nam June Paik, Milan Knizak, and John Cage.
 Han Shan, “Cold Mountain,” in A Range of Poems, trans. Gary Snyder (London: Fulcrum Press, 1967), 39. Han Shan is a real but semi-legendary poet. Like Homer, little is known about his life. Scholars place him between 600 and 900. His work may be the work of one poet, or several.