A Total Critique of Culture
(c) 1993 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.
Chapter 10. Post-Dada and the Crumbling of Art's Purposes
10.1 Taking post-Dada at its word
My early work responded to what may generically be called the neo-Dada escapades of the Fifties (ending in 1960-61). As I have mentioned repeatedly, I was aware of the group of composers around John Cage, of Yves Klein, of the group of artists around La Monte Young, and of Nam June Paik. With Cage, probably more than any other one figure, there were hints of a programmatic opposition to the existence of art. La Monte Young emended this with a programmatic demand for the New: which, while not explicitly aimed against the existence of art, would make the continuation of art problematic. Meanwhile, the art journalists of the period were throwing the phrase "anti-art" around with abandon. While Rauschenberg and Kaprow were called anti-art, the school to which the critics attached this label most insistently was Pop Art. References to anti-art entered the discourse of the "newest" artists themselves. (Young's "Lecture 1960"; Robert Morris; George Brecht; Nam June Paik.)
The work which was produced In this milieu in the Fifties seemed to mock art's customary purposes from many different angles. Some of the instances in question could be considered self-conscious pranks, such as Rauschenberg's 1961 telegram in lieu of a portrait of Iris Clert. But others, such as the soundless "music" promulgated by the word pieces, represented a mass shift in the preoccupations of the artists. A further pivotal step was taken by George Brecht when he began showing toys and games as his art in 1959. Not only had he wrenched serious art away from its customary purposes; ostensibly he had demoted it to the level of amusement and pastime.
As I have noted a number of times in this book, the passage of time squelched any impression that neo-Dada had been an outburst of idealism, or that there was any threat of a collapse of the art world as artists migrated to different, unnamed pursuits. The case of Rauschenberg is representative. I did not even know, in the early Sixties, of his neo-Dada sorties. The reason was clear. Rauschenberg's avant-garde gesture pieces were simply not who he was. The books on him tell the story; if the antics are mentioned at all, they are buried among combines and silk-screens and more silk-screens. As for Robert Morris, he literally suppressed his early radicalism when his career took off in 1962. Only Cage, it seems, was at all serious about his programmatic stand; but he just kept being the composer--and repeating himself, randomizing everything from soup to nuts with the I Ching.
The critics said that the ultimate in anti-art was Rauschenberg, Klein, Pop. Either they were pathetically naive, or else "anti-art" was virtually a synonym for the latest star career in the art world.
As I review these events and my response to them, I have to make an uncomfortable and troubling admission. I seized on the circumstance that many of my elders of the late Fifties were living modestly and were relatively unknown. I observed their avant-garde antics. I placed the most idealistic and iconoclastic construction possible on these occurrences, and used them to challenge myself: because I wanted to do so. (As I dimly remember, when I told Yoko Ono in New York in December 1960 that Philosophy Proper was a critique of "belief," she replied, "I don't believe in anything." I knew that her answer was an existentialist cliché which did not obviate Philosophy Proper; nevertheless, I wanted to think that I had found a milieu which was as iconoclastic as her remark implied.) I incorporated the artists in question into a fantasy that there was a community of idealism and iconoclasm. It was a way of coping with total isolation. I made accommodating gestures to my cohorts to keep my fantasy of collegiality going.
Examining biographies of Rauschenberg today, one reads of the reciprocal creativity in the personal relationships of Rauschenberg and Cage, Rauschenberg and Cunningham. I would try to have that sort of relationship with my cohorts, but my accommodating gestures fell flat. Candidly, I despised the arty mystique, had growing doubts about the office of artist, and saw a future only in what I later called "new intellectual modalities." I made many gestures of accommodation which, on principle, had no reason to happen. (Such as reading Philosophy Proper in the A/G Gallery in July 1961; or twitting Norman Seaman by sending him an outlandish word piece in 1964.) If those gestures of accommodation were edited out of my life, it would be apparent that I had no real bond to the New York art scene. I was appealing for sympathy to the people whom my program attacked. It's no wonder that the desire for more appropriate cohorts led me to the sectarian Left in 1963. There, again, unfortunately, I was learning from, and being motivated by, people I would prove to have nothing in common with.
The performance of the art critics and art historians in chronicling this period was peculiar, but understandable. Over and over, they repeated the judgment that the artists with the most fame, the most lucrative careers, the most New York museum shows--artists who typically were iconic easel painters--were "anti-art." Either the chroniclers were idiots, or else they were engaged in a fiendish act of co-optation--rather like insisting that Ronald Reagan is the Chairman of the Communist Party. And yet, as the years wore on, the critics showed themselves to be smug that the art world would prevail. They were not even aware that the art of threatened dissolution could mean anything other than a warm-up for a successful career.
I broke the story of Robert Morris' suppressed work in "Mutations of the Vanguard." A typical art-historical approach to Morris, in contrast, is found in Maurice Berger's Labyrinths (1989). Morris' suppressed period is not mentioned; only a few finished pieces from his oeuvre of 1960-62 are mentioned, and they are expounded as ponderous didacticism. Other art historians interpret early word pieces, generally, as ponderously as if they were Rodin sculptures. In this perspective, the word pieces and avant-garde antics were stations on the artists' triumphal marches to biennales and museum shows.
I'm making a difficult observation about the events, and I want to rephrase it. There was a confluence of occurrences in the Fifties in which art absurdly departed from its customary purposes--and it seemed that those who were not locked in tradition might abandon art. The dissolution of the art world might even be prefigured by these events. As the reports came back from the front about Cage, Yves Klein, Ray Johnson, Brecht, Dennis Johnson, and so forth, I put an intransigent or extremist construction on these reports because I wanted such a challenge for my own quest. After all, my biography took the direction which I thought was indicated by the antics of my elders. (But the problem with claiming significance for my odyssey was that the critics refused to chronicle me, very deliberately so. I will have to return to that in a moment.)
Over and over, I was misled by my own attitude. I was blind to the eagerness with which my friends Morris and De Maria, for example, were lobbying for art careers. (Something Tom Wolfe saw fit to report in The Painted Word.) Being an artist as a prolonged scam held no interest for me. Today, when that period is consolidated as history, the idealistic aura has vanished. All one sees is teeming "creatishness," teeming art rabbits--as Robin Page has so aptly put it--along with smug triumphalism.
In 1960-63, I took the "non-art" hints from my peers, shaped them programmatically, and embodied them in vehemently argued positions. My submissions were as public as those of the other figures, and often appeared side-by-side with theirs. In fact, for two years or so, I imagined myself to be competing with the other figures to be the "newest." My anti-art campaign of 1962-63 was not only public; it had the world's top artists as its sponsors and audience--and elicited letters and cross-discussion from them, some of which I published later in the Sixties. As I will discuss below, George Brecht repeatedly censured me for being theoretical, and for crusading.
But the chroniclers, by and large, have rejected my public acts as history. Cage was the only neo-Dada figure in connection with whom biographers repeatedly mentioned the notion that the artist was superfluous. None of the "aesthetic treatments" of Cage noted me as having picked up on Cage`s hints. They certainly do not mention that Cage attended my July 5, 1962 anti-art lecture, bringing Virgil Thomson with him.
One of the classics of Fluxus has become Brecht's "Something about FLUXUS." But the magisterial source on Brecht printed "Something About FLUXUS" with more than half of it deleted. The deleted portion has one of Brecht's jibes against my anti-art campaign.
Now that Fluxus is ascendent, commentators use my propinquity to the post-Cage movement not as a lens to focus the other artists' hints of ambiguity and dissolution, but to to prove that I am a "little Fluxus artist," a "footnote to Fluxus."
If my campaigns are not there to focus the iconoclasm, if history strips the artists' contacts with me from their lives, then it is much easier not to see that other artists ventured into ambiguity and dissolution also.
Publication has been extremely difficult for me to achieve.--So the panoramic character of my program did not receive consolidated documentation. Various of my pieces in 1961-62 embodied my response to the "dissolution of art"; but the more ambitious pieces did not begin to be collected until Blueprint for a Higher Civilization appeared in 1975; and the shorter pieces did not gain any consolidated presentation until the Backworks catalog of 1982. In the Sixties, there was no book one could consult for the progression by which my "pieces" (concept art and the rest of it) migrated out of art's borders.
Given art history's protocol that my public acts were not history (or that I am just a little Fluxus artist), I feel that I have to write around myself in this chapter. I have to pretend that the world's top artists didn't attend my anti-art lectures (and sponsor them), that there isn't any published correspondence from the artists about my campaign, that Brecht did not repeatedly advert to me; etc. etc. I have to make whatever case can be made for the period of ambiguity and threatened dissolution without citing myself as evidence, and without citing artists' exchanges with me as evidence.
10.2 Works of displacement and dissolution
What I wish to do here is to collate the avant-garde gestures of the Fifties, and to ponder them as a serious challenge to the stability of art or the existence of art. In other words, I wish to treat the occurrences as I perceived them at the time.
As elsewhere in this book, I shall not try to catalogue every piece done in the Fifties which exemplified modernity's "absurdism." I am much more interested in excavating episodes which have been overlooked (sometimes because they were not documented in books, or because they were suppressed by the author). I wish also to revisit announced opinions which undercut the art world but got buried when "absurdism" became a new Academy.
Rauschenberg's avant-garde gesture pieces have to be mentioned. In 1951, he showed White Paintings in a group show; and made Automobile Tire Print with John Cage. In 1953, he did Erased De Kooning Drawing. (There you are; the artist as eradicator of other artists' art.) Then he showed White Paintings in a joint show with Twombly at the Stable Gallery. Here, as in other cases, the gesture was not starkly radical as it was advertised. Nevertheless, the furor over the Stable Gallery show was real; and gave Cage the opportunity to proselytize for the art of nothing. In 1957, Rauschenberg painted an abstract expressionist painting, and then copied it brush stroke for brush stroke. There were two identical paintings, Factum I and Factum II, and no way of knowing which was spontaneous and which copied. In 1961, Rauschenberg did the telegram as portrait of Iris Clert; and he painted First Time Painting in a concert, with contact microphones attached to his implements. To repeat, these antics did not enter the folklore of the avant-garde. They were not programmatic, and essentially had no intellectual thrust. They got buried by the combines and silk-screens.
The key figure in the threatened dissolution of art was Cage. Everybody knew the "precedent" of Dada, of course. Motherwell's book appeared in 1951; and Sidney Janis exhibited "Dada: 1916-1923" in 1953, for example. But Dada's transgressive gestures were intended as savage satires. One can read all of Dada, in fact, as a protest against World War I. (A protest whose inconsequentiality showed that parody and mobilization are art's least worthy, least credible functions.) Cage's "absurdist" works, on the other hand, meant to promulgate a new sensibility, a sensibility of accident, of vanishings, of nothing. Resentment was not a consideration. The Cagean attitude could reach composure and closure in the aesthetic experience. Cage's "nothing" piece, 4' 33", was his best, he said.
Cage's other compositions typically simulated accidental occurrences, framing them for aesthetic receptivity. (These pieces can also be taken as non-serialist pointillism.) From Cage's point of view, Richard Maxfield, perhaps, was already regressive: since Maxfield wanted to modulate new sounds expressively, working intuitively; whereas Cage wanted a fragmented audio program without "expression."
Yves Klein's antics were obviously driven by a hunger for publicity. For that reason, I long underestimated the ideas inside his stunts. Klein was responsible for a number of the "nothing" pieces of the Fifties. There were his monotone symphony, his 1958 empty gallery. He began selling invisible paintings in 1959, topping this series off by selling a ticket to the other side of the sky on November 18, 1959. Payment was in gold leaf which was thrown in the Seine. In Dimanche, his newspaper of November 27, 1960, he proposed a continuously lighted empty theater. To his patented pigment International Klein Blue (IKB), he added International Klein Immaterial (IKI) and International Klein Nothingness (IKN).
In 1960, Dennis Johnson reduced nonintentional music to the single word "LISTEN." Along the lines of "anything can be enshrined as art," there was Piero Manzoni's 1961 Magic Base. In May 1960, Klein founded a Bureau empowering his artist-friends to forge "Kleins" (the monochromes were all identical anyway). Here was a step toward making authorship a detachable element.
The trend of the day was called neo-Dada because so many of the artists addressed established genres and misused their elements--so that the resulting "pieces" defeated or displaced the genres' customary purposes. That trend is, of course, the basis for the title of this chapter. Klein used nude models as paintbrushes. In Paik's One for Violin Solo (1961), a violin was "played" by being smashed against a tabletop. In another Paik piece, the instruments of a string quartet were dragged along the sidewalk by strings. Several of La Monte Young's word pieces involved "misuse" of elements of classical music performance. The performer dumped hay and water into a piano, or tried to push the piano through a wall. Or the performer attempted to open and close the keyboard cover of a piano without making a sound. Two of Young's pieces used the audience as the performers. George Brecht was responsible for several displaced-use compositions. A piano piece was performed by bringing a vase of flowers to the piano. A violin piece was performed by polishing a violin. By this point, of course, much of the new music was effectively soundless or instantaneous.
For the year 1961, composer Young composed his compositions for the year all at the same time, and all twenty-nine of them were identical copies of a piece from the preceding year. He was mocking the notion that successive pieces have to be different, he told me.
Perhaps the ultimate staged "evening" which defeated itself and the audience was Ray Johnson's Nothing of July 30, 1961. It was the last evening in the A/G Gallery series; Con Edison had cut off the electricity. Johnson had placed wooden dowels on the darkened stairs leading to the closed gallery. The audience was supposed to trip and break their necks on the way to a non-existent performance. Art had become a rat-trap for the audience.
There was a turn to nonhuman agencies. Klein did paintings which were executed by the action of weather. He made a painting in 1960 by tying a canvas to the roof of his automobile and driving it to Nice and back. He made another painting by placing a canvas on the ground in a rain and throwing paint powder above it. A work of art effectively consisted of the selection of a frame and the selection of a material; how the distribution of the material in the frame was effected did not matter. The real implications of this definition had already been explored in a series of incidents in the late Fifties--which the art world chose to forget. There were two articles on chimpanzees who sat in high chairs and painted abstract expressionist paintings. Then, at a 1960 Cage concert in Venice:
an elderly music lover strode to the stage, walloped Cage's piano with his walking stick and stalked out shouting "Now I'm a musician, too."
It was all true. The only deficiency of the chimps and the old man was that they did not uphold the priestly and mercenary structure of the art world. The avant-garde of record, in delivering the verdict that a whack on the piano was great art when executed by a famous career artist, and not otherwise, disclosed that it had a hidden agenda profoundly at variance with its manifest "radicalism." That hidden agenda altered the definition of the artist profoundly and irrevocably. The real artwork, the only artwork, was the artist's fame as an artist. Delectation in an object was now vestigial--or irrelevant--in the appreciation of art.
Let me return to Cage. Cage provided the first hints of actual non-art or anti-art. What mattered was aesthetic receptivity to the world. The composer, the artist, perhaps, was not necessary. Time magazine's review of Theater Piece, March 21, 1960, p. 46, intimated that Cage found composing unnecessary and was doing less and less of it. In 1962, Cage reissued 4' 33" as 0' 00". There is an interview given by Cage to L.G. Bodin and B.E. Johnson in 1965 in which Cage's challenge to the existence of art reaches its peak, perhaps. Here Cage explained 0' 00"; and repeated the theme "anything is music, the composer is unnecessary." (By the time Cage composed 0' 00", let it be noted, he had been exposed to the novelties which La Monte Young had unleashed in New York; and had attended my first New York anti-art lecture.) In The Medium is the Massage (1967), the page on Cage again has him saying that "everything we do is music."
The Russian revolution had given rise to a position that art would disappear. (That position was a refinement, in turn, of pre-revolutionary Futurism.) This precedent became important to me when I was forging my 1963 position. Today, though, there is no reason to suppose that the Soviets pre-empted all later anti-art theories. The Soviet position repudiated classic art in favor, on the one hand, of European modernism (just what I was against); and in favor of applied arts, on the other hand. Fine art would disappear because it was not utilitarian enough. Since the fetish of utilitarianism was one of Soviet ideology's great miscalculations, Rodchenko's ideology hardly exhausted the topic of anti-art.
In a sense, Cage rediscovered, in a characteristically modernist, residual way, something which had been taken for granted in classical German aesthetics. Classically, aesthetics sought to explain beauty as a value. Art was not the primary occasion of beauty. Not only could one find beauty in a landscape; classical aesthetics regarded the landscape as better than a painting of a landscape. Panofsky echoes this view in Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955).
It is possible to experience every object, natural or manmade, aesthetically. We do this ... when we just look at it (or listen to it) without relating it, intellectually or emotionally, to anything outside of itself. ... when confronted with a natural object, it is an exclusively personal matter whether or not we choose to experience it aesthetically.
The real news in culture in the last three hundred years is the way that the priestly mediation of the artist has become indispensable to the aesthetic experience. The disbursement of "sensitive climate" has become a profession. And, modernism has separated the aesthetic experience from edification and harmoniousness, which were previously expected of it. From one side, Cage rediscovered the superfluity of art by giving the highest place to the accidental, the fragmented, the inexpressive. From another side, George Brecht made the art-object proffered by the professional relentlessly banal (as I will consider below).
Given the anti-art position into which I mentally consolidated Cage's scattered hints, La Monte Young added a dimension to it in 1960. Young announced that he was only interested in that which was New; all other considerations fell by the way. (Chapter 9 of this work is devoted to a thorough treatment of the question of Newness.) Also in Lecture 1960, Young recounted how Terry Jennings had become interested in Antartica. In a letter to Young of Sept. 8, 1960, Robert Morris picked up on the hint, writing "Ant-Artica seems different -- what else?"
A fetishism of newness, like everything else in this story, can signify exhaustion and corruption as well as revolutionary intent. Thomas Hess had no difficulty spotting the lack of credibility:
Drained of its content, the modern painting has only one significance: it is New. Thus the vanguard audience keeps pressure on the artists to switch styles and manners, to produce new looks, new shivers, new laughs. The passport to the future needs almost daily revalidation. The faster Isms replace each other, the better. And the New is always a bit cheaper in price ... 
And yet, Hess' critique didn't go anywhere, because it was offered in behalf of the modern painting of his own generation.
As I have already suggested, Robert Morris had submissions in this vein which were brief, but should not be ignored. Morris' submission to Beatitude (An Anthology) went through several stages. Originally, Morris' title page had the heading anti-art. Then, there were several deletions, including that of anti-art; but two pages of texts by Morris were still prepared. They included Blank Form, which subsequently was published elsewhere. This text, in addition to announcing what is now called minimal sculpture, made art depend on my assumption of an attitude. As is well known, Morris removed his pieces from An Anthology while it was waiting to be bound; and all that finally got in was his edited title page.
There are yet more chapters to the artists' turn to ambiguity and threatened dissolution. Once anything could be put in art's frame, some artists began defining coincidental, unobserved, unstructured events as art. Again, there was Dennis Johnson's "LISTEN." Robert Morris offered several pieces of this nature in 1961:
Tomorrow 8 am to 12 pm
To be looked at in a state of shock; nearly anything in a state of shock
And from Morris' Sept. 8, 1960 letter:
Make a box, even one which will contain something, and leave it in a field.
Nam June Paik reported "diffident aesthetic events" admiringly.
Heinz Klaus Metzger also rode on the vaporetto with Cage. There was a very heavy fog. In order to avoid the collision, one boat blew a stem-whistle ... and the next one responded and the third one echoed and from the distant end another vaporetto answered ... Metzger said it was the best Cage concert he ever attended. ... this happening (in its truest sense) ... 
In Postmusic (1963), Paik heralded two of his pieces for unannounced performance which he had given orally to Alison Knowles: Music for the Long Road, and The music for high tower and without audience.
Another departure of the period was the performance which was observed, but whose boundaries were unannounced. Examples were Brecht's "Time Table Music"; and Young's piece for silent manipulation of a keyboard cover.
Further submissions by George Brecht had a special importance for my inquiry. In 1959, Brecht composed and showed pastimes which nominally were not art. They were, rather, games and toys. I felt confirmed in my direction by this. "Let us leave art, and become composers of unclassifiable pastimes with self-justifying purposes," I thought. But once I had reached that point, it was obvious that Brecht's pastimes were ineffective. They crystallized so little stimulation that nobody would actually engage in them. Why would Brecht go into competition with Parker Brothers and do such a bad job of it, I wondered.
During 1961, I embarked on a program of composing unclassifiable pursuits rich enough to warrant commitment. (Mock Risk Games--originally "Exercise Awareness-States"; Energy Cube Organism; Perception-Dissociator.) But I did not remain with these pursuits. I intensified my critique, and arrived at the critique of amusement which appears in the next chapter.
To repeat, the artists' gestures proved to be insincere. But that does not compel us to ignore the challenge which the manifest "pieces" offer. If one takes the pieces at face value, they signified that the inquiry into acognitive culture was no longer controlled by the institution of art and the office of artist.
10.3 George Brecht's "non-art"
Returning to Brecht, it was the most cynical observers who had his measure. Again Thomas Hess:
Certain neo-Dada constructions, for example, invite the in-group to play with them, to join in the romp. They charm the spectator, beguile and tease him. Art tends to be a courtship dance between seller and buyer.
There was a good reason why Brecht's pastimes were in fact barren. Brecht was not going into competition with Parker Brothers at all. His games were camp. He was saying "see, I go so far that I show a toy as a sculpture." He had really been one step ahead of Pop in 1959. The audience had grown tired of being edified; and Brecht sensed that ahead of time. His toys' actual value was as tokens in art marketing.
Brecht's April 18, 1963 letter to me said in part
I see anti-art as an aspect of art, for example, and am indifferent to them both. I have publicly said (in a panel at Hunter) that my work is not art (for me), though, of course, I have no control over what others think it is, or choose to consider it. In the future, I can begin to see, it will be less and less easy for people to (mistake) (take) my work for art. This is one of the qualities I very much admire in Bob Morris' and Walter De Maria's work: not easily being able to put it into some existent category.
Brecht pictured himself, Morris, and De Maria exactly as I wanted to see them at the time. There seemed to be a raging debate over the right way to leave art. And yet, you did not appear on a panel at Hunter unless the art world had enshrined you as a role model for fledgling artists.
In January 1964, Brecht was in a show at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford which was extraordinary for including so many artists who would rise to the top in the second half of the century. Reviewing the show in Arts Magazine, Donald Judd said of Brecht,
A work is a familiar object or a depiction of one, often familiar too. It doesn't appear to be art. Its only claim to be is that it is being exhibited. It is shown as art and becomes the equal of things that are obviously art. The importance of art is extended to everything, most of which is slight, ordinary and unconsidered. You are forced to consider the ordinary things and to question whatever was thought important in art. Table and Chair Event, by George Brecht, is the most extreme instance of this in the exhibition. There is a white kitchen chair at either end of a small white kitchen table. ... There is, of course, an attitude shown in this, and you wonder why people have these things. Another of Brecht's tables was shown at Cordier-Ekstrom. It and the various articles were simultaneously modern and early American. This is a prevalent taste.
There is an implication here that Brecht is the newest or the best--because he goes the furthest. What is more, going the furthest means putting absolutely banal, ordinary objects on exhibit, so that the only artiness they possess lies in being exhibited. Now everything is indistinguishably art. And yet, Brecht was set for life in this billion-dollar global empire, because curators and collectors were spontaneously drawn to him.
People found my proposal that we didn't need art, didn't need an art world, abominable and insane. But to me, the times were screaming for such a conclusion. I cannot understand all the readers who must have seen Judd's article and said to themselves, "yes, that's the justification of the sanctity of art, the enshrinement of art."
10.4 The critics of the period
I now turn to the odd showing which the critics made in the period which ended when Pop Art received its label. Some critics, because of their "sound" aesthetic education, were unable to take neo-Dada in stride. John Canaday, having recently joined The New York Times, began to ridicule the avant-garde: so much so that a letter attacking him was sent to the paper by Cage and many other signatories. At one point, Canaday proposed a moratorium on art. Then, he explained the existence of art collections with a fable of a pebble collector. A caveman starts collecting pebbles as a pastime, and in the end it becomes an institution with museums and critics.
Reading The Embattled Critic when it appeared, I was, again, the dupe of my own hopes. Canaday was merely being paid to speak for "conservatives." His satirizing was in fact irrelevant to the themes of this book. And yet, he had said what he had said, about the moratorium on art and the pebble collector. There was no shortage of end-of-the-world discourse about art.
Other critics attempted to keep pace with the avant-garde. The Artist's World in Pictures, for example, lauded Allan Kaprow's Happenings as anti-art. The characterization of Happenings as anti-art would, in fact, become a cliché. The book also told the reader that George Brecht was anti-art: validating the the impression I had of Brecht's aims. Then, we may again consult the inexhaustible Hess; now he warns us against Anti-art.
Something new appears in pictures which are programmatically ingratiating, which cuddle the audience in the name of Anti-art.
The overall burden of Hess' article, by the way, was that all this folly was going to cost New York its position as art's world capital, which it had won from Paris. Empires come and empires go. Artists had better stop fooling around, and worry about sustaining the domination of our Empire.
As soon as Pop Art had been labelled, the critics would announce that it was anti-art. This notion proved to be extraordinarily stubborn. As I will detail below, Battcock pronounced Warhol the best anti-artist in 1970; and Leepa devoted several pages to expounding Pop as anti-art in 1973.
10.5 The avant-garde responds
There had been, then, actual anti-art hints by Cage and some of his juniors, perhaps. Anti-art had also figured in the characterizations of critics, as just mentioned. And completeness seems to require that I must mention myself in one connection, even though, again, the historians' protocol is that my manifestations may not be incorporated in history. Maciunas' Fluxus News-Policy Letter No. 6 of April 6, 1963, had a brief mention, near the top, of my action against "serious culture," through demonstrations. Maciunas continued his letter by launching into an asinine proposal for propaganda for Fluxus through sabotage. In the following Fluxus News Letter No. 7 of May 1, 1963, Maciunas acknowledged the unfavorable reactions he had had to his schemes of propaganda through sabotage. He also included the following proposal from me:
Last culminating festival event, in largest hall, largest audience -- a lecture by Henry Flynt: denouncing all Fluxus festival activities as decadent serious culture aspects & expounding his BREND doctrine and campaign.
Here I was still trying to convey something to Maciunas and the others by twisting their projects in a half-joking way. My judgment of Fluxus, here disseminated by Maciunas in what amounted to self-incrimination, was prescient; I endorse it today. It, too, could be a signature for this chapter. But there is another reason to mention the News Letters: the artists to whom the letters were circulated were thereby informed of my activities, and that has to have contributed to a climate to which they reacted.
Some artists of the period theatrically negated or renounced art. On January 26, 1962, at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Yves Klein performed Removing Paintings from a Gallery to Make a Void. As documented in a sequence of photographs, Klein removed dozens of academic paintings from a gallery, then posed in the bare gallery, then left the gallery empty. (In Yves Klein 1928-1962: A Retrospective, which appeared in 1982, this event was anachronistically called a "conceptual" performance.)
The periodical décollage Nr. 3 (released in 1963) had an essay by Nam June Paik, "About the Exposition of the Music," which was significant for a number of reasons. Paik said
So I have resigned the performance of music. I expose the music. I made various kinds of musical instruments, object sonores, to expose them in a room so that the congregation may play them as they please. I am no longer a cook (composer), but only a feinkosthandler (delicatessen proprietor). This self-degradation gives me also some other unexpected joys, as every self-degradation usually does.
Echoes of anti-art discourse cropped up in the texts of vanguard artists. Paik adverted to anti-art in two texts in 1963. In Afterlude to the Exposition of Experimental Television (March 1963), Paik rather incoherently explained his use of multiple simultaneous television programs by invoking the goal of mystical realization--via simultaneous perception of the parallel flows of many independent movements. He went on to say that a mystic would not need televisions, or art, and would achieve the most difficult anti-art, the "platonic and steril consummation of art" [sic]. In Postmusic, Paik echoed the characterization of Happenings as anti-art. (His early publications repeatedly expressed defensiveness toward Happenings, in fact.) Paik writes as if Happenings comprise a wave of anti-art which menaces art:
I am just more self-conscious or less hypocritical than my anti-artist friends.
Paik situates himself in the camp of tradition.
As I have already observed, Brecht's mentions of anti-art were explicitly aimed at me. Again, there was his letter of April, 1963. And, there was the gibe aimed at me in Something about FLUXUS, May 1964.
In the late Sixties, Ben Vautier wrote to Maciunas, asking him to group him with my anti-art campaign. (In 1964 Vautier had picketed Stockhausen with myself and Maciunas.) He also incorporated anti-art language in his posture as an artist. Needless to say, in a world which could not take a critique of art seriously, Vautier's posture could only be taken as another degree of the artist's impertinence. Now Vautier had the collectors buying scrawled "anti-art" slogans as art. That episode could be a signature for this chapter too.
Returning to Brecht, in an interview published in Art and Artists, October 1972, he says
I pose this as a problem for anybody who thinks they're making art, or anti-art, or non-art: to make a work which cannot possibly be considered art.
Very well; and why does an apologist for a profession mount a defense of it by claiming that every possible "product" is a professional achievement? Brecht could equally well have said, to make a work which cannot possibly be considered brain surgery. But what would it mean, if brain surgery wanted the "honor" that every product whatever was an accredited achievement in its precincts? Why would an institution want to be its own Opposition? Actually, if one is realistic about the new situation, then the answer to Brecht's challenge is easy. A thing cannot be art if it is not thrust forward by a "name" artist.
Brecht jeered at my attempts to publicize the positions of FCTV. He said that it didn't matter to him, anti-art or art, he was above it all. Meanwhile, he continued to carve out a career as a top artist. He never acknowledged the substance of the brend theory in any way; that is, he never acknowledged that what I advocated was a turn to the moment of incommunicable, unsourced gratification--the moment which makes oneself opaque to other people. When I destroyed my early work and left the art world, he said nothing about that.
10.6 "Anti-art" in later criticism
After 1963 there is an entire career of anti-art references in art journalism. "Anti-art" becomes a phraseology which only in-house spokespeople are permitted to invoke. The anti-art references jazz up art journalism, buttressing the art world.
In Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, which appeared in 1968, artists were still talking about the "dissolutionist" gestures of the previous decade. In November 1970, there was (in effect) an anti-art issue of Arts Magazine--impelled largely by a mood among artists that they must do something about Vietnam. One article, by Gregory Battcock, art-school instructor and anthologist, was entitled "A la Recherche du Temps Trivial." There are enough dim parallels between Battcock, on the one hand, and what I had said (and what I am saying here), on the other, to justify reprinting Battcock's article in full as part of the context of this inquiry. Battcock says,
The trend is not to simply change forms but, rather, to explore authentically new paths. From the new vantage point thus gained, the well-worn routes seem absurd. The traditional forms suddenly appear flimsy, hollow and irrelevant.
I could take that as a slogan for my own odyssey--if I were naive enough not to see the kickers in what Battcock is saying. Battcock advocates militant banalization. He proclaims Andy Warhol the best anti-artist because he is the best glorifier of the trivial. At the same time, Battcock is so insistent that we aren't banal enough yet that one suspects Battcock of Canaday-like sarcasm.
Three years later, Allen Leepa's "Anti-Art and Criticism," appearing in one of Battcock's anthologies, expounded at length that Pop Art was anti-art.
We should not gloss over this systematic glorification of the most successful art as anti-art by the art Establishment. The art critics define Pop Art as the Establishment's enemy: while praising Pop's devilish genius for success. The only possible opponent of the Establishment is the Establishment. Such discourse, such engulfing of opposition, produces a "no exit" universe. The circle closes; insurrection becomes a fixed point.
Writing in The Mirror of Production (originally 1973), Baudrillard can take it as axiomatic that anti-art means: mercenary art-works which are merely empty substantively.
The pure institutional form of painting, art, and theater shines forth in anti-painting, anti-art, and anti-theater, which are emptied of their contents.
The last example I will give here is Nan Rosenthal's essay on Yves Klein, "Assisted Levitation: The Art of Yves Klein." Rosenthal concludes that Klein is non-art, anti-art. She was writing in 1982. The Global Art Empire defines itself as its own Opposition. You can send your money for the rebellion to the Empire.
Completeness requires me to note that other critics took a tack opposite to the one I have reviewed, treating the most recent artists as if their sensibilities were the same as those of artists of centuries earlier. In 1976, Carla Gottlieb spoke of:
- Grünewald, the Mona Lisa, and Rothko
- Jan van Eyck and Pollock; Rembrandt and Olitski; Olitski and Vermeer
- Monet and Albers.
Everything was the same, a detachable decorative arrangement, smugly improving. Gottlieb's position--which if true, would nullify this chapter--does not need a reply here. When the topic is the spiritual import of modernism, on the other hand, the "it's all the same" stance becomes a symptom of the highest importance.
The conclusions I draw about these occurrences must run in two directions. First, again, let me respond to the neo-Dada sorties as if they expressed a serious radicalism.
The situation seemed to demand the brend theory for several reasons:
a. When the content of the works ostensibly strains away from art, then clinging to the art shell becomes absurd. (And yet the artists denied that there was an incongruity in abiding with the art shell.)
b. Art is an intention supplied by the perceiver. An author is unnecessary.
c. Various snatches of discourse said that anti-art was the order of the day.
d. In some cases, avant-garde artists produced works which were called games and toys, etc. That seemed to place amusement on the agenda of art theory.
What was sweeping through the art world was a stance in which art had only an ironic, campy relation to any inherited aesthetic purpose.
The breaking or transgression of the inherited protocol of art by Young, Morris, Brecht, et al. yielded activities which failed to do anything well, to "take it home" in any direction. The pieces rested on the prior existence of a pompous ceremony which one wanted to transgress against--and that implied that we could never leave the institution which we found to be reactionary and pompous. The artist was insipidly dabbling in designed pastimes for which art training was not a relevant preparation. Art no longer had a substantive purpose which practitioners sought to satisfy well. The so-called mere amusements were not mere amusements; they were camp--presupposing snob art, in order to distinguish themselves by nose-thumbing.
If one cared about whimsical games, for example, what was the reason for incorporating them into the art-career hustle, for circling the globe from vernissage to vernissage, fighting for a niche in the history of high art? Yet, the artists insisted on selling their products in the showcases of the painting trade. Nose-thumbing was a billion-dollar industry. The career scam had become the message.
This observation can be made before I come to the brend theory. It precedes a critique of legitimate entertainment and pastimes.
I concluded that we needed a new life--new, independently defensible pursuits. I stand by that conclusion today. But the historian must report that the world did not find any merit in my position--and jeered at me for announcing it. The world embraced precisely the voided pursuit, the nose-thumbing, the campiness, and made of it an industry, an empire, greater than any business the classic painters had known. Never before had society defaulted to insincerity and mockery with such enthusiasm.
Art was no longer a rich assembly of signals, with a power to give pleasure which transcended disclosure of the author's name. The artwork could be any token whatever. It was the artist's merchandizing of his or her name that made the token valuable. A common, unused toothbrush tagged by Duchamp, say, would be art worth millions of dollars. It's not the same thing as bluffing with mediocrity: the Duchamp toothbrush was not comparable to a Ned Rorem composition. The object, toothbrush, would be exactly as insignificant as it looked.
A toothbrush is or is not great art depending on whether Duchamp or Rauschenberg says it is. What makes a toothbrush great art (or not) is the author's posture power: and the real endeavor of a professional in the real art-world is to campaign for posture power.
When this is what art is, then there cannot be a starving artist or even a struggling artist. "Starving art" would be the same toothbrush tagged by a nonentity--say by the collector himself, who is not starving. To "discover" it would be meaningless. Van Gogh began by painting his canvases, and was not merchandized until after he died. Today, the artist necessarily merchandizes first, and then "produces." If you don't have the name, then having a toothbrush is not an art achievement. Signing the toothbrush dirties it, ruins it.
What makes an object art is the circumstance that the artist brings it to the art market. The patron Jack Brimberg did a definitive minimal piece in the early Sixties. He staged a red dinner for one. He had the walls and all furniture painted red, dressed himself and the waiters in red, and consumed a meal of tomatoes, carrots, salmon, strawberries, etc. But he did not bring it to market as art, and so the piece is not in art history, and Brimberg is known only as a patron.
Except possibly for the Iris Clert telegram.
The entire story is documented in the La Monte Young archive.
I was in New York to meet La Monte Young and attend the Terry Jennings concert.
It was inaccurately described in Time magazine of September 18, 1964, p. 81. Seaman has the original.
An example of the literature is Carla Gottlieb, Beyond Modern Art (1976).
Book publication in Ubi Fluxus (Milan, 1990). The editing mutilated my text.
But they don't try that with actual concept-art pieces--my pieces.
The only coverage which my February 1963 anti-art demonstrations and lecture received was a satire by Donald Barthelme which, of course, did not use the real names of any of us. Village Voice critics pointedly refused to cover my "manifestations" in a number of cases. Getting critics to acknowledge my "concept art" has always been difficult.
In two early 1961 concerts, that competition became explicit in the presentation. ("possibly Henry Flynt," etc.)
Fluxus cc fiVe ThReE, June 1964.
Henry Martin, An Introduction to George Brecht's Book of the Tumbler on Fire (1978), p. 129.
To elaborate, I would have to write art criticism; it would take me too far afield.
For the whole Rauschenberg career, see Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg/Art and Life (1990).
As with Rauschenberg, the piece was not as starkly radical as advertised. But I must resist the temptation to engage in art criticism here.
La Monte Young, Lecture 1960.
I have to break my rule about writing around myself and mention "Little Piece by Ray Johnson" which I made in 1961.
Julius Huxley, "Aping the Artist," The New York Times Magazine Oct. 6, 1957, p. 94; "Chimpanzee's Daubs," Newsweek, November 10, 1958 p. 94. In all fairness, the medieval Japanese painter Hokusai had executed a painting by releasing a chicken with inked feet on the paper.
Time, October 10, 1960, p. 59.
It is unfortunate that the interview is not readily available. It was published in Ord och Bild 74 (1965). The tape was in English and is in the possession of Richard Kostelanetz. Selections from it appear in his Conversing With Cage (New York, 1988).
And yet there were signs everywhere of Cage's insincerity. Cage should not have wanted the office of composer, but he did. He made no attempt to compose instructions for self-music which people would actually use.
Meaning in the Visual Arts, p. 11. A reason why this is not brend, perhaps, is that Panofsky's aesthetic intention is limited to the passive beholding of an object.
One phrase for the value possessed by Klein's paintings.
As with Brecht, the record has been doctored here. The paragraph on newness was omitted from "Lecture 1960" in most editions of it.
Thomas Hess, "A Tale of Two Cities," Location, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer, 1964.
eine Data base (1993) p. 106.
I read "Exercise Awareness-States" at the A/G Gallery in July 1961, and the label appeared in my "Anthology of Non-Philosophical Cultural Works" later in that year; but the works were not collected until 1975.
Hess, op. cit., p. 101.
archived in Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
Arts Magazine, March 1964, p. 38.
All these references are to The Embattled Critic (1962).
Fred McDarrah, The Artist's World (originally 1961; reprint 1988).
Op. cit., p. 100.
The New Art, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York, 1973), pp. 136-141.
Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (1975), p. 41.
Yves Klein 1928-1962: A Retrospective (1982), p. 129
Carla Gottlieb, Beyond Modern Art (1976), pp. 81, 142-143, 172.
I'm saying it now; Judd said it in 1964.