This paper started with an intention to find the departure points between the Fluxus movement and the Neo-expressionism movement that followed it. What I found instead was an interconnecting array of art styles with a similar set of ideologies that all combine to form a bridge between Modernism and post-modernism. The underlying ideology is often labelled anti-art and its expression is firmly centred around Fluxus, both in what inspired it and what it inspired. Fluxus becomes the pivotal point, because before it art could be perceived as a reflection of an image, but Fluxus changed art into reflections of actions and demanded the participation of the audience into the ever-evolving storytelling process. This important change challenged the power-elite for control over the value of art and who could decide what is art. 

Most of us, including researchers and academics, agree the definition and value of art remains subjectively diversified. It all has to do with preferences and what contributes to them. According to University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist, Anjan Chatterjee: “Many preferences are rooted in biology… people tend to share similar standards of beauty when it comes to human faces and landscapes. But when it comes to art, there are relatively arbitrary things we seem to care about and value.”1 It turns out, depending on our life experiences, humans often share a similar taste in art styles and we influence each other on them. In the past, being a patron for the arts gave one influence over others in defining ‘good’ art. Today, social media and the internet have taken some of that influence away from the elites by increasing access for the every-person. 

To regain that influence, elites may have shifted where they spent their money and turned to upcoming outsiders for future investments. For example, Basquiat’s work — going from reactionary street art for the people to internationally treasured museum art. His style remained relatively unchanged, only the perception of value increased with the shift in socio-economic status of his buyers and their constant hunger to have something new. There’s more to it than this simplification, but visibility is one key to popularity. As another example, the Fluxus movement started with a small group and audience, then grew with visibility, until some new reaction against it took its place. Ubiquity may not destroy the influence of a style, but it affects the supply-and-demand driven buyers market for it. 

When it comes down to it, life experiences and circumstances form our subjectivity, but what influences them may not be totally arbitrary. Assume the position that all art is subjective because it relies on the opinions of its viewers. Popular opinion can be changed by the artist’s fame, the exposure the artwork has, and the public pressure from current societal mores. Now consider art as a conversation with two contributors to the perceived value of art: the viewer and the artist. First, every viewer has a unique personal-history-influenced perspective; their own point of view directs how they look at a work of art and interact with it. Second, every artist combines their personal-history-influenced perspective with some intention/direction to create a personal vision. Even if the viewer is able to observe the making process and hear the artists every though throughout the making, they would still only be interpreting it all through their own experiential lens. Understanding and appreciation can grow from the dialogue between the artist and the viewer, but value may still be swayed by third parties in the conversation. So, what else can draw attention and sway the perception of value? 

Arguably, one of the major roles art plays is to express the artists emotions, perceptions, reflections, insights, dreams, and realizations. The second is an act of achieving immortality: the desire to leave a legacy that enriches and adds to humankind’s collection of diverse interpretations on the meaning of life. The third, and perhaps most important, art must strive to provoke, to awaken, to engage the viewer in a conversation. Because everyone has different emotional baggage, all art provokes a reaction from some viewer. This power to provoke awareness permits the artist to engage viewers in a dialogue on human issues. In extreme cases, where the art provokes public outrage, the artist needs to ensure their intentions are clear to keep themselves in the conversation. When the art is made without a considered intention other than to create something aesthetically pleasing for oneself, the provocation builds a barrier between the artist and the viewer. They no longer relate to each other. 

In regards to subjectivity, this kind of art for art’s sake attitude can still provoke someone’s sensibilities. It can inspire a conversation on the philosophy of beauty or act as a vehicle through which those who have a challenge expressing themselves verbally can gather visual cues to help them speak. Some art will always provoke someone, but the provocation without engagement in a conversation should not be considered art. Remember that art acts as a mode of expression and that, like any conversation requires a sender and a receiver. If we want to share our art it must be with the idea of provoking a conversation. Art needs to say something for it to be heard. What it wants to say is up for debate, because it is a matter of interpretation between the participants in that conversation. Let’s deviate from theory and look at some examples to illustrate how the conversations might flow. 

Looking at a still shot for Alison Knowles, Newspaper Music performance (Fig. 1, c.1961-67),  we see a picture of the original performance and in true Fluxus style, without some context we would be guessing at what is happening. That guessing could engage the viewers into a debate over what is being seen and potentially deliver as many distinct views as there were viewers engaged in the debate. The cacophony of heterogeneous views in many ways mirrors the chaos emoted from the live performance. In 2008, Knowles reproduced the two and a half minute performance2 at The Tate Modern and the effect is equally amusing and incomprehensible. It is an excellent example of a performance of the meaningfully absurd. 

The image retrieved from Higgins’ article in Art Journal 693 shows Alison Knowles standing with her arms outstretched and facing several performers who are reading newspapers. From her position and stance we interpret her action to be that of conducting the readers in front of her. There are in a small room decorated with the artists graphic art work. The framing of this shot, done by an unnamed photographer, could indicate the performance is done in a gallery space or her living room. The documenter has become a collaborator in adding layers of uncertain meaning for the viewer to decide, thus further engaging the viewer in the collaboration of the whole piece. 

If we could see other photos of this performance where her arms are in different positions and where the photographer is showing different perspectives, we would have additional opportunities to interpret the work differently. In a sense, adding more voices to the cacophony. Despite the static nature of photo documentation, the individual life-experience of the viewer ensures the entropic nature of this Fluxus performance. Like the photographer, several of the participants in this performance and its documentation are listed as unknown. Further connecting this piece to the Fluxus ideal of making art for everybody by involving the “every-woman/man”. Their relative anonymity turns them into objects within the artwork and allows us to focus our inquiry upon their actions. 

The unsigned poster listed as “those frickin’ Fluxus French freaks…”4  is found to have several contradictory origins and serving equally ambiguous purposes. It falls right in with the intentionally indecipherable nature of Fluxus art. The fact that it is written in French is the only reason I could find to substantiate one of its online titles. It’s also debatable if this was accurately credited to Nam June Paik, or if that is also some public contribution to interactions with this piece. One of its purposes is cited as being a concert poster for “Joe Jones Mechanical Flux Orchestra c. 1964”. Joe Jones was a self-proclaimed Fluxus musician who played instruments he made by combining seemingly incompatible parts of other instruments or riding around town on his mobile instruments hand-made from mechanical parts and bicycles.

The poster shows a black and bolded print of the following words: “ABSENCE D’ART = ART” with a much smaller font below reading “ART TOTAL”. This translates into the absence of art equals art and total art. Interestingly, total art may refer to the 19th century, German Romanticist term for high art: “Gesemtkunstwerk”5; Meaning an ideal work of art or universal artwork. They used it to refer to a Nationalist ideal to define art, but it can equally be interpreted as the definition for an art movement. This poster is a call to action to create art that exists outside the established definitions of art. The size difference in the two statements clearly positions the Fluxus ideals of anti-art and its importance in the future of all art. I wonder if the uncertain accreditation of this piece is purposeful as a means of un-framing it and opening it to additional layers of interpretation. If so, that would further solidify its place as a Fluxus work of art by engaging the viewers into the action of developing its meaning. This purposeful ambiguity allows the piece to engage viewers through time and we can see the impact of that methodology well into contemporary works.

Culled from Peter Doig’s Instagram page, we find, “It’s Winter. Can you tell?”(Fig. 3, c.2021)6 We see a lone figure whose face and head are partially covered by a roughly assembled and brightly coloured mask; only the eyes and lips pop out for us to see the person underneath. The figure appears to be outdoors. They are holding skis, so are presumably on a ski hill. The feature we see appear feminine, but that too is uncertain. The composition is very similar to many of Doig’s portraits and figure paintings; a lone figure rendered in broad and vague outlines, vibrant colours, and purposeful obscuring of features. The face is forefront and the object of the story, but the blurred skis and hills behind it indicate the actions represented in the composition. 

More than any other I’ve found so far, this bridges Doig’s work between his neoexpressionism aesthetic and Fluxus performance documentation. Observers of this photo are captured by the absurdities of the composition and engaged in the interpretation of its possible meanings. For an artist raised during the height of the Fluxus movement and trained on the aesthetics of Expressionism, this might be a composition from his early career; the colour and print quality of the photograph resembles ones from the 1970s. Considering this image was recently published on the artist’s public Instagram account, perhaps the artist is telling us that new people’s art will not be against what came before, but a combination of it.

“Untitled”, 1981; Tempera on paper; 33” (Fig. 4)7  appears to be an additional study based on the sketch made earlier that year and titled “Gary Cooper”. “Untitled” shows a single figure walking towards us with the far-away horizon behind him broken only by a lonely cactus on an otherwise desolate landscape. The loneliness is accentuated by an unbroken surface of muddy-purple making up the a sky, which bisected by thin paint line that might have been added as an afterthought. There is an indication that the old-west sherif motif may also have been  afterthoughts: There was a different head before this hastily outlined one, because we see the area behind it looks washed off the surface; the outlines of the arms have been painted over with the green shirt and the new outlines cover part of the blue background. The artists may have been indicating a popular stereotype of loneliness in the Old West: the figure is stoic, determined, and intensely alert: see the hand near the gun and the focused stare of the figure. Notice how the figure seems to be striking a pose through the physicality of his upper body, while the only real movement is happening in the legs; as if we see a snapshot of some performance of walking.

Like the essence of Fluxus, we see a documented representation of the action of the subject. That action reveals the emotional expression of the piece. The use vibrant colours to enhance the feelings emoted are arguably Expressionistic. One gets the feeling the artist wants to tell a story and for us to become involved emotionally in its retelling. 

There’s a rawness to the visible brushstrokes that begs the viewer to question the validity of calling this “high art”. Considering the representations of “Art” in elite markets, this rough representation is a reaction against Modernist ideals. Some might define this as “anti-art” or an example of “anti-aesthetics” in its messiness; it would have been considered outside of the categories of the work shown in museums of the time. However, it was also a return to a more gallery-friendly art form; which could have been a reaction to the ephemeral and etherial performances of the Fluxus movement. 

For the purposes of this paper, let’s consider the concepts of anti-aesthetics and anti-art are from the same root ideology. Anti-art literally refers to the rejection of some previously agreed upon definition of art. Its purpose is the questioning of art in general: from what is art to what defines its value. Anti-art is a reactionary expression whose meaning is defined by both who or what it speaks for and against. Taking Modernism as the last major branch of elite “high art”, all the reactionary movement that followed can fall into the category of anti-art. Dadaism, Futurism, Fluxus, Neo-epressionism, and Post-Modernism all contain both similar ideals and expressions, but equally contain enough differences to be considered anti-art to each other’s art designation. Neither ‘art’, nor ‘anti-art’ are distinct movements themselves and should not be used to encompass any explanation of the differences between movements. Furthermore, they are so often intertwined that one cannot exist without the other.

According to George Brecht8, amongst Fluxus artists there is no definitive agreement as to what its goals should be, nor limitation of methods to use. He suggests Fluxus spontaneously formed around a group of individuals with an obscure something in common who collaborated on published and/or performed, seemingly unplanned and instinctual works they called art. He does admit to two important commonalities amongst these artists: the possibilities for making art far exceed the current institutional establishment that promotes it and that these constraints are counterproductive to the evolution of creative work. 

Furthermore, to help better understand why there are so many misunderstandings and descriptions of Fluxus, it’s perhaps important to mention Brecht’s cautionary criticism of art historians and critics who aim to compare Fluxus to other movements or groups that share clear and common principles; which, according to him, Fluxus does not. However, Fluxus does set clear ideals centred on collaboration with unplanned participants and clear goals for achieving the unexpected. As founding member Alison Knowles would say: “I’ve always thought of Fluxus as remarkable for its offering of collaboration with so-called ordinary people as well as Fluxus artists.”9 

Somewhat conversely to Brecht, Neo-Dada artist and critic Ben Vautier10 gave a description of Fluxus that defines it without comparison to other movements. He presents Fluxus as the living action of creativity, the creation of relationships between art and life, the pleasure and shock of a good practical joke, as an egoless attitude towards both art and anti-art. Spiritually, Fluxus requires a state of Zen, because is the act of being in the moment and allowing chaos to blossom into creativity. Emotionally, Fluxus requires courage to approach the fear of the unknown with light and a sense of humour. 

Similar to the Futurists and Dadists before them, Fluxus artists believed everyone could and should make art. They wanted to take the power to determine the value of art out of the hands of museum elites and into the hands of the masses. Vautier and others repeat the Fluxus dream that everyone should be making their own interpretations of art all the time. This imperative to make self-defined art explains why Fluxus artists resisted defining their movement; they didn’t want it to limit possibilities of creation.11

Fluxus had loftier goals than other art movements: to go beyond changing art history; to change the world beyond our ways of seeing and making art; to tear down the boundaries between art and life; to break the barriers between artist and viewer and engage collaborations between them. Like other art movements, Fluxus was against certain established norms and practices, but its strongest characteristics are inclusionary. It also incorporated a shock value to get attention and change the current art-world paradigms. Fluxus founder, George Macunias expressed in the manifesto a revolutionary mode of reflection and application to define Fluxus art. Like all revolutionaries, he proposed an emotional call to action against the power elites who controlled the art industry: “… purge the world of bourgeoisie sickness…”12, the rallying call of the oppressed everyman. 

Dada was the perfect inspiration for the Fluxus movement to achieve its revolutionary goals. Like Dadaism, Fluxus ridiculed the elitism of high art and used absurdist humour to both point out the subjectiveness of the elitists and to connect with the masses. Their irreverent and playful attitude attracted the attention of the populous and allowed them to further their message of shifting the balance of power in the art world. The end results where that they achieved an impact on popular perceptions, specifically the perceived authority of museums to dictate the value of art, who could make it, and who could see it.

The greatest tool Fluxus had to achieve their goal was that it must involve the viewer in the making process. Viewers bring in their life-experience-influenced perceptions and contribute individual touches to the artwork when they relate what they saw and/or experienced from the piece. Fluxus relied heavily on happenstance from audience participation to shape the final outcome of each piece. Every new viewer of the piece, whether live or through documentation brought a possible reiteration to the artwork. This belief follows the influence of John Cage13, who felt the artist should dive into the making of art without having any preconception of the outcome. Another example of this philosophy could be seen in the concurrent performance art of that time known as Happenings. Where, as I understand it, a concept-idea was proposed, then a public invitation was made to join in and see what happens. The joiners contribute to the making of the piece. It’s all about the participation, both active and passive; even the wallflowers contribute as judging spectators through their body language and facial expressions. The unspoken dialogue between performers, documenters, and spectators also becomes part of the piece. In essence, the memory of the happening and the sharing of the documentation of the event continue the ever-evolving life of the work. “The purpose of Fluxus was to ‘promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art, promote living art, anti-art’.”14

One of my favourite descriptions of Fluxus performance comes from the popular online gallery, Artsy. It defines Fluxus as “Intentionally uncategorizable… projects were wide-ranging and often multidisciplinary, humorous, and based in everyday, inexpensive materials and experiences…”15 The bias of this predominantly visual arts forum is clear in their judgement of the value of the “materials and experiences”16 used in the making of Fluxus art. They also miss the essential collaborative nature of Fluxus. This is understandable, since this well established curator of art focuses on the output of individual artists, not collectives. While I think Greg Curnoe and his fellow Fluxus founders would get a kick out of being “Intentionally uncategorizable”17, the Artsy definition is either misunderstanding the Fluxus ideal of making art for the masses or deliberately doing so. I wonder if they are aware of their bias, in that the website states it is open to anyone who considers themselves an artist and who wants to pay for their online gallery services. I also wonder if this so-called public website includes such art history descriptions to elevate its status to more resemble that of museums. Considering the volume of celebrated artists and artworks on their site, it must have worked. Artsy is often the first source appearing on Google searches: International galleries and museums have artwork for sale on this site as well. From a certain perspective, public websites like Artsy might not exist without the influence of the Fluxus movement that drove art to the people. 

Fluxus was an authentically democratic art form that opened creativity to anyone wanting to participate. Being both anti-art and anti-academic in its output, its artists were inspired by the previous art movements they saw themselves as alternatives to. Their dedication to using non-traditional and/or everyday materials contributes to many of the popular art movements that followed. It might be said the Fluxus movement opened the doors to the maker space mindset that is currently growing in art education today. It’s more than making art for art’s sake, it’s about making art together. 

In observing several Neo-expressionist paintings by Peter Doig18 and others from the early eighties, we can see some common methods being used. First, they use the vibrant colours most frequently seen in Expressionist paintings; a stark contrast to the often gritty, cinema verité feel seen in the photo-documentation of Fluxus works. The very visible brushstrokes deliver a surface that is both highly textural and expressive; very different from the nearly print-perfect lines of Pop Art paintings. These imperfect brush marks add to the illusion of it being alive with emotion and motion. We get the impression the artist has caught a subject in its natural action, more than a posed composition. Perhaps this capturing of life-actions was inspired by the Fluxus ideal to do the same through performance and film.

The subjects, often figures or faces in the example of Doig’s work, are rendered roughly and somewhat abstracted, leaving only portions of characteristics to emphasize expressions. Like Fluxus art, there is a desire to leave enough of the subject obscured so that the viewer will engage with the work and add their own meanings to the composition. There is a feeling of being let into an intimate memory about many of the paintings; they trigger feelings of nostalgia that makes them relatable to the masses for personal reasons. The Neo-expressionist artists portrayed living pictures as stories; perhaps as a reaction against the Modernist habit of depicting realism. One might even argue they borrowed some modern marketing techniques to influence what they wanted people to see and sell their work. 

Neo-expressionism thrived during the hype-driven excesses of the nineteen-eighties. It’s emotionally charged marketability may be what made it so attractive to the commercial art complex of the time. With galleries, critics, and traditional media outlets driving meteoric success stories and the prices of artworks out of the hands of the masses and back into the hands of the privileged. Combined with the economic depression of 1988 and the growing divide between the rich and poor, access to these works became harder for the masses. Ultimately, this may be was caused the failure of the movement. However, it didn’t die without leaving a legacy. According to Clement Greenberg, the relatability of this visual storytelling style played an important role in the transition from the Modernist movement to the broad-scoped art of Post-Modernism.19 

In fact, there is evidence it didn’t die at all, it only went to sleep for a while. Considering the continuing increase in value of the works from Neo-expressionist artists like Basquiat, Park, Doig, and the explosion of emerging artists on the web, who paint in a very similar style, it is possible a new Neo-expressionism movement will be the newest member of the very diverse family of post-modernists. 

Fluxus art is one of many bridges between Expressionism and Post-Modernism. Consider that Expressionism was one of the first rebuttals against the rigid ideals of Modernism that positioned art in the hands of the elite who controlled patronage and the Museum/gallery system. It sought to question the relevance of art for the everyman in the choice of subjects being created and the techniques used to create them. It wanted to engage the populous. Dadaism, an inspiration for the Fluxus ideals tore the viewer away from romantic traditionalism and engaged them to contemplate the mundane and the absurd aspects of everyday life. Traditional art defined value through the artists’ unique and proficient skills, whereas Fluxus added value through the ephemeral nature of performance. 

Every live performance was made unique, in part due to the interaction and experience of the audience. This interaction was meant to be collaborative and the collaboration extended to any photographer documenting the performance. They chose what parts of the performance to highlight and how to frame it. They added their own context to the performance. Fluxus was about actions: the focus on what the subjects/objects were doing in the performance and not solely on their aesthetic contributions. The performative aspect of Fluxus meant it could be experienced in a greater variety of locations and to a much wider audience. Fluxes engaged the audience to contemplate if it was art or not. 

Wanting to take the determination of what defines art and its value from the hands of the museums is one of the main points that connect Fluxus to neo-expressionism. Both believed that the viewer needn’t be privileged and/or educated to see and appreciate what they were looking at. In that, both aimed to connect to everyone: Fluxus often tried to provoke a reaction from the viewer, whereas neo-expresionists looked to touch different emotional responses through hints of nostalgic allegory, impressions of popular iconography, and the use of vibrant colours. Neo-expressionism rendered personal and recognizable themes relevant to the viewer. So, why did this movement, designed to be relevant to the viewers, fail? 

Global economic and political realities may have allowed the privileged to gain back some control over what art is seen and bought, and by whom, but that would change with access to documentation technologies and the democratic freedoms of social media. As an ‘ism’, it may have only lasted for a brief time, but its influence is seen throughout the street art explosion in the 80s that is now seeing its mainstream presence in museums around the world. Arguably, there may not be any strong paradigmatic shift since neo-expressionism. Despite its brief hiatus from the gallery-museum circuit, it has found a new democracy to champion it; the world of social media. The original desire to make art for and of the people has never been more possible than now. 

The internet isn’t the ultimate social equalizer, but it does offer more equality of opportunity for artists and art to be seen by the general public. The work made public gathers approval and engagement by the efforts of the artist to promote themselves. It is no longer only in the hands of the elite. The evolving public has an active say in this discussion. They contribute to the designations of popularity. The world moves on and things change. Globalization and social media opened doors for access to more inspirations to occur. Global economic shifts, wars, and socio-political ideologies changed. Immigration also shifted peoples experience and perspectives. Growing awareness of a variety of social injustices impacts the narratives of what people create. In a nutshell, people’s experiences, perceptions, and tastes change what becomes popular. 

Popularity and success presents challenges to some artists. Once they become that which they were fighting against, they may lose perspective and energy to create. The loss of energy translates through their expressions to diminish the public viewer’s interest. New provocateurs enter into the public forum and capture the consumers attention. Furthermore, some artists become jaded and forget why they pushed against the system in the first place. They forget the value of the message and the respect of their audience. 

An art teacher colleague would tell a story about their artist friend, who after becoming more well known would just sign random things, call it art, and see what people would do. For example, at a private showing of new works, the artist put out a stack of signed construction papers and a card that said “Title: Please help yourself to art” and signed the card. no one touched them. Is this any different than Duchamp’s Fountain or Banksy hanging guerrilla art in museums? Yes, in the respect to the audience. Had the artist presented this as a piece of art in a gallery show it could be seen as a Dada work. Had it bean a bowl full of every-colour Smarties except red with a question on the card: “How many reds will you eat?” Then it could have engaged a conversation with the viewers. It is possible that success distances artists from their audience. In the case of Fluxus & Neo-expressionism, the audience is expected to be part of the conversation. When that stops, the conversation stops and the movement fades. 

The intentionally un-categorizable ideals of the Fluxus movement may be what make it the most important change in the ways we make and consume art. Perhaps the ultimate definition of art is Fluxus. As in the root meaning it derives from, Fluxus inspires “the action or process of flowing… continuous movement and change…”20 Fluxus may be the expression of the human condition; always changing. Perhaps we need to take its lessons of removing labels and letting the artworks, there artists, and the audience engage in a free and ongoing conversation. Now, wouldn’t that be a nice piece of art? 

Bibliography

Resources: 

3 thoughts on “Removing labels — The acts of un-defining art

  1. Value and politics can not be separate from the artist nor the consumer. Two feet planted squarely and firmly to your values as an artist can be challenging to survive these obstacles and/or evolve with or against the current trends. Good article very thought provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

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