Fluxus: To George With Love
Fluxus had its antecedents in those enlightened, earlier twentieth-century artists who wanted to release art from the moribund constraints of formalism. What Dada, Marcel Duchamp, and some aspects of Futurism and Russian Constructivism had initiated in diverse ways between 1909 and 1929 was, by the mid-1950s, reigniting a continuing revolution.
One can point to many sparks and flare-ups in the immediate process leading up to the beginning of Fluxus in 1961-62. George Maciunas, who shaped and fired Fluxus, credited John Cage’s invention of concrete music, starting in 1939, which in turn influenced the European musique concrète movement. Maciunas further acknowledged Cage’s 1952 intermedia event at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, with Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, M.C. Richards, and others’ Georges Mathieu’s proto-happening Battle of Bouvines and his influence on the Japanese Gutai Group; Yves Klein; Joseph Cornell; Ann Halprin’s “natural activities and tasks”; the French Nouveaux Réalistes; Ben Vautier’s gestures and concepts; and La Monte Young, George Brecht, Yoko Ono, Henry Flynt, and the advent of “concept art.”
Initially, George Maciunas laid plans for a movement that would encompass all aspects of the new wave washing against the foundation of formalist aesthetics. He developed a program that included concerts of new music and plans for series of what he called Fluxus “yearboxes” (anthologies of very new art from many parts of the world) with contributors ranging from Karlheinz Stockhausen and Allan Kaprow to Pierre Restany and Franz Mon, as well as many who later became synonymous with the Fluxus movement, notably George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Henry Flynt, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Benjamin Patterson, Daniel Spoerri, Ben Vautier, Wolf Vostell, and La Monte Young. As the year 1962 progressed, with the first series of performances (in Wuppertal, D\üsseldorf, Paris, Wiesbaden, Amsterdam, London, Copenhagen, and then Paris again), Fluxus became much more defined. It came to be characterized by direct, short, concrete pieces, minimal music and actions, conceptual scores and works, and action music. Many of the action pieces had a double-edged humor; everyday occurrences became art. The planned contents of the Fluxus yearboxes began reflecting this emerging character also.
During 1962, Maciunas conceived the idea of publishing some of the scores used for these concerts as individual Fluxus publications, apart from the Fluxus yearboxes. He had access to a blueprint machine at his job in Wiesbaden, and proceeded to draw and type the scores on translucent masters (usually rubber-stamping a Fluxus copyright), which were then printed as needed either as translucent blueprint negatives or as positives. The method was basically the same as that used by John Cage’s publishers, Peters Editions. It was only a short step from publishing the separate scores to producing a collection of an individual’s work, at that point called Fluxus editions.
To a large extent, Maciunas retained creative control of Fluxus production, receiving ideas from artists and, in a unique relationship with them, feeling free to alter and interpret their works—designing the labels and packaging, even varying the contents from copy to copy. As an alternative to the mainstream, which Fluxus was against and which wouldn’t handle these works anyway, Maciunas also devised a distribution system—through artist-run Flux shops and mail-order houses inseveral countries, through the Fluxus newspapers and handbills, and through impromptu exhibitions during concerts and Fluxfests. His production and distribution activities established a practical outlet for Fluxus ideas that could reach beyond the restrictive structure of the formal concert hall, making the artists’ work available for independent performance. (“You can do it in the privacy of your own home”), thereby reaching a potentially much wider and more diverse audience. And by being cheap, the works made art affordable to almost anyone.
In a way, George Maciunas was the Marinetti or the André Breton of the Fluxus movement. He knitted it together, shaped the earliest concerts, wrote the manifestos, and oversaw the publications and editions, through his editing, design, production, and advertising. But it would be a mistake to think of Fluxus as a one-man show. Fluxus artists recognized Maciunas’ role but remained fiercely independent, at times embracing the ideals of the movement and at other times going their own way. Ultimately, Maciunas’ vision of a collective “united front” proved impossible to realize except within his production of Fluxus anthologies, editions, and occasionally in Fluxfests and environments. His frustration at seeing Fluxus artists maintaining independence from Fluxus was reflected in his 1975 event in New York entitled fluxfest Presents: 12! Big Names! Posters were put around town announcing the event and listing twelve famous artists’ names. When the scheduled date arrived, the hall was crowded with people eager to be in the presence of those famous artists. Then Maciunas simply projected the names, one at a time, very big, on the screen.
With the death of George Maciunas in 1978, Fluxus ceased—or didn’t stop, or stopped sometime before, depending on one’s attitude or perception, of the movement. (personally, I think of art movements as having something like a nuclear half-life of residual essentialness.) in the case of Fluxus there is no disputing the continuous, central role of one man. And even though in the end Fluxus failed in its objective of replacing art with “functionalism” and only partially succeeded in engaging artists in a collective struggle against bourgeois aesthetics, nonetheless, its contributions are enormous. Conceptual art, performance art, political art, mail art, minimalism, artists’ books, new music, mass-produced art, and even cooperative artists’ housing were affected by or developed directly from Fluxus. And, at least in Europe, Fluxus had a major influence on Neo-Expressionism and Arte Povera. We are all richer for it; and perhaps someday Fluxus will yet lead the way to its elusive goals.