Multiple Strategies at Busch-Reisinger
Post #967 • March 6, 2007, 2:47 PM • 18 Comments
Cambridge, MA—The contemporary art world owes much to Fluxus. Gavin Brown used its entire space at Art Basel/Miami Beach this past year to show a work by Urs Fischer, in which a crumpled package of cigarettes, by virtue of a length of monofilament attached to a motorized arm, was made to bobble about on the floor in an erratic circle. The cigarette package, as a non-art object in an art space, cited Duchamp's readymades. The motion, going endlessly counterclockwise for the sake of art, was pure Fluxus.
Multiple Strategies: Beuys, Maciunas, Fluxus, up at the Busch-Resinger through June 10, assembles objects and ephemera surrounding a movement that deserves more credit than it gets for Duchamp's influence on the rest of the century. After all, once Duchamp put forth his readymades (or rather, once the dealer Sidney Janis had some key readymades recreated over thirty years after the originals were discarded, and exhibited them), he went on to make assemblages. Except for some notable achievements such as the Large Glass, they mostly pale next to similar efforts by Joseph Cornell. The notions that art could be more fun, less serious, cheaper, communal, untied from drawing, and made to spread beyond the object itself and into the life surrounding it found full expression in the work of early Fluxus artists.
Unlike myriad contemporary objects done in similar spirits, these still have a whiff of radicalism on them. Some of their charm derives from a patina of age, like the one that old toys acquire. This charm insults their memory somewhat, as they were meant to look cheap and be cheap. A few of their makers, such as George Maciunas and Robert Watts, were decent graphic designers, and thus the signage and text incorporated into them have transformed over time into handsome typography examples. But something more challenging was meant when Beuys produced a series of wooden boxes with two bottles of water in each, with instructions to hurl one of them: the idea that life, spiced with a bit of chaos, could become as precious as art, and indistinguishable from it.
So what went wrong? Why is not anyone who chooses to do so living a life of unfettered, anarchic, creative freedom? I think back to Strunk & White's venerable The Elements of Style, in which E.B. White wrote:
In the end, Fluxus's two central pillars, art as a non-commodity, and art's infinite miscibility with life, were doomed projects that let loose hordes of uninspired instigators of banality.
Spontaneous me, sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.
Regarding the first, when a nihlist/Fluxus antecedent like the Fischer piece sells for $160,000, we can see that the non-art trappings of some objects have become their own art trappings. In the 1960s, when the bulk of this work was made, poor form was an assault on Brahmin taste. Now, it is its very marker. The Brahmins got the message that art didn't have to be skillful, beautiful, crafted, or even material, and a state-supported industry sprung up around the manufacture, sale, and philosophical defense of such art.
Regarding the second, a sane life is a pretty mundane affair, and a separate category called Art provides a meaningful place to cultivate objects meant only to delight us in some way. It turns out that is true even for people who supposedly delight in having their bourgeois tastes offended. One of Maciunas's works is a litle plastic box with a note inside saying,
Close quickly. It might enliven an especially conformist existence. With sufficient prior indoctrination, you might ponder whether you have become part of the artwork. (You haven't.) But as sure as you are destined for the grave, this little thing is destined for the vitrine, and there it lies under glass in the Busch-Reisinger, its radicalism spent, looking forlorn and disused, and mute except for a story about how once upon a time, some artists thought they had found the way to liberation.