Fluxus and Me By Bill Lasarow
When asked what sort of artist I am, non-artists always mean, do you paint or sculpt? When asked by professional art friends it tends to provoke mention of Joseph Beuys, George Maciunas, Ben Patterson, Dick Higgins, Nam June Park and so on. (The non-artists always react to Yoko Ono, the one Fluxus artist with name recognition beyond the art world.) I doubt that much that I do “looks” Fluxus, which neither has nor requires any such standard, but as the closest precursor to Conceptualism, Fluxus does afford an m.o. Everything I do consists first of an idea; then engagement in a process (the part that fascinates me the most); and finally, the maintenance of focus on aesthetics rather than outcomes.
Produced by George Maciunas, “Flux Year Box 2,” 1967, works by a number of Fluxus artists.
This discipline has proven to be of particular importance over the years because I have gotten good, through sheer experience, at accepting success and failure on even terms. My primary concern is to craft convincing form using a variety of means (of which this platform is one). This should not be confused with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mid-19th century Transcendentalist philosophy, still very much a force, mostly for good, embedded in American culture. Central to Emerson’s philosophy is that personal self-reliance and conviction form the foundation of individual success. Transcendentalism launched a million self-help books, and more importantly the modern environmental movement, the social justice movement, and the practice of mindfulness.
Fluxus and Transcendentalism share a fundamental optimism, by preaching either that self-initiative driven by persistent effort is the path to success, or that success is beside the point when stacked up against the ongoing process of personal experience. Or, more to the point, personal aesthetic experience. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of simple subjectivity. Beauty is NOT in the eye of the beholder. I regard that trope as a recipe for fecklessness. The coin of my Fluxus realm is engaged experience driven by a robust acceptance of personal responsibility and a well-honed ethos. Losing sight of the last two implies personal experiences of the worst sort. Fluxus traffics in absurdity softened by irony and humor. My form of it demands additional moral dimensions. There is nothing incidental or accidental about this.
Joseph Beuys Lecturing at the Crawford Gallery Cork. Photograph by and courtesy of © Caroline Tisdall.
My practice of Fluxus has taken certain turns that I could not have worked on or believed as a young artist. I am reasonably familiar with art history, but I am neither art historian nor scholar. My self-identification as a Fluxus artist may be rooted in that practice, but I have steadily reshaped it to meet my own needs and interests. I couldn’t care less about confounding a viewer’s expectation. Every project constitutes a new opportunity for an adventure. So do I therefore remain a “Fluxus artist” at all? It doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing in front of George Maciunas' “USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records!,” c.1970.
Projects that unfold slowly, often taking 2-4 years but possibly lasting up to ten or more, seem to exert a natural attraction for me. Feeling an attraction to a project in its earliest spitball stage is my version of what is often referred to as “creative inspiration,” which, as we have all been taught, is 10% actual inspiration and 90% perspiration. My version of Fluxus is directly connected to the Conceptual and Process methods that shaped much of the avant-garde of my youth. The need for patient, steady effort isn’t for everybody. But meditate on this: failures and setbacks are themselves the source of Fluxus. The very highest form of Fluxus at that. The Transcendentalist ethos is that when you fail you should learn from it, pick yourself up, and go on. It chooses the wrong target, a dreamt-of future success meant to enrich and empower. The real goal is personal experience that is heightened within the context of your aesthetic vision, your lifetime, your family and friends, your daily routines.
Suzanne Lacy with Meg Parnell, “Cleaning Conditions,”
performances at Manchester Art Gallery, 2013. ©Suznne Lacy. Photo: Alan Seabright.
That brings up an important aside if you are a 20-something artist looking with care at contemporary sources that stimulate artistic inspiration. By all means embrace that, but you might cast your net beyond the present moment and into the deep and glorious history of art. The stew of influences together with your experience of the wider world equals your best shot at creating art that really means something … to you. That is so much more important than making a fortune in the art market, and it’s not even close. A few artists get it both ways; hooray for them, it ain’t easy. Nor is it a formula for a happy life. But stereotypes of the suffering artist, sorry, I have no time for that. Nor does Fluxus.
Henry David Thoreau moved into a cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, on property owned by
Ralph Waldo Emerson, to live out the ideals of transcendentalism. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I first got involved in art as social activism back in the 1980s — Beuys’ social sculpture, Suzanne Lacy’s social practice. I worked with a small team of L.A. City officials and artists to craft and pass the Artist in Residence ordinance. I started ArtScene with my then-partner because a gallery owner raised the question: why does the Bay Area have its own art publication (ArtWeek, then published by the late Cecile McCann, a wonderful and generous person) and L.A. does not? That little project ended up running for 35 years, and even now has been directly succeeded by the digital-only Visual Art Source. My partner and I also opened a little gallery, Thinking Eye, because, well, some other artists in the downtown L.A. area had started opening galleries. One of my most important aesthetic decisions came after my first exhibition: I would no longer exhibit my own art objects.
Tania Brguera, “Immigrant Movement Internationa,” 2010-ongoing. IMI council members
outside IMI Corona office, Queens, New York, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the Queens Museum.
That was the moment in which I realized that Fluxus was my natural home. What is the point of painting if you aren’t going to exhibit it and sell it to collectors? The answer is, of course, that there is no point to it. It makes the effort honest. That I continued to paint for another decade went to the (I hope by now obvious) principle that the purest audience is an audience of one. The first generation Fluxus artists worked as a network, but collaborating in groups was never a requirement; or if it sort of was, I decided that would be my way only if a project required it, which it often does not. This epiphany was the most liberating moment of my career as an artist. I could draw from all of my activities. They could each be discreet or organized into an integrated aesthetic arena. Painting could shape publishing, which could shape advocacy, and so on.
Where this trajectory has landed me will feed my creative choices and commitments for whatever time I have left, one day or 30-odd years. Whatever those projects are today may morph into or be replaced by in the future is the reason that I am Fluxus, and Fluxus is Me.