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ART REVIEW

Art, life, and the legacy of Fluxus

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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HANOVER, N.H. — Any account of the origins of silliness, high jinks, and all-round tomfoolery in contemporary art would have to devote a decent-size chapter to Fluxus. The 1960s and ’70s art phenomenon is the subject of a chuckle-and-snort-inducing — but also timely and admirable — show at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.

Fluxus began as a loosely affiliated group of international artists in Germany in the early 1960s. Many of them were displaced from their homelands by war and its aftermath. They tackled big themes head-on: the existence of God, the purpose of art, freedom, sex, time, nothingness. And they had an almost childlike obsession with first principles — the whys, hows, and wherefores not just of art, but of life.

But they confronted all this with Monty Pythonesque irreverence. The results were spirited. And in a culture that yearned to shrug off postwar sobriety, they were liberating.

“Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life’’ presents Fluxus as freshly cogent and ripe for reconsideration. The exhibition draws on the Hood’s superb collection of Fluxus art, and is complemented by loans from, among others, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Harvard Art Museums.

It contains an empty wine bottle labeled “God’’ (Ben Vautier); a pill bottle with plastic capsules filled with pressure-sensitive labels (“Take one capsule every four hours, for laughs’’) (Nye Ffarrabas); a TV set placed on its side screening only a thin vertical zip of blue light (Nam June Paik); a box of vials containing the excrement of various animals (George Maciunas); a 10-hour clock (Robert Watts); a medicine cabinet containing capsules stuffed with shredded money (Jock Reynolds); written instructions for a “mandatory happening’’ (“You will, having looked at this page,/ either decide to read it or you will not./ Having made your decision, the happening is now over’’) (Ken Friedman); and a painting on the floor that one is encouraged to step on (Yoko Ono).

Fluxus artists, as this list suggests, had a likable tendency toward self-mockery. They could be irritatingly sophomoric. But they were also, it turns out, in deadly earnest.

More philosophers than artists, they believed that “everything is art and anyone can do it.’’ Their objectives were “social (not aesthetic),’’ according to the group’s guiding spirit George Maciunas. They sought to dissolve the line between art and aesthetics and therefore to make art — and their own activities as artists — redundant.

They were not afraid, that is to say, of internal contradiction. “Fluxus encompasses opposites,’’ declared one member of the group, George Brecht. “Consider opposing it, supporting it, ignoring it, changing your mind.’’

Taking their cue from an earlier avant-garde movement, Dada, the artists of Fluxus embraced the notion that things can be silly and serious at the same time. (It’s interesting to note that Maciunas claimed to have found the name “Fluxus’’ by sticking a knife or finger randomly into a dictionary, which is exactly how the artists of Dada found their name.)

Marcel Duchamp, Dada’s elusive central figure, was a major inspiration. So were the Eastern traditions of Zen Buddhism and Daoism. In Maciunas’s insistence that “rainfall is anti-art, a babble of a crowd is anti-art, a sneeze is anti-art,’’ and that all such things are “as beautiful and as worthy to be aware of as art itself,’’ it’s easy to recognize Daoist thinking.

And in Fluxus’s ambition to render art obsolete, there were echoes of the Zen imperative, “Kill the Buddha!’’ (and indeed of Duchamp’s flight from art-making into the world of chess).

Fluxus artists favored concerts and festivals and other ephemeral events, as well as cheeky pronouncements, sexy provocations, and a good deal of wonderfully original mail art. The latter often came in the form of “Fluxkits’’ — small boxes, typically subdivided into compartments, and labeled with eye-catching typography and graphic design.

Works such as these, intended almost as parodies of small, affordable commodities — they almost never actually sold — may have deterred collectors. But they were ripe for the fetishism of the archivist, the accumulator and preserver of ephemeral things. And in Jean Brown, the charismatic owner of an old Shaker seed house in the Berkshires town of New Marlborough, Fluxus found a devoted custodian.

Brown’s Fluxus-related efforts were sufficiently impressive to prompt Maciunas, near the end of his life, to settle nearby and establish a creative commune, the last of several similar efforts.

It’s impossible to get to grips with Fluxus without reckoning first with Maciunas, the movement’s presiding spirit, often referred to as The Pope. Known for his celibacy and abstemiousness, he was, according to Fluxus artist Per Kirkeby, “the cautious office-type. In fact he wasn’t really an artist, and this was supported by the way he had to sit there and be schoolmaster for the whole cause. If one did something wrong one got detention, if one did not get expelled.’’

Maciunas was born in Lithuania and died, at the age of 46, in Boston. He suffered from tuberculosis, among other ailments, and spent much of his childhood in sanatoriums in Switzerland. He never really recovered his health.

“He seemed to survive on pills, inhalators, and self-administered injections of cortisone,’’ wrote Barbara Moore in an Artforum magazine article quoted in Jacquelynn Baas’s introduction to the exhibition catalog. “At some point he acquired an attraction for pain so intense that he enjoyed flagellation. How long this had been present in his life no one knows, but soon after [his final illness was diagnosed] he openly told friends that ‘the pain kills the pain.’ ’’

Thus, one of the more moving works in the show is Maciunas’s “Solo for Sick Man,’’ a typewritten chart with rows labeled “cough,’’ “spit,’’ “gargle,’’ “sniff deeply and swallow,’’ and so on. Blank columns provide space to note the sequence and duration of each “event,’’ producing something akin to a musical score of symptoms.

A more disturbing riff on Maciunas’s idea of medicine — “the pain kills the pain’’ — is his “Fluxsyringe,’’ a large cylinder pump with a block of 56 hypodermic needles attached at one end.

How relevant, how potent, do Fluxus japes seem now?

The American writer Janet Malcolm once wrote that the spell of any work of art can be shattered by the sound of the nasty little voice in one’s head saying, “But this is ridiculous.’’ She meant, I think, that the reception of all art demands a suspension of skepticism. It demands whole-heartedness, sincerity.

Why? Because from the standpoint of life, art is at a disadvantage. It is artificial. It is not strictly necessary. And therefore it is never far from redundancy. The values we assign it are imaginary — that is to say, a great credit to our imaginations.

Fluxus artists made work that deliberately turned up the volume of that “nasty little voice in one’s head,’’ as if wanting to test our willingness to tune it out.

I like them for this. Not because I think the art world on the whole needs more silliness (most days it seems awash in silliness), but because such tests can have a salutary effect. They threaten our complacency. They yank us out of tired habits of seeing and thinking. They return us to first principles. And they underscore the provisional, fragile nature of the strange and extraordinary edifice we call art.

The influence of Fluxus is in fact everywhere today, although it’s hard to distinguish from that of its precursor, Dada. It’s detectable in the bombast-puncturing gestures of artists like Gabriel Orozco and Francis Alÿs; in the politicized prodding of Ai Weiwei; in the god-, sex-, and death-baiting provocations of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin; in the philosophical restlessness of Olafur Eliasson, and in ten thousand other manifestations of conceptualism, today’s prevailing idiom.

But Fluxus’s contribution should not, I think, be measured in terms of contemporary relevance or ongoing potency. Rather, we might value it for something quite different: for highlighting failure, for articulating a needling pathos that will always attach itself to art.

The spirit of Fluxus, more than most other manifestations of the avant-garde, lives on as pathos simply because that pathos was built in from the start. For even as Fluxus artists wanted to assign art to the dustbin, they also wanted, on some basic level, to fail in their ambition. Their productions — hilarious, bright, provocative — live on as reminders of that failure.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

FLUXUS AND THE ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS OF LIFE At: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover. Through Aug. 7. 603-646-2808, www.hood museum.dartmouth.edu