Better art critics than I have had trouble defining Fluxus. Even in a field as cluttered with vagaries as the history of the post-war avant-garde art movement, it commands an especially ungraspable corner. It’s like an eel in the water or the insight from a haiku: sometimes you see it clearly and other times you can’t see it at all. Yet this elusiveness is usually, in my experience, the mark of something worthwhile in art. The movements you need to be suspicious of are the ones that say it all with their first breath. Let me put it another way: who is the better actress, Jessica Alba or Meryl Streep?
One thing we can all agree on is that Fluxus was important. The artists it helped to unveil – Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik – are sizeable post-war figures. People who counted were drawn to Fluxus. Not only did it redefine art, it did so in hugely influential ways. For a first sense of that impact, don’t even bother going into the lively Fluxus exhibition that has now arrived at Baltic, in Gateshead, but linger instead in the gallery shop and look around for things to give people at Christmas.
See the little fold-up snow scenes and the dinky origami gingerbread houses from the Museum of Modern Art in New York? Those were influenced by Fluxus. See the range of dotty alternative Christmas cards with amusing David Shrigley messages that nearly make sense? Fluxus. Everything in here that can be sent in an envelope or folded at home, every off-centre social insight and faux-naive cultural opinion, even the sense of clutter, the sheer range of disposable knick-knacks, was preceded by Fluxus. Indeed, take the rebellious intent out of Fluxus and you’ve got the Baltic knick-knack shop.
So, what was it? A 1960s version of Dada would be the pat reply, although that begs the question: what was Dada? Which is even harder to answer. Prior to this event, I was content to accept the usual dictionary definition that Fluxus was an anti-art art movement that originated in New York in the early 1960s and soon became international. How can an art movement be anti-art, you may be thinking? Fluxus was anti-art in the sense that it attacked the old ways of being an artist. It was against museums, galleries, dealers, résumés, retrospectives, corporate commissions, the whole shebang. According to tortuous Fluxus thinking, commercial success was something to be avoided rather than striven for.
Instead of producing expensively autographed trophy objects that only the rich could buy, Fluxus artists set out to mass-produce witty, ephemeral think-art that everyone could afford and that carried subversive messages out of the gallery system and into your daily life. Walking into this Fluxus show is indeed like walking into the gallery shop. You’re greeted by busy display cases filled with small things, printed and folded, gathered in boxes, labelled and mounted. There’s a jokiness afoot as well, which you recognise from the default tone of modern advertising. Read anything in here and the chances are that it will a) need to be read again and b) make you smile.
For these same democratic reasons, Fluxus pioneered outdoor happenings and street events, particularly of a musical bent. If a cello player stripped naked to play Berio, or someone began wrapping their violin in sticky tape at the climax of a Ligeti composition, they were probably doing it for Fluxus reasons. Baltic’s reading of the Fluxus tea leaves, however, is drawn exclusively from the famous holdings of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman collection in Detroit; and, rather than present the entire movement as a floaty international art tendency shared by many, which is what I was expecting, the show seeks instead to define it as the specific aesthetic creation of one man: the renegade Lithuanian uber-nerd George Maciunas.