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What Was the Fluxus Art Movement?
Fluxus was an avant-garde art movement inspired by the cultural upheaval and self-reflection of the mid-twentieth century. The name “Fluxus” was chosen to signal a state of creative flow, as “in flux.” For the artists of the Fluxus movement, the creative process itself was emphasized over the final product. Artists of this “anti-art” movement were known for experimental art forms—like interdisciplinary “intermedia” art and performance art—making sharp social commentary and rejecting the elitism and narrow-mindedness of the art world at the time.
The Fluxus movement included and inspired a wide swath of creatives, including poets, musicians, and composers, designers, as well as artists.
What Is the History of the Fluxus Movement?
The Fluxus movement began in the United States in the 1960s, specifically in New York City. Dadaism, an art movement known for its absurdity and sense of humor, is thought of as a precursor to the Fluxus movement. The artists in the Fluxus scene were most notably influenced by the composer John Cage, who believed art and creation were about the journey without knowing the outcome. Notable artists of the Fluxus movement include La Monte Young, George Macunias, Alison Knowles, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, and Yoko Ono.
Artist and curator George Maciunas—who had shown the works of many of the artists connected to the Fluxus movement in his gallery—gave the movement its name in an independently-published manifesto on Fluxus. The Fluxus manifesto associated “flux” with a purge of art’s “professional and commercialized culture,” calling for a “revolutionary upheaval” within the art world and making it accessible for all.
4 Common Themes of the Fluxus Art Movement
Attempts to define the Fluxus movement were understood as too limiting and reductive, per the artists themselves, who preferred to think of it as a “shared attitude” rather than a “movement.” However, there were a few recurring, definitive themes:
- Minimalism: Blunt simplicity was part of what made Fluxus works so effective. Their purpose was either stated plainly or expressed with simple imagery.
- Anti-commercial: Most Fluxus works incorporated some sense of irony in their quest to be truly anti-commercial; such as instructions to burn the artwork in question (as seen in Ben Vautier’s Total Art Matchbox). Artists often used humor to publicly mock art world institutions and encourage more democratic forms of creation and consumption—requiring viewers to touch the artwork, for example, or collaborating among themselves and combining disciplines.
- Social responsibility: Fluxus had ambitions to change the entire world, not just the art world. By requiring the public to participate in interactive pieces, they became directly involved with the “art.” Like the Futurists and Dadaists before them, Fluxists believed in examining society with a critical, often humorous eye.
- Shock: Elements of shock were integral to many Fluxus works, and were used to keep the audience present and engaged. In Benjamin Patterson’s Licking Piece (1964), observers were invited to lick whipped cream off of a woman while she sat perfectly still, meant to evoke conversations around misogyny and objectification of the female body. Nam June Paik’s 1963 exhibition “Exposition of Music: Electronic Television” in Germany welcomed visitors with a real cow’s head attached to the wall.
5 Influential Fluxus Artists and Artworks
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Fluxus art took many forms: Conceptual art, performance, multimedia, music, and more.
- Piano Activities, Philip Corner, (1962): Philip Corner’s score instructed performers to destroy a piano by scratching, striking, and dropping objects onto it, eventually auctioning off pieces of the piano to the audience after it was fully destroyed. The piano was highly regarded by many in Germany at the time, and the exhibition was considered shocking and sacrilegious by many Germans.
- Make a Salad, Alison Knowles, (1962–2012): In this live art piece performed a number of times, Alison Knowles created a giant salad to serve to her audience. She assembled the salad as live music played in the background, making the mundane act of creating a meal into a performance. Alison Knowles seemingly came up with the spontaneous idea for her piece when she was asked what she’d present at her exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. She reportedly said, “Maybe I’ll make a salad.”
- Zen for Film, Nam June Paik, (1964): Korean film artist Nam June Paik is known for his Fluxus multimedia pieces. Zen for Film showed a blank screen for just under ten minutes, with the occasional speck of dust scratching its way over the screen. Often understood as a visual answer to composer John Cage’s “non-sound” silent music, Zen for Film frames absence as an artistic statement and invitation for self-reflection.
- Cut Piece, Yoko Ono, (1964–66): Spectators were invited to cut away pieces of Yoko Ono’s clothes while she remained still and impassive. This intimate act was meant to stimulate the removal of boundaries, however thin, between the self and the “other.”
- Optimistic Box no. 3, Robert Filliou, 1969: Filiou’s chess box was in the style of Dada readymades (manufactured art objects, altered or not, presented as art). Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp was well-known for his readymades, which Filliou’s piece pays homage to. The exterior of the box displayed the artwork name Optimistic Box no. 3, with the subheading “So much the better if you can’t play chess.” The artwork required the viewer to interact with it, opening the box to read the verse contained inside, “You won’t imitate Marcel Duchamp.”
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