International Sculpture Center
Facebook Twitter Instagram

Sculpture cover


Sculpture at the End of the 20th Century

Life and Its Shadow: The Art/Life Dichotomy

by Dick Higgins

A person who lacks a shadow seems somehow incomplete. But here what I am trying to point to is not death as the shadow of life, but art. It has been remarked of Oscar Wilde, a hundred years ago, that he put his genius into his life but only his talent into his art. Whether or not this is true, it is an insight which became important in the days of Wilde and of his contemporary Walter Pater, that life and art had some mysterious relationship which up to then had either been ignored or mysteriously distorted, that they were not the same but they did have some relevance to each other. While those figures of the English fin de siècle, whom we often misleadingly call "the decadents," were not able to define this territory in a systematic way, at least by making the distinction conscious, they pointed to one of the major themes in 20th-century art which we can sum up as the "art/life dichotomy"-a term of uncertain origin, describing not so much a contradiction as a dialectical pair. The Futurists were more aware of this dichotomy than they pretended to be. While on the one hand Filippo Tomaso Marinetti made a sound poem in which he ranted and railed in imitation of the sounds of the Battle of Adrianople, on the other, with his works in a theatrical genre which he termed teatro sintetico, he moves from anything directly stageable into a world of surprise and compression-four- or five-line playlets-which opens up the door to the presentation or bracketing of elements of daily experience, its sounds and language. His attempt was, of course, to make an art for the future as he saw it, rather than to reiterate forever "passéist art" as he often called it. This also points the way to the group which I helped start, Fluxus, which started either 40 or 45 years later depending on whose chronology we are following.

A few years after the Futurists come the Dadaists, but a distinction should be made between the popular image of Dada as something ineffably crazy and irrational and the actual works of the Dadaists, which were often fairly conventional outgrowths of German Expressionism. For all its charm and cabaret atmosphere, French Dada often lacks the heroic frenzy of Berlin Dada. At times this last burst the bounds of earlier art and penetrated into areas of daily life where previous arts had not gone, at times suggesting a merger of art and life, though no doubt to the artists themselves this was not the case. One often hears of Johannes Baader as the key figure in this regard, but we can also point to another all but unknown Dadaist (today), Jefim Golyscheff. Born in 1897 in Kherson, a small industrial city in the Ukraine, Golyscheff was sent to Berlin to study violin with Leopold Auer in 1909. He never returned home, but before World War I he went around the world on the liner Cleveland witnessing "the coronation at Delhi, the war in Tripoli, the Chinese Revolution in Canton and 9. November 1918 in Berlin,"1 first as a ship hand and later as the conductor of the ship's orchestra. The chronology is confused here, but by 1914 he had composed a dodecaphonic String Trio and after the war he became a participant in the November Group of Berlin Dada (before the arrival of Richard Huelsenbeck in Berlin from Zürich the following May), forming in the process a lifelong close friendship with Raoul Hausmann with whom he kept up a correspondence until his death in Paris in 1970. From 1915 to 1916 Golyscheff composed Das Eisige Lied (The Icy Song), which lasted over an hour and included "songs, orchestral music and visual spectacle."2 This work and its companion, an opera on Cyrano de Bergérac, had long passages scored for household objects-mixers, hammers, nails, and suchlike, thus comprising a sort of classical Spike Jones in anticipation of musique concrète and Fluxus. Neither was published, in spite of favorable recommendations by Ferruccio Busoni, Thomas Mann, and Arnold Schönberg. Golyscheff's is the earliest performance work we know of to be based on the use of everyday objects to tie in the work with daily experience.

Staying with music and musical performance for now, but skipping ahead and crossing the Atlantic, we can see, in Depression-era America and the music of Henry Cowell (1897-1965), an extension of some of the same kind of thinking we found in Golyscheff. Cowell was a magnificent pianist and composer, the revered teacher of John Cage4 and Lou Harrison. Since Cowell had known Schönberg and Busoni and had been a fre-quent visitor to Berlin throughout the 1920s, and spent 1931-32 there on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he could be a conduit between Golyscheff and later American developments, though there is no extant documentation of their having known each other. However, in an article in 1929, "The Joys of Noise,"5 Cowell had expounded the view that beyond the world of merely advancing the traditional Western instruments into dissonance, as most then-modern composers were doing, there lay the world of noises-percussion music. This is not the place to go into a full history of percussion music. However Cowell's small music-publishing press, New Music, brought out Edgar Varèse's Ionisation (1931- 1933), a landmark of percussion music, and is said to have received 16 percussion works for consideration in 1934 which it did not publish. Cowell himself composed two works for percussion, Ostinato Pianissimo (1934) and Pulse (1939), both using such items as rice bowls and brake drums. Pulse was written for Cage and Harrison's then new percussion ensemble which played concerts in San Francisco's California Hall and up and down the West Coast, rehearsing in Harrison's loft over a large restaurant (and sometimes giving concerts there). Thus music, at least, by the time of World War II had begun to escape the confines of concert auditoriums and to penetrate into the larger world outside. In 1952 Cage wrote his famous 4' 33" composition, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence divided into three asymmetrical blocks. Traditionally performed at the piano, the performer enters, sits down, and closes the keyboard cover for each of the movements, opening it at the end. But most important, the pianist and audience listen to whatever takes place in the environment of the performance. It would be hard to imagine a more life-oriented work than this.

But what of the plastic arts? Black Mountain College was a magnet for the innovative artists of the 1940s and early 1950s. John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham, pianist (not yet composer) David Tudor, architect/designer R. Buckminster Fuller, painter Josef and weaver Annie Albers, poet Charles Olson-these are among the many luminaries who taught there. Artists Robert Rauschenberg and Sue Weil studied there, as did Ray Johnson (later of mail art fame) and a whole host of others who have subsequently become known in a vast variety of fields, not all of which have to do with the art/life dichotomy. Some even date the origin of Happenings to a Black Mountain event in 1953 at which a Franz Kline painting was displayed, Cunningham danced, Cage performed music, and so on. This can be questioned, since this simultaneous event had no particular composed character or underlying conception, merely the coincidence that a number of amazingly talented people took part in it. However, the innovative urge which underlay this experiment, "Happening" or not, certainly was a sign of a restlessness in the arts that wanted to go beyond simply the abstract vision of official art of the time and into some new form of realism-new interpenetrations with reality, not just an art reflecting the subjective vision of an artist but an art of interaction with external reality which could therefore perpetually renew itself. Thus by the mid-'50s Robert Rauschenberg and Allan Kaprow, independently of each other, had come to build three-dimensional collages which the one called "combines" and the other called "assemblages." The viewer, confronted by such a work as Kaprow's Mother's Boy (1957), not only was made aware of the immigrant legacy of the presenter, presumably Kaprow, but also of him- or herself. This was achieved by including mirrors in the object, so that as the viewer passed by, his or her movement would be detected, vaguely, since the mirror was far from clear, and this movement would suddenly be identified by the viewer as a part of the work. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the constructions would actually surround the viewer and create an "environment"-a work in three-dimensional space on all sides of the viewer; whether this space was found or constructed was not really so much the point as whether the viewer could interact with it and extend his or her own experience.

From here it was not an enormous step to including actual people performing artist-selected acts. At this point a new word was needed for such a performance and Kaprow, who was then, in 1957, studying with Cage at the New School for Social Research, coined it the "Happening."6 Not that Kaprow was the only artist to do Happenings. On the contrary, the "Happening" form attracted other artists, became first fashionable, then attracted large numbers of mediocre participants, became overcrowded and, in due course, went to sleep as art forms do. They do not really die; a few artists continue to do them, they enter into common knowledge and are there, ready to awaken and be drawn on, as the need arises to make some new entity.

Cage's class included, among others, George Brecht, Al Hansen, and myself. It was taught in the room which Cowell still used for "Music of the World's Peoples," so there was a grand piano plus any number of gongs, drums, gamelan, and similar instruments on hand. Cage's format was presentation and discussion-we would compose pieces which could be done in class, and then Cage would discuss them with us. Most of the students were untrained in music, so it was natural that we would use either the Cowell instruments or whatever sound-maker we could bring in, these last often purchased just before class from Newberry's Five and Dime Store around the corner and down Sixth Avenue. These pieces we did in class during the week, and then Hansen and myself, sometimes joined by others, did them on the weekend on the streets or in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village. We called ourselves the New York Audio-Visual Group or, when we worked in a theater, the Broadway Opera Company. The pieces were reworked, renamed, restyled over and over again and they became the main corpus of what, supplemented by works by others around the world who were making similar moves, George Maciunas later named Fluxus.

Maciunas organized many Fluxus festivals, starting at Wiesbaden, Germany, in September 1962, where he presented, along with such other things as films, tape pieces, group readings of sound poems, and so on, what are quite typical of Fluxus performances: "event" pieces, usually simple occurrences proposed or noticed in daily life, then reworked as something which could be shared with an audience, on the street or in a performance space. One might notice and admire, as George Brecht did, the soft plucking of the teeth of a comb, the slight variation in pitch as one plucked from one end of it to another, the shift in timbre as one moved from thinner teeth to coarser ones. This became Brecht's Comb Music. He performed it in class in 1958, and it became a staple of the Fluxus concerts or "Fluxconcerts." These Fluxconcerts created a sensation in most places where they took place. The form was taken up by others, became varied and diffused as individual performers changed the focus from the thing which was being done to the person who was doing it, and this led (with ongoing inputs from Happenings) to Performance Art. Within the Fluxus group there were tensions, climaxing in a big brouhaha over the participation of Fluxus artists in Kaprow's 1965 production of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Originale, and though the group continued to be active up to and after Maciunas's death in 1978, after 1965 it needed a new focus, which it found in Maciunas's series of Fluxboxes. Maciunas's studio was upstairs from a surplus plastic company on New York's Canal Street. Starting in 1964 he bought small plastic boxes, worked up labels in a remarkably florid graphic style, and put small collections of things into the boxes according to the instructions of the Fluxartists-eye droppers, rabbit food, and so on. These Fluxboxes were not, of course, the only Fluxus activities, but they did have a meaning which could only be understood in terms of their incorporating elements of daily reality into an art experience. Some of the Fluxartists (Alison Knowles, for instance) never did a Fluxbox-she found them too limiting. But as for the paradigmatic act of taking elements of the normative, non-art reality and treating them as art, the Fluxconcerts and the Fluxboxes provide an ongoing model for interweaving these.

So much for 20 years ago, what of the time since? Typically the performance art of the '70s incorporated expressive elements from personal experience which the Fluxartists did not use. In this they were in the lineage of such Happenings as Jim Dine's Car Crash (1960) which drew on an automobile accident in which he had been involved. Julia Hayward's pieces of the '70s, for instance, tended to be reenactments of scenes from her personal experience. The perfor- mance works of the '80s and '90s have become focused on images. Their iconography seems to relate to dreams and fantasies. There is a blurring of the lines between art and reality, reflected in the title of Kaprow's most recent book, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (1993),7 though none of the essays in it seems to reflect such a blurring to either Kaprow or his audience so much as an extended interplay.

While the Fluxus boxes are one sort of paradigm of objects exploring the connections of art and life, they are certainly not the only kind. An artist who was active in the '60s and '70s (as he is today), who was friends with various of the Fluxartists but utterly separate from them, Robert Morris, made a number of objects which explore this area, such as a huge box, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1969, well-watered and displayed under grow lamps, in which hydroponic plants were displayed in the process of growing. More characteristic of Morris was, however, another dichotomy-mind and body, which had been characteristic of the work of an earlier artist, Marcel Duchamp. Never a particularly strong artist on the physical level, Duchamp had attempted to compensate for this by creating a kind of art which appealed above all to the mind, even rejecting the physical aspect of much of art as being its "retinal" side. Morris's 1994 retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York was even entitled "The Mind/Body Problem" and has an excellent catalogue and essay on the subject by Rosalind Krauss.8 A fine craftsman, especially in carpentry, it would be a pity if Morris were to neglect the physical side of art, and fortunately he has not; many of his works are truly beautiful. Nevertheless, the mind aspect is what he is most deservedly known for.

One sees both explorations also in recent art by younger sculptors, such as James Walsh (born in 1961). His works are often embedded in natural environments in such a way as to virtually disappear there; but one knows they are there and if one seeks them out and looks, they can be seen. Here we have a sort of fusion of conceptual art, earth art, and sculpture. They are the opposite of normal outdoor sculptures in which both object and surroundings are expected to fuse into a whole experience which is greater than either alone. With Walsh's pieces one has a sense that the purpose of each is to provide meaning to the other, physical or mental.

However, among the recently emerged forms of the past 40 years, the artist's book seems one of the least commented upon in its explorations of the art/life dichotomy.9 Its landmarks might include, of course, the Fluxboxes. But what differentiates the artist's book from normal books is that the artist's book always transcends its subject matter, including its own text. Within the category of artists' books there exist many varieties of book-related works. One subcategory is the "bookwork," usually a one-of-a-kind or multiple which comments through its very existence on the question: "what is a book?" For example, there is Alison Knowles's Big Book (1967), which was discarded when it wore out but which had pages, a spine and copyright notice, a fold-out page, a telephone line to the outside world, a grass tunnel in which one could sleep, and many other features not usually found in books or other works of art. Less literally a hybrid of environment, book, and perhaps residence, one could cite a piece by Susan Share, Stream of Consciousness (1979), in which the pages were cut and folded so as to form a paper spring, not unlike a child's "Slinky" toy. When the work was allowed to move from one space to another beside it, it suggested a paper waterfall. Stream of Consciousness had no words. The fold used was a "leporello," a zigzag fold found in many oriental books and some Western ones. If I ask myself, "Is it the text which makes a book a book?" I must answer "No-its bookness comes from its shape, from the experience of moving from page to page-that is what gives a book its identity." This work defines its physical space and reality neatly and efficiently. It may be art but what gives it its meaning is its relationship to the living and interactive world around it.

Another category of artists' books which might be mentioned here, if only in passing, are books using found materials such as those by Bern Porter and Dieter Roth. The sources of the found objects are part of the work; viewers find themselves trying to visualize the original purposes and functions of the text or visual materials, and in doing this are apt to form attitudes towards them which recreate some sort of model of those sources but which are modified by the specific alterations which Porter or Roth has made.

Thus, though art is no substitute for life-I have called it its "shadow"-its relationship to it in many of the artworks of the 20th century makes up a consciously-defined dialectic. The artist has removed something from the world of non-art and has matched it to his or her horizons of what it might be, the viewer has seen it and perhaps compared it to his or her own expectations, has fused these things into a whole and then has, perhaps, learned enough from the experience that the viewer's horizon has itself been modified to account for the experience.10 Of course any such approach places the audience in an active position as regards the identity of the work. One cannot passively sit still and be moved by it, one cannot be the cool scientist and examine its linguistic structure since the references of the work are too ambivalent and flexible to be put into a simple this-means-that formulation. The value of a work which stresses the art/life dichotomy increases in direct proportion to the amount of knowledge which one brings to the work as its ultimate receiver.

Dick Higgins is an artist and writer, and one of the founders of Fluxus.

Home | About ISC | ISC98 Conference | Sculpture Magazine
Portfolio | Exhibitions | Libraries | Opportunities| Discussion Forum