If we think of a historical period as defined by what the French have usefully designated a mentalité–a shared set of attitudes, practices and beliefs–then periods end when one mentalité gives way to another. Something like this happened in 1962, when Abstract Expressionism came to an end–not necessarily because the movement was internally exhausted but because a new artistic mentalité was in place. And these mentalités tend to rewrite the history of art in their own image. So Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, who would at best have been marginal to the Modernist aesthetic to which Abstract Expressionism subscribed, became the generative figures of the new period. Picasso, who had cast so daunting a shadow over Modernist artistic practice, was now esteemed primarily for having invented collage. Not everyone, of course, crossed the boundary into the new mentalité at once. There were many in the art world–artists as well as critics–who continued to frame the meaning of art in terms of the mentalité in which they had grown up. They were in, one might say, but not of the new period. It is possible that the new artistic mentality was but part of a larger one–that of the sixties. If that is true, then the transforming forces that explain the uprisings of 1968 must already have been operative in artistic precincts in the early years of the decade. Although 1968 is often explained with reference to a revulsion against the Vietnam War, this reverses the direction of causality: That revulsion is explained by the new mentalité. (What explains the mentalité itself? I have no idea!)
The new mentalité surfaced in 1962, when the artistic practices of a loosely structured group of American, European and Japanese artists began to be referred to as Fluxus. The name was invented by George Maciunas, the prophet if not the founder of the movement, and it expressed a dissatisfaction with the kind of compartmentalization of artistic endeavors made explicit in the writings of Clement Greenberg. Under Modernist imperatives, Greenberg claimed in a famous essay, each medium must aspire to a pure state of itself, expunging any borrowings from other media. Fluxus works, by exuberant contrast, disregarded the borderlines between music, writing, theater and the visual arts, so that every work of Fluxus art was in principle a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. And the idea of artistic purity was not the only erstwhile value demoted by Fluxus. Its art was ephemeral and irreverent, often trivial and typically took the form of a joke.
What Maciunas designated proto-Fluxus works were created in the late fifties, when Abstract Expressionism was at its peak, so the art existed before its practitioners were conscious of themselves as forming a movement. The two mentalités coexisted for some years. The difference in attitude and practice, however, would have made it difficult to imagine that the concept of art was wide and elastic enough to accommodate the characteristic expressions of them both. The paradigm Abstract Expressionist work would be a large, heroic canvas affirming the agony of creation and the tragic view of life, such as Barnett Newman’s painting Vir Heroicus Sublimus (1951). A not untypical Fluxwork would be Robert Watts’s Female Underpants (circa 1966), displaying a patch of silk-screened pubic hair and worn by performers in a Fluxconcert irrespective of gender. The situation more or less resembled a marvelous scene in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, in which the tragic heroine shares an island with commedia dell’arte buffoons who try to snap her out of her grief by making faces and performing cartwheels.
Fluxus objects raised in an acute way what Abstract Expressionism took for granted–the philosophical question of the nature of art. Duchamp had raised this question through his ready-mades, which is why he was counted a proto-Fluxus master. And Cage brought to Fluxus a certain Zen disregard for sharp boundaries. Ben Vautier, a Swiss who joined the movement in 1962, declared that everything is art and began signing whatever came to hand. (Warhol, too, once said he would sign anything.) Zen, in the form in which the deeply influential Dr. Suzuki expounded it, saw no distinction between sacred objects–like a statue of Buddha–and anything else. The avant-garde of 1962 was accordingly driven by concerns that could not easily be translated back into the problems of Modernism, in part because the formalism that had come to define Modernist aesthetics had no application to, say, Female Underpants.