John Lennon once characterized his wife, Yoko Ono, as the world’s “most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” What she was famous for, of course, was him. The art for which she was unknown could not conceivably have made her famous–although even the most famous of artists would be obscure relative to the aura of celebrity surrounding the Beatle of Beatles and his bride. Yoko Ono had been an avant-garde artist in New York and Tokyo in the early 1960s, and part of an avant-garde art world itself very little known outside its own small membership. The most robust of her works were subtle and quiet to the point of near-unnoticeability. One of her performances consisted, for example, of lighting a match and allowing it to burn away. One of her works, which she achieved in collaboration with the movement known as Fluxus, consisted of a small round mirror which came in an envelope on which YOKO ono/self portrait was printed. It belonged in Fluxus I–a box of works by various Fluxus artists, assembled by the leader and presiding spirit of the movement, George Maciunas. But the contents of Fluxus I were themselves of the same modest order as Self Portrait. We are not talking about anything on the scale, say, of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. We are speaking of things one would not see as art unless one shared the values and ideologies of Fluxus.
Fluxus, in that phase of its history, was much concerned with overcoming the gap between art and life, which was in part inspired by John Cage’s decision to widen the range of sounds available for purposes of musical composition. Cage’s famous 4’33” consisted of all the noises that occurred through an interval in which a performer, sitting at the piano, dropped his or her hands for precisely that length of time. A typical Fluxus composition was arrived at by selecting a time–3:15, say–from the railway timetable and considering all the sounds in the railway station for three minutes and fifteen seconds as the piece. As early as 1913, Marcel Duchamp made works of art out of the most aesthetically undistinguished vernacular objects, like snow shovels and grooming combs, and he was in particular eager to remove all reference to the artist’s eye or hand from the work of art. “The intention,” he told Pierre Cabanne in 1968, “consisted above all in forgetting the hand.” So a cheap, mass-produced object like a pocket mirror could be elevated to the rank of artwork and be given a title. How little effort it takes to make a self-portrait! In The Republic Socrates made the brilliant point that if what we wanted from art was an image of visual reality, what was the objection to holding a mirror up to whatever we wished to reproduce? “[You] will speedily produce the sun and all the things in the sky, and the earth and yourself and the other animals and implements and plants.” And all this without benefit of manual skill!
Fluxus made little impact on the larger art world of those years. I encountered it for the first time in 1984, at an exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of New York in which the art made in New York in the period between 1957 and 1964 was displayed. It was a show mainly of Pop Art and Happenings; and there were some display cases of Fluxus art, many of them objects of dismaying simplicity relative to what one expected of works of art in the early 1960s, exemplified by large heroic canvases with churned pigment and ample brush sweeps. Maciunas spoke of Fluxus as “the fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children’s games and Duchamp”; and the display cases contained what looked like items from the joke shop, the children’s counter in the dime store, handbills and the like. Ono’s relationship to Fluxus is a matter of delicate art-historical analysis, but if she fit in anywhere, it would have been in the world Maciunas created around himself, where the artists and their audience consisted of more or less the same people. It was a fragile underworld, easy not to know about. Ono’s work from that era has the weight of winks and whispers.