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  • Fluxus, or the Work of Art in the Age of Information
  • Roger Rothman (bio)


Over the past two decades, critical and historical understanding of Fluxus has shifted dramatically. Upon its emergence in the early sixties, it confronted criticism as little more than a belated rehabilitation of Dadaist provocation.1 In time, however, its reception changed to such a degree that it is now widely hailed as a crucial precursor to the conceptual and performative practices of the late sixties and early seventies.2 Indeed, today Fluxus is typically presented as the most politically progressive instantiation of John Cage’s aesthetic of chance and, at the same time, as the advent of post-war institutional critique.3 Effective though the current perspective is in capturing [End Page 309] some of the key components of Fluxus, much of what distinguishes it so radically from the mainstream practices of the post-war avant-garde is left unregistered. Focusing exclusively on the question of institutional critique makes is difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of the complex and crucial role that humor, collectivity, and joyous affirmation played for so many of the Fluxus artists.

In order to make sense of these aspects of Fluxus a different paradigm is required, one that is able to account for the affirmative spirit of play, communication, and sharing. And in order to do this, it will not be enough to find a space for Fluxus within the established discourse of the avant-garde as negation, critique, and deconstruction (Tristan Tzara’s “great negative work of destruction”; Theodor Adorno’s “negative canon”).4 The vast majority of Fluxus seeks not to dismantle, but to assemble. It aims not expose fallacies, but to play games.

Crucial in this regard was the influence of John Cage. As Henry Flynt, an artist who was, himself, deeply committed to the practice of institutional critique, recalled in 1993, Cage’s significance derived in large part from the composer’s affirmative position and practice: “Dada’s transgressive gestures were intended as savage satires. One can read all of Dada, in fact, as a protest against World War I. (A protest whose inconsequentiality showed that parody and mobilization are art’s least worthy, least credible functions.) Cage’s ‘absurdist’ works, on the other hand, meant to promulgate a new sensibility, a sensibility of accident, of vanishings, of nothing. Resentment was not a consideration” (Flynt n.p.).

This fundamentally affirmative aspect of Cage’s influence most clearly resonates with what could be called, following Bruno Latour, caring construction. For Latour, the time has come to reassess both the work of criticism and the subject-position of the critic: “The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is…the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution.”5 For Latour, the productive limits of critique as exposure and negation have been reached and exceeded. An alternate course is now required, one in which care and construction are held above debunking and deconstruction.

Latour’s critique of critique is echoed in the late writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in which she argued that the legacies of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction have devolved into a compulsory paranoia that needs to make way for what she calls the reparative position: “No less acute than a [End Page 310] paranoid position, no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival, and neither less nor more delusional or fantasmatic, the reparative reading position undertakes a different range of affects, ambitions, and risks. What we can best learn from practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.”6

Although by no means identical, the arguments of Latour and Sedgwick prepare a frame within which it is possible not only to recognize the humor and...


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pp. 309-325
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