Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dada to DiY: The Rise of Alternative Cultures in the Twentieth Century, John Held Jr.

Part I

I first read of the late art collector Jean Brown in a 1976 article, The Preservation of the Avant-Garde. Critic Katherine Kuh wrote of her that, "It is always the marginal she stresses - such manifestations as concrete poetry, rubber stamp art, the vagaries of video. She is after elusive connections, the small interstices that relate the recent past to less-publicized present-day directions...Other borderline movements she considers extensions of Dada and also perhaps Fluxus are (Mail) Art and Lettrisme."1 As I was just becoming interested in rubber stamp and mail art, I went to visit Jean Brown to learn more about them. After repeated visits, we developed a friendship based on mutual interests and our shared profession of public librarianship. The collection she amassed currently resides in the Getty Museum for the Arts and Humanities. I continue Jean's efforts in tracing, participating, and documenting contemporary manifestations of the avant-garde.

In 1962 Jean Brown was asked to lend a small number of works by Marcel Duchamp in honor of the artist's visit to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Driving Duchamp to his train after his engagement, Jean questioned him about the future of art with its current emphasis on consumer, rather than spiritual values. "What will happen to serious artists who hope to retain these qualities in their work," she asked. "They will go underground," Duchamp declared.2

I've read two books recently that I grudgedly respect: Steven Duncolmbes' Notes from the Underground: zines and the politics of alternative culture, and Thomas McLaughlins' Street Smarts and Critical Theory. Both works are well-written accounts of the alternative cultural scene by post-modern academics glancing at the other. Intellectually distanced, dipping in to get a sense of the scene under their own terms and preconceptions, they write for their colleagues and tenure. I'm writing this examination of alternative cultures for zinesters, punks, the mail art community and other alt.networkers toiling in the cultural underground. After thirty years immersed in mail art and zine networks, this is the article, expressly written for the readers of Factsheet Five, that culminates the experience.

Both Duncolmbe and McLaughlin write as if zinesters and other alternative cultural workers are unconscious theorists, blindly stumbling into the spirit of their times, and unwittingly aiding cultural theorists define some post-modern condition. Duncolmbe first contact with zines produced a sense of wonder.

What was amazing to me, coming from years of sterile academic and political debates on the Left, in which culture was often in the past dismissed as irrelevant to the 'real struggle,' was that zines seemed to form a true culture of resistance. Their way of seeing and doing was not borrowed from a book, nor was it carefully cross-referenced and cited; rather it was, if you'll forgive the word, organic. It was a vernacular radicalism, an indigenous strain of utopian thought.3

McLaughlin declares that:...zines allow fans to go one step further, that is they provide fans with the opportunity to acquire such expertise in reading a particular set of texts that they begin to see through the strategies, to understand the operations of the pop culture system itself. They become vernacular theorists, subjects who take up the work of dismantling the ideology they encounter in pop culture.4

Both academics use the word vernacular, whose origin comes from the Latin word verna, meaning a slave born in his master's house, coming to represent an indigenous dialect rather than a literary or cultured language. The way in which the word is used by Duncolmbe, McLaughlin and other cultural theorists, implies an under-educated intuitively gifted underclass too impatient in their desire for polite access to refined society.

Distanced from the academy, parallel self-sufficient cultures have evolved throughout the Twentieth Century. Zines, mail art, punk and other "vernacular" forms have developed their own structures allowing them to co-exist with mainstream culture. Since the pre-WWI avant-garde, cultural workers have fought the shackles imposed by their cultural overlords in seeking innovative flexible social, political and cultural strategies in confrontation with a looming militaristic, consumerist and mass-media driven popular culture; the aptly named Society of the Spectacle of Situationist Guy Debord.

This essay briefly traces the emergence of the "artistic underground" in contemporary culture, citing a number of individuals and art movements contributing to the rise of international cultural alternative/parallel networks operating outside of mainstream art structures. Mail art, zine and punk participants have described their activities as Do-It-Yourself (DIY), marked by an attempt at individual responsibility in creativity, rather than passive contemplation and consumption of mainstream culture. Their radical cultural gestures impact on the greater society are unexpected, unintended and subversively influential.

The rise of contemporary DIY cultures have been accelerated by the rise of counter-cultural social, political and artistic neo-dada activities in the sixties. Happenings, Fluxus, Gutai, and the Situationist International raged through European, Asian and American avant-garde circles in the Cold War of the fifties, recalling the pivotal days before World War I, when artists began blending different artistic mediums, obliterating the borders between material and life itself.

For German artist and Fluxus participant Wolf Vostell, this interplay of different artistic mediums represented "a do-it-yourself reality...sharpen(ing) the consciousness for the inexplicable and for chance."5 Written in 1966, Vostell's "do-it-yourself reality" represented an early use of a term that would come into common usage a decade later.

With the invention of photography at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, artists could no longer claim to be the primary chroniclers of visual reality. The camera changed everything, not only rendering visual reality in greater detail than hand-work, but changing our view of the world. Everything became a still life. Lit properly, anything could be beautiful.

Artists became free to decode new realms of perception distanced from purely visual constructions. The world was torn asunder by Cubism. Philosophy and physics were becoming relative, and Marcel Duchamp became one of the primary artists associated with this modern movement. The French artists' work, Nude Descending a Staircase, became the succés de scandale of the 1913 Armory show in New York City, the first exhibition to introduce Modern Art to America on a grand scale. Duchamp was cast into the public spotlight; unaware of it until his 1915 arrival in New York City.

With WWI scattering draft and war phobic artists throughout Europe and America, new visions flourished in response to innovative and startling contemporary warfare. Some of the disaffected congregated at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, a small bar and variety hall opened by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings in 1916, frequented by Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck. The participants collaborated on a number of manifestoes, publications, provocations and entertainments, proclaiming themselves Dadaists, coming to represent to the general public an irrational art seeking a rupture with the past.

The Dadaists were in turn influenced by the Futurists, bankrolled by the charismatic Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. His incendiary manifestoes, heralding a new age of dynamic motion, were diffused widely among the cultural intelligentsia of Europe. Futurism had a particularly profound effect on the Russian pre-revolutionary avant-garde; disaffected art students and poets making artists' books, experimenting with typography and collage, and becoming the first artists to incorporate rubber stamps in a fine art context. Some of their publications were forerunners of contemporary zines, produced in small runs, stabled in the middle and made of original materials like wallpaper. One of their finest efforts, commercially lithographed, rubber stamped with collage elements, was Worldbackwards., an aptly named work reflecting the mind-set of the avant-garde in deconstructing the modern experience.6

Duchamp, deferred as the result of a medical condition, sailed to New York, becoming the center of a salon overseen by art patrons Walter and Louise Arenenberg. His friend Man Ray was there. The painter and photographer had published the proto-zine The Ridgefield Gazook in 1915, which sold for fifty cents. So were, at various times throughout his stay, Francis Picabia, painter and publisher of 391, each issue published in a different country; Arthur Craven, who had boxed controversial heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, could always be relyed upon to provided a continuous stream of scandals to the amusement of his friends, and disappeared mysteriously at sea; Mina Loy, poet, the embodiment of the new woman, mistress of Marinatti, wife of Craven; and many others including Beatrice Wood, the painter Charles Demuth, and early feminist performance artist, the Baroness Elsa van Freytag-Loringhoven; all of whom made significant contributions to an emerging American modernist sensibility.

The Arensbergs became key patrons of Duchamp figuring in many of his works. It was to Walter that Duchamp sent four typed postcards taped together purposely devoid of meaning, the seminal mail artwork Rendez-Vous du Dimanche 6 Février 1916. It was to Louise that Duchamp sent word from Buenos Aries that he had designed a series of carved rubber stamps so he could play chess by mail with Walter. For these works alone, Duchamp would have become an important pioneer of the mail and rubber stamp networks.
Duchamp had grown distrustful of the artworld, including the supposed avant-gardism of a Cubist faction headed by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. He had submitted Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 to the 1912

Paris Salon des Indépendents which found the work too provocative for their "reasonable Cubism." Gleizes and Metzinger dispatched Duchamp's brothers Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon to intervene with their brother in compromising on his submission, at least changing the provocative title of the work. Duchamp said nothing and went to fetch back the painting. "It was a real turning point in my life," he said at a later point. "I saw that I would never be much interested in groups after that."7

But Duchamp's hopes for a democratic exhibition policy were not completely dashed. He was predisposed to accept the position of head of the Hanging Committee for the Society of Independent Artists, who were planning a major exhibition in 1917. Financially backed by the cream of New York society, including Archer M. Huntington, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, and Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, exhibition submissions were open to any American or European artist paying the Societys' five dollar annual dues and a one dollar initiation fee, with a policy of "no jury, no prizes," a forerunner, minus the fee, of contemporary mail art etiquette.

The Independents exhibition was nearly twice as large as the Armory show, attracting some 2,125 works of art by 1,200 artists. Duchamp mounted the exhibition by installing the artists alphabetically, beginning with the letter R, which was drawn out of a hat. This method of mounting the exhibition proved too much for the exhibition leadership. John Quinn, one of the leading collectors of Modern Art in America, who had donated his services as legal council to the Society, declared the Duchampian installation, "Democracy run riot."8

Robert Henri, the noted American artist and champion of Modernism, "who, more than any other, worked to undermine the artistic establishment in America in the name of freedom of expression," by mounting the first American independent art exhibition in 1908, was incensed by Duchamps' action and withdrew from the Society.

Duchamp was offering himself as an acid test for the "liberated" artists of the time, and more shocks were to follow. Two days before the opening of the exhibition, Duchamp's friend Beatrice Wood found Walter Arnesberg and the painter George Bellows arguing over the admissibility of an upturned white porcelain urinal, accompanied by an envelope bearing the name Mr. Mutt, a Philadelphia address, the six dollar membership and entry fee required for participation, and work's title: Fountain. According to Woods' account, Bellows raged: "We can't show it, that's all there is to it."Walter lightly touched his arm. "This is what the whole exhibit is about; an opportunity to allow the artist to send in anything he chooses, for the artist to decide what is art, not someone else." Belows shook his arm away, protesting. "You mean to say, if a man sent in horse manure glued to a canvas that we would have to accept it!" "I'm afraid we would," said Walter, with a touch of undertaker's sadness.9

An anarchistic challenge was brought not only to the structure of the exhibition - but to the very definition of art itself. The matter would not die, and Duchamp, Wood, and Henri-Pierre Roché, published a little magazine called The Blind Man, including a text, The Richard Mutt Case, clearly written by Duchamp. " Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view -created a new thought for that object.10

The events surrounding the Society of Independent Artists exhibition are legendary. Arthur Craven, who had previously proclaimed, "Let me state once and for all, I do not wish to be civilized," was invited to give a lecture on The Independent Artists in France and America. Duchamp and Picabia took him out to lunch before the lecture, working him into an alcoholic stupor. Ascending the speaker platform for the engagement, he fell down, struck his head and began uttering profanities. Rising, he was in the process of disrobing before house detectives intervened. "What a wonderful lecture," Duchamp declared.

The first to establish that anything could be art, Duchamp was also a model for artists operating away from the mainstream. His later proclamation of an "underground artist," applied very much to his own personal lifestyle. During his early life in New York City, he supported himself by giving French lessons and working four hours a day as a librarian at the French Institute. His enjoyment of chess lead to his receiving the title of master of the Fédération Francaise de Echecs, playing on the national team. He authored a book on the subject of seldom if ever used chess endings.

He advised others on their art collecting, and was himself an astute art dealer of Brancusi sculpture, acquired with his family inheritance. Despite his misadventures with the Society of Independent Artists exhibition, he was in demand as an exhibition preparator throughout his life. One of the myths current in his lifetime was that Duchamp had forsaken personal creativity. It was not until after his death (1966), that his last work, the installation Etant Donnés, was unveiled at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He had worked on it since 1947, unknown even to Arturo Schwartz, who was preparing the text for The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. Although he had shed much of the baggage assigned to the art object and the artist, he had never stopped thinking about or making art.

Duchamp was unusually candid about his thoughts on art in an unlikely venue, when early in 1956, some three weeks after becoming a United States citizen, he appeared on the NBC program, Conversations with the Elder Wise Men of Our Day. Interviewed by James Johnson Sweeney, then director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Duchamp stated that there ere two kinds of artists, "the artist who deals with society, who is integrated with society; and the other artist, the completely freelance artist, who has nothing to do with it-no bonds." Situating himself in the latter category, he further explained that, "The danger for me is to please an immediate public - the immediate public that comes around you, and takes you in, and accepts you, and gives you success, and everything. Instead of that, I would rather wait for the public that will come fifty years -or a hundred years- after my death." Later in the program he added that, "I believe that Art is the only form of activity in which man, as man, shows himself to be a true individual who is capable of going beyond the animal state. Art is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by space and time."11

Having demolished the preciousness of the art object and the notion of genius, Duchamp was to make further leaps by redefining the traditional roles of artist and spectator. Lecturing at the Houston Museum of Fine Art in April 1957, he expounded upon the idea of how little control the artist had over the success of his own work.

In a short lecture titled, The Creative Act, Duchamp assigns the spectator a key role in the final verdict on the artwork. The artist may have the best intentions in the world about his creation, but it is the spectator who has the final judgment. The artist assumes a "mediumistic role" that escapes any rational explanation he offers. "In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius; he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally posterity includes him in the primers of Art History."12

Calvin Tompkins interprets this conception of the creative act as "wickedly subversive." Duchamps' disdain for ontemporary art of the period was understated, yet apparent. "Duchamp can be perceived as thumbing his nose at the inflated claims of the Abstract Expressionists, some of whom tended to sound like high priests of a new religion."13 Duchamp could only express his bemusement at the vanity of mainstream artists. In his desire to exhibit The Fountain, he became a spectator sensitive to the "mediumistic role" played by the plumbing manufacturer. The art was readymade. Art could occur anywhere; an artist could be totally oblivious of his own significance; the path of modern art could, and would, lead anywhere, limited only by the creative insights of posterity.

Despite the mainstream fascination with the prevailing Abstract Expressionism of the fifties, a period of Cold War conceit where it was claimed that America had "stolen the idea of art" from Paris, there were a number of developments in the European art capital, and elsewhere, that expanded upon the ideas and acts of Duchamp, critiqued consumerist culture, and laid the groundwork for emerging alternative cultures in the coming decades. Among these Parisian groups were the Nouveaux Réalistes, formed in 1960 at the apartment of the artist Yves Klein. Earlier in the year, the critic Pierre Restany had put together a show by the same name, gathering the artists Klein, Arman Armand, Jean Tinguely, and Raymond Hains. Hains recruited two other affichistes (torn-poster artists), Dufrene and Villegleé. Tiguely, the kinetic sculptor, came with Daniel Spoerri, a Swiss artist known for his "trap paintings" (assemblages of captured chance situations, such as the remnants of a dinner table after mealtime). Arman was also working with found objects, having just opened his exhibition Le Plein (Full-Up), in which he dumped heaps of garbage, society's waste, in the Galerie Iris Clert.

It was never an natural alliance, having more to do with Restany's desire for group exhibitions generating extensive publicity, which manifesting his view of contemporary art, and their formal existence was short-lived. The following year, when Klein was away in New York for his first American exhibition, Restany mounted an exhibition titled, At Forty Degrees above Dada, suggesting that Nouveaux Réalisme would revive and expand upon Duchamp's focus on the common object and everyday life. But recalling Dada was something that Klein cared little about, and he called for the dissolution of the group later in 1961.

The artists involved in Nouveaux Réalisme made important contributions despite their short duration as a formal movement. Their use of common materials in the art making process revived a process begun by the Dadaists.

Arman is especially admired today by rubber stamp artists, as one of the first artists after German Kurt Schwitters to use the rubber stamp in a series of works. Arman's Cachets, begun in 1954, were first composed of rubber stamps found in his fathers' desk, imprinted on fabric and paper. These first efforts resembled the pages of a passport in both style and scale, but at the suggestion of Restany, Arman's rubber stamp work assumed proportions similar to large Abstract xpressionist canvases. The series continued until 1959, when instead of rubber stamps, he began inking ordinary objects, such as screws and combs, impressing them on paper.

Klein was a forerunner of mail art, especially the artist postage stamp movement. For his first showing in Paris of the monochome International Klein Blue paintings in 1957, he designed a blue postage stamp affixed to the exhibitions' invitation. He then went with gallery director Iris Clert to the Post Office, where they bribed the clerk to cancel the stamps and mail out the invitations. It remains a landmark of mail art, featured on the cover of Mike Crane and Mary Stofflet's landmark book on the subject, Correspondence Art: Source Book for the Network of International Postal Art Activity (Contemporary Arts Press, San Francisco, 1984).

Klein was a Rosicrucian mystic and karate teacher who studied in Japan, drawn to interacting with and shocking the public. His exhibition openings took on ritualistic aspects. A gallery would be stripped of everything save its' painted walls. Those attending were offered blue cocktails, finding that they urinated a similar color the following morning. His fire painting were done surreptitiously at the National Gas Company with naked women resulting in a scandal resulting in the resignation of the Director. Classical musicians played while he dragged naked women dipped in IKB across a canvas layed on the floor. Kleins work demanded an engaged public.

Provocative as Klein's actions were, they could not match the audacity of the Situational International, current in Paris at the same time. Operating away from the mainstream, the Situationists did not crave the mainstream art publicity favored by Restany and the other individual artists in Nouveaux Réalisme. Instead, they favored the subversive penetration of everyday life.

Guy Debord, who stood at the center of the Situationist stage, was a great admirer of among others, Dada artist Arthur Craven. At nineteen he met fellow filmmaker Isidore Isou, the creative force of the Lettrists, a movement inspired by visual signs, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1950, where Isou was screening his film Treatise on Slime and Eternity.

Debord went on to found the splinter group, Internationale Lettriste. They issued a stream of publications, among them Potlatch, a name referring to the ruinous gift-giving practices of Northwest Native Americans. Potlach was self-described as, "the most engaged publication in the world." Aside from being passed out in their own haunts, the publication was mailed to people chosen at random from the phone book. It was accompanied by an anti-copyright notice that, "All texts published in Potlatch can be reproduced, adapted or quoted without any mention of the source."18 The Situationists wanted readers freed from the tyranny of writers, realizing Lautréamont's cry for a "poetry made by all." In 1964 the situationists wrote, "We absolutely refuse disciples. We are...interested only in setting autonomous people loose in the world."19 "Outside of the revolutionary periods when the masses become poets in action, small circles of poetic adventure may be the only places where the totality of revolution subsists, as an unrealized but haunting possibility, like the shadow of a missing person," the Situationists wrote in 1963. It was not the Surrealists' "poetry in the service of the revolution," rather, "revolution in the service of poetry."20 (LT,311) Towards this end, they celebrated "big affects with small gestures and few people."21 (Debord, vi)

The most influential of these "small gestures" was the publication of, On the Poverty of Student Life: Considered in its Economic, Political, Psycho logical, Sexual and Especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for its Remedy, provoking a sensation at the University of Strasbourg, which was in the midst of a fractional struggle for the student union. The pamphlet was translated into different languages, admired by the Enragés of Nanterre (including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a notable student radical of the day) leading to a chain of events culminating in the student riots of May Day 1968, when French students fought with police, provoking the occupation of the Sorbonne and a nationwide strike. Debord described it as "a revolutionary festival that contained within it, a generalized critique of all alienations." It was one of the most radicalizing moments of the sixties as disfranchised youth erupted internationally; Situationist Raul Viegremems' admonition to "Think Globally, Act Locally" had born fruit.

A sense of revolution, both poetical and political, was in the air during the fifties and sixties all but unperceivable by mainstream culture, befuddled as it was by the glare of Abstract Expressionism and Beat Culture. The neo-avant-garde drew from Dada, updating it to reflect their contemporary condition. The revolutionary rhetoric of the Situationists was a strident and often volatile call in collapsing the art/life paradigm; going beyond the Dadaists and Surrealists, whose avant-garde moment had vanished.

Artists were also reacting to this condition in post-WWII Japan. The Gutai art movement, lead by the Jiro Yoshihara and Shozo Shimamoto, sought rupture with the prevailing artistic thought in their country in seeking an art that was completely without precedent. In 1955, they began publishing Magazine Gutai, to export their ideas overseas. Shimamoto, later becoming an active mail art participant, wrote that, "We mean by Gutai that we should show ourselves directly and concretely. We did not want to show our feelings indirectly or abstractly." (Networking, page 46) Gutai "directness" took the form of "happenings" that resulting in tangible artistic works. Shimamoto constructed a projectile of oil colors packed into an iron pipe and exploded it against a canvas. Kazuo Shiraga hung himself from a ceiling, applying paint to canvas with his feet. Saburo Murakami ran through seventeen paper screens.

Another group of artists hoping to capture the avant-garde moment were members of Fluxus. Woven together in the manner of Restany and his Nouveaux Réalistes, impresario George Maciunas was no critic, rather an artist like Duchamp, distrustful yet drawn to the world of art, who sought to coalesce the fractured world of post-Cagian neo-Dada artists in New York and elsewhere.

The musician John Cage had been exerting a subtle influence on the post WWII avant-garde since his tenure at Black Mountain College, an informal interdisciplinary art school, in the late forties. Abstract Expressionists ruled the roost in New York, enabled by powerful critics like Clement Greenberg, Thomas Hess, and Harold Rosenberg, who wrote for the leading art magazines of the day. Cage fermented an approach to art in direct contrast to the Abstract Expressionists attitude of self-involvement with traditional art materials. Cage's approach favored chance, based on his studies of Zen Buddhism, which brought the artist into the very force of nature; organic and uncontrolable. Francine Duplessix-Gray, a young student at Black Mountain, recapitulated Cages' idea that, "In Zen Buddhism nothing is either good or bad. Or ugly or beautiful... Art should not be different than life but an action within life. Like all of life, with its accidents and chances and variety and disorder and only momentary beauties." (Goldberg, 82)

At Black Mountain College, Cage staged one of the first happenings; simultaneous events played off one another allowing for the unexpected and unforeseen. Any connection between them was made by the spectator. Those participating included Cage; Robert Rauschenberg, the painter; musicians David Tudor and Jay Watt; dancer Merce Cunningham; and the poets Charles Olsen and Mary Caroline Richards. The 1952 event heralded a future of unlimited collaboration between artists of different disciplines.

to be continued. . . .

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