Ken Friedman's contribution to
"FLUXLIST and SILENCE Celebrate Dick Higgins"
Dick Higgins, 1938 - 1998
Dick Higgins was magnificent. In talent and achievement; in rigor and depth
of intellect; in the influence he exerted on the world, he was magnificent.
Born in Jesus Pieces, England, in 1938, he died in Quebec City, Canada, in
1998. He was sixty years old. During the last four decades of his sixty
years, he became a major figure in twentieth century culture.
Dick's qualities of character and mind gave substance to the public person.
The historical Dick Higgins was an inventor of happenings and a co-founder
of Fluxus. He was the founder of Something Else Press and the critical
theorist who shaped the concept of intermedia. Behind these facts stood a
deeper, more complex figure. He was cut of the same cloth as the great
humanists whose intellectual and spiritual creativity helped transform the
medieval world into the modern era.
More than a few thoughtful scholars rank Dick Higgins with Marcel Duchamp
and John Cage as an influence on the arts of the century. The comparisons
are appropriate in similarity as well as difference. Higgins abstracted and
concretized the profound artistic and intellectual ferment of an era. He
was a bold experimental artist. He was also a quiet, tireless contributor
to the world of ideas. Through exhibitions, projects, and publications, he
became a pivotal figure in the network of idea-based artists whom he
attracted and with whom he interacted. . From the late 1950s through the
last days of the century, Dick Higgins personified and exemplified the
issues he explored.
In his art, Higgins explored and problematized some of the most interesting
artistic challenges of our time. Specific works functioned as the
demonstration of larger theories, and his theories shaped the crucial
framework within which much of the artistic thinking of our era emerged.
Dick Higgins's program of research and artistic experimentation was serious
in scope and scale, encyclopedic in perspective. His work ranged across
painting, performance, and poetry; happenings, intermedia, and film;
typography, book art, and publishing. He shaped a theory of the arts for
our times. He explained his theory in an extraordinary series of books and
essays. His explanations opened a world of artistic territory for those
around him. At different times, Higgins described these worlds as
experimental art or the arts of the new mentality. The most descriptive
term was the word that Higgins himself gave to the English language:
Higgins coined the term "intermedia" in the mid-sixties to describe the
tendency of an increasing number of the most interesting artists to cross
the boundaries of recognized media or to fuse the boundaries of art with
media that had not previously been considered art forms. With
characteristic modesty, Higgins noted that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had used
the term over a century and a half before he himself independently
Higgins was too modest. Coleridge used the term "intermedium" once --
apparently once only - to refer to a specific issue in the work of Edmund
Spenser. Coleridge's use of the word "intermedium" in Lecture Three: 'On
Spenser' suggests a distant kinship to Higgins's construction of the term
"intermedia." Nevertheless, Coleridge's usage was different in meaning and
Coleridge referred to a specific point lodged between two kinds of meaning
in the use of an art medium. Coleridge's word "intermedium" was a singular
term, used almost as an adjectival noun. In contrast, Higgins's word
"intermedia" refers to a tendency in the arts that became both a range of
art forms and a way of approaching the arts.
Higgins said that he might have read the Coleridge essay in his years at
Yale or Columbia, taking it in subconsciously. This may be true. Even so,
Higgins coined a new word in the term "intermedia," giving it the current
form and contemporary meaning it holds to this day. Higgins went on to
elaborate the issues and ideas involved in intermedia through a program of
artistic research and writing that spanned nearly four decades.
Higgins was an artist as well as a theorist. He approached experimental art
in a genuinely experimental spirit. In essence, he constructed an extensive
research program of ideas and issues ripe for exploration. He then posited
the cases and examples that would explore them. These cases and examples
formed the body of his work.
To place the radical and experimental nature of Higgins's work in proper
perspective, one must compare it with a scientific research program.
Although he was interested in the operation of chance, he did not rely on
chance effects. One of his famous one-sentence manifestos was "If you
haven't done it twice, you haven't done it." Higgins placed great emphasis
on learning and mastering the specific artistic skills needed to undertake
his experiments. In some cases, he only put these skills to use once or
twice, but he felt the mastery of skills essential if art works were to
fulfill the experimental goals for which he shaped them.
He was scientifically rigorous in documenting his results. He accepted and
critically analyzed his failed experiments as well as his successes. Rather
than bury his failures as most artists do, he often published or exhibited
to demonstrate a larger program of ideas.
Most important, he challenged the scope of an art world that insisted on
artists who confined themselves to the limits of a single discipline or
medium. Scholars and critics with no stake in the art market admired
Higgins's extraordinary experimental spirit and his rigorous integrity.
Sadly, these virtues did not suit him to an art world interested in the
repetitious production and sale of recognizable artifacts. Like soap or
automobiles, art is marketed under brand names. Salable art is expected to
embody brand values. Many of the critics and curators who see themselves as
opponents of market mechanisms and corporate branding expect art to be
packaged in readily identifiable formats and brand-value packages. Dick
Higgins was not suited to a life in their world.
Critics and curators should have been excited by Higgins's work and the
range of meanings he helped to shape. Why weren't they? Higgins himself
considered some aspects of problem on page 227 of his last book, Modernism
Since Postmodernism in a note describing how Fluxus artists have been
systematically excluded from the art market at the very moment their work
has made them increasingly famous. Rigorous analysis of the intellectual
foundations of experimental art by critics and curators might have made a
difference. Then, if more critics and curators understood the intellectual
foundations of experimental art, the art world would take a different shape
As it is, Dick Higgins was concerned with far more than his own work. He
was engaged in the work and ideas of the colleagues he respected. This was
a major reason for his work as a publisher and critic. His role as a public
thinker was the basis of Higgins's great influence. He helped to create an
international community of art and knowledge through two major forums for
intellectual dialogue and artistic interaction, the laboratory of ideas
that comprised Fluxus and Something Else Press. These became a
meeting-point and breeding ground for some of the best and most innovative
experimental art of our era, in music and performance, in visual art and
Comparing Higgins with Cage and Duchamp has become common for a
knowledgeable few. Higgins holds his own in this comparison. He also holds
his own because of the important differences between his career and theirs.
The world will never finally take his measure as an artist because he will
never complete the program of works he planned to undertake. Consequently,
his potential as an artist will never be known. With the possible exception
of the well known Danger Music series, few of Higgins's works rank with
Duchamp's masterworks. This is partly because Higgins was not given to the
memorable single gesture. It is also because times have changed. They have
changed, in great part, due to the triple influences of Duchamp, Cage, and
Higgins. However, Duchamp emerged and found his platform in the Old World
of an art market built on the industrial economy of the Guggenheims, the
Rockefellers, bankers, and robber barons such as J. P. Morgan and the
pre-philanthropic Andrew Carnegie. Higgins found his platform in the New
World of the postindustrial economy, the first moments of an information
era defined by Daniel Bell and Marshall McLuhan.
Lord Duveen and Bernard Berenson shaped the art market of Duchamp's
industrial world. Duveen was an inspired merchant. Berenson was a
connoisseur of great talent and questionable ethics. These two were role
models of a sort for the people who replaced them in successive waves as
the wheelers and dealers of the art market and the critics who serve them.
While time and the patina of history didn't quite catch up with Duchamp's
market while he was still alive, his fame, and his native skills as a
wheeler and dealer himself made it possible for him to survive in good
style. Higgins lacked those skills.
Despite the seminal impact of his ideas, therefore, few of the artists and
composers whom Dick Higgins influenced are aware of Higgins as a source of
their ideas and work. Neither, for the most part, are the critics and
historians of contemporary art. This, too, is a result of several decades
in which scholarship in contemporary art has functioned as a tale wagged by
the dog of the market. This will be remedied when Higgins's work is given
proper historical study.
The outlines of the history are already clear.
It is not yet possible to evaluate Higgins's work as a visual artist. This
will surely change. Given the fact that Higgins's body of work will remain
incomplete, it is hard to say how dramatically our understanding of the
work will change. Even so, his art will inevitably be reconsidered. I still
recall the time in the late 1960s when a friend of mine was offered an
original Duchamp for $300. Joseph Beuys was an eccentric art teacher in
those days and the original Fluxus edition of George Brecht's Water Yam
cost $5.00. Duchamp's reputation wasn't always what it is now. Neither was
Beuys's or Brecht's. Dick Higgins's reputation as an artist is likely to
grow in the years to come.
As inconclusive as one must be about Higgins's reputation as an artist,
however, it is clearly possible to measure the impact of his ideas on the
arts of our time. Dick Higgins was one of the few artists since Duchamp who
had the capacity to plan and complete a comprehensive program of idea-based
art. Unlike Duchamp, whose program was expressed in enigmatic notes and
elliptical comments, Higgins was a skilled theorist who presented ideas and
concerns in an expansive corpus of sophisticated, articulate publications.
As Cage did until he was quite old, Higgins lived in genteel poverty.
Unlike Cage, Higgins was not old enough to have been forgotten and
rediscovered. Some differences might have been rectified by a longer life.
As it is, many who understand Duchamp's work and Cage's ideas hold Higgins
in high esteem as a figure unique in twentieth century art.
To understand why Higgins is unique in our time, one must look back in
history. The explanation will not be found among the composers of the
Romantic era nor the artists of the Renaissance, but among the humanists
who transformed the Middle Ages into the modern world. To find a proper
comparison for Dick Higgins, one must look to Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Like Erasmus, Higgins's work attracted many of the best minds of his era.
His thinking and his work ranged wide and deep over several fields. He
exchanged letters and correspondence with a wide circle of colleagues. And,
in notable similarity to Erasmus, Higgins harnessed the power of the
printing press in the service of his theories. Time and context gave
Higgins's works different meaning. Like Erasmus, he viewed life and
learning in the broadest perspective.
Higgins read widely. Aided by a near-photographic memory, superb analytical
skills, and a fine sense of rhetoric, he made good use of nearly everything
he read. Higgins could have said -- as Erasmus did -- "My home is where I
have my library."
As it was with Erasmus, principles held prime place in Higgins's life.
Principles informed his art, his intellectual activities, and the way he
conducted his life. He was a human being whose character reflected the
natural dignity of moral grandeur. This dignity combined with talent to
make him admirable in the deepest sense of the word.
Like Erasmus, Higgins was committed to the knowledge of past and present.
He understood classical and modern concerns and he studied prehistoric and
postmodern phenomena. His books reveal a broad range of interests. Among
them were the first major historical study of pattern poetry; monographs on
a sixteenth-century Italian philosopher, a seventeenth-century English
theologian-poet, and a pair of eighteenth-century German critics. As well
as these, he wrote on modern composers, poets, and designers. At Something
Else Press, Higgins built a large public platform for Fluxus and he was
responsible for the great Gertrude Stein revival of the 1960s. There is
The next few years will see a decent collection of Dick Higgins's writings.
This will be followed by a complete collection of annotated works, a major
retrospective exhibition with full and proper catalogue and, finally, the
intellectual and artistic biography he deserves. As important and useful as
these will be, no catalogue of facts will contain Dick Higgins. The
critical, conceptual and artistic histories that will be written about Dick
Higgins must inevitably be abstracted from the intricate weave of Dick's
human qualities. No biography, however respectful, can incarnate the
feeling and tone of a person whose death affects so many. Nothing remains
but words, thoughts, memory, and reflection. Yet they are a powerful
presence and each memory and reflection on the man opens new horizons.
These are horizons of idea and experience. Through them, the man, his work,
and his words take on new meaning.
It is Christmas now. Here in the Swedish countryside, the weather has been
dark and gray for weeks with an occasional hour of piercing sunshine. The
last time I saw Dick, we went walking here, down the same road where I go
walking every day. It was spring then, going on summer. As so often before,
we talked about a hundred things. We shared an on-going conversation that
crossed years of multiple connections. The topics were often the same from
each time to the next. There was always change, though, and the changes in
each conversation chart the changes we made through life and time.
We strolled around the village church, an austere and beautiful structure
that is now eight centuries old. Then we went to the forest, the Priest's
Woods, a tract of land that belongs to the Diocese of Lund. The forest was
given to Lund Cathedral over a thousand years ago, when King Knut the Holy
of Denmark established the cathedral here under the guidance of Absalon,
the founding bishop of Copenhagen. Dick liked walking in these history-rich
woods, and he loved the flow of history.
That afternoon, we spoke of many things. As always, we fished in the river
of history. But personal issues were more important. Foremost was his
health. Dick had been in a bad automobile accident only a year before,
together with Alison Knowles and Jessica Higgins. He was recovering, but he
wasn't yet feeling great. This was the first long walk he'd taken in a long
time. He was worried about finances, too, and work.
We also spoke of happiness and interesting things: Fluxus, old times at
Something Else Press, Dick's next show, my latest project, Hannah Higgins's
book, Dick's new book, my new book, getting married (me), being married
again (Dick), Dick's day with Bengt af Klintberg the week before. For me,
it was a day like many days since I first met Dick in 1966. We'd see each
other after a separation of a few months or a few years. In between, we'd
correspond or talk on the telephone. The distance in time and space always
seemed about the same. We'd catch up and go on.
Dick wrote me just a few days before he died. He was at work on a new book
titled The Theory of the Book. I was looking forward to the manuscript. In
the 1960s, we sent manuscripts back and forth as typewritten or xeroxed
documents. We even used such now-ancient technologies as carbon copy,
mimeograph, and spirit duplicator. By the late 1980s, we were sending
beautifully printed desktop documents and computer diskettes. These days,
it was email and attached files, along with links pointing to resources on
the World Wide Web. Through all the years, our discourse was the same.
Dick was a model for me, a model of everything one may aspire to be as an
intellectual, as a man of dignity. I didn't agree with Dick on everything
nor did I need to. That's not the role of a model. When two kindred minds
meet in difference, they learn and grow as much as when they meet in
similarity. One of the things I loved about Dick was the way he cherished
the life of the mind. We could debate freely. We could trade ideas,
sources, and suggestions for reading. We could share thoughts for our next
debate. Because he cherished the life of the mind and the life of ideas,
Dick became a model and an intellectual partner to many of us across the
multiple disciplines of knowledge and around the world. That, too, is why
he is well compared with Erasmus.
As an intellectual presence, Dick Higgins is still alive for me, towering,
and grand. He remains an embodiment of ideas and issues, a mind engaged in
the virtue and value of ideas without consideration of personal advantage.
Some days, I find myself thinking he is still here. In the life of the
mind, he is.
There is another Dick Higgins, and I will not see him again, at last not in
this place. That Dick Higgins headed his letters and email messages with a
little reminder of what happened on the day in history. That was the Dick
Higgins who knew how many years of effort and negotiation it takes to
realize an exhibition or a book, the Dick Higgins who always sent a cordial
note of congratulations. That Dick Higgins would remind an artist irked
over a trifling error that he or she could have avoided the problem by
answering a query two years earlier. That was the Dick Higgins whose
sensitive and subtle analysis of George Maciunas's typography was grounded
as much in his friendship for George as in his sense of type. And that was
the Dick Higgins who could take you on a guided tour of Southern
California, outlining everything from the location of 18th-century Spanish
stagecoach rest stations to the geological cleft marking the San Andreas
That was the Dick Higgins known and loved around the world. Just as he had
friends around the world, he was a public figure in many nations. His death
occasioned obituaries and notices in many places. One appeared in the New
York Times. A far more perceptive essay appeared in Sydsvenska Dagbladet,
the newspaper of the Skåne region around Lund, where Dick had recently been
visiting professor at the Lund University Department of Theoretical and
"For me," wrote curator and art critic Jean Sellem, "Dick Higgins was a
direct contact with modernism, a brilliant, many-sided and productive
poly-artist with a subtle and poetic imagination. He was a visionary, a
humble man with high thoughts on the deepest issues in life."
So he was to many of us. He was a friend, a colleague, and an exemplar. He
was an explorer of new worlds, a pilgrim.
"One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth
abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth
to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth
about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth
again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the
sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they
-- Ecclesiastes 1:4 - 1:7
Thank you, Dick, for everything.
An earlier version of this note appeared in Umbrella, Vol. 21, No. 3/4,
December 1998, pp. 106-9. Reprinted courtesy of Judith A. Hoffberg and
above copied from: http://www.fluxus.org/higgins/ken.htm