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date: 30 November 2022



  • Simon Anderson

Not a movement so much as an attitude or artistic position bound up with Modernism itself, anti-art is opposition to art from within: negative responses by artists to coercive constraints or perceived orthodoxy in the creative realm. Dada and Fluxus were groups closely associated with anti-art, but as a contrarian attitude rather than a movement, it has taken many forms since the late 19th century, from a rhetorical proposition to a life of dedicated activism. Although not aligned with religious iconophobia or fundamentalist iconoclasm; destruction, political action, and impiety are among common characteristics, along with often acerbic humor. Born of Modernism, at the extremity of those rejections or refusals that shaped and closed the era, anti-art shadowed and made visible some contradictions in aesthetics and in capitalist culture.

Insults to convention were common by 1896, when Stephane Mallarme’s poem Un Coup de Des audaciously broke the rules of prosody and Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi personified the anti-hero; when art societies from Parisian Les Incoherents to New York students’ Society of Fakirs parodied and punctured the pretensions of art establishments. Although none of these was an outright attack on art, they provided some of the mores and methods taken up by later artists. More forthright was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 founding and manifesto of Italian Futurism, which called for the flooding of museums and burning of libraries, supporting dynamism, violence, and mechanical speed as operating principles. The Futurists’ theatrically confrontational publicity campaign was one of the tactics adopted into Dada.

Anti-art coalesced around Dada. A combination of cynicism and disgust with World War I and the values that continued to enable it, together with a yearning toward the endless possibilities of the embryonic avant-garde, made Dada the true model for anti-art, with manifold drives and in-built contradictions. When Dada was conceived in Zurich in 1916, Hugo Ball wanted it to contradict the world order, and Tristan Tzara assisted with a torrent of ludicrous irony. Richard Huelsenbeck and other German Dadaists declared it a destructive revolutionary force, while in New York, Marcel Duchamp considered it a serviceable purgative. His Fountain (1917, lost; editioned replica, 1964; Ottawa, N.G.) exemplified key characteristics: social, moral, artistic standards broken; the status of artist and artwork destabilized; an evanescent gesture sustained as myth; and serious challenges issued in humorous disguise.

Essentially anarchic, Dada’s all-embracing refusal ensured its resilience, and anti-art began to appear after the end of World War II, cast as Neo-Dada, as when in 1952, John Cage’s 4’33” sought to make more interesting music through silence. In 1957 the Situationist International first gathered in Italy to promote the supersession of all art by constructing an everyday life so freely lived as to render recognizable culture unnecessary (see Situationism). In 1958 Yves Klein exhibited, and later marketed, Le Vide, in an apparently empty Parisian gallery; and in London Gustav Metzger (1926–2017) proposed an auto-destructive art, beginning his path to co-organizing an important international Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in London in 1966. From 1959 New York’s NO! artists transgressed beyond acceptability with pinups, doom, and fake excrement, and in 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement as an art multiple. The ubiquity of such provocations led to anti-art, translated as Han-geijutsu, becoming a generic term for experimental art in 1960s Japan, where it was characterized as a fall into the quotidian, and was inevitably protested by anti-anti-artists.

Fluxus first aimed to anthologize these international upheavals; the name was also intended to widen and collectivize agency, at the expense of individual art careers. Fluxus events represented new modalities for aesthetic experience; and Fluxus multiples enabled and promoted more again, while simultaneously rejecting traditional practices in art making, marketing, and appreciation. Fluxus also evolved new contradictions within the increasingly convoluted concept of anti-art: not only was the first Fluxus concert held in a museum, but the mooted mass multiples were laboriously hand-assembled, and though nominally collective enterprises, both the ideological united front and the pastiche mail-order empire of Fluxus were creations precariously maintained by one individual. Fluxus also pioneered new uses of language-as-art that confused traditional distinctions between proposition and act of opposition. For example, the exploratory Piano Activities by Philip Corner (b 1933) scandalized Wiesbaden in 1962 when the poetic role-playing of his score led to the piano’s violent destruction.

An artist’s refusal to make art likewise conflates extreme art and political action. In 1969 the Art Worker’s Coalition (AWC) was formed in New York to strengthen artists in their dealings with institutional power. Their activities included picketing, sit-ins, and actions that led to some voluntary museum closures. A planned Art Strike was of limited success but encouraged fresh opposition to the exploitation of artists. An offshoot of AWC, the Guerrilla Art Action Group (1969–1976), created aggressive anti-art actions, intended to incite witnesses into a confrontation with their own complicity both the art world and the broader sociopolitical establishment. Contemporaneously, New York artist Lee Lozano began her own, individual General Strike Piece, gradually withdrawing altogether from the art world and from the society of women, as part of an artwork furthering her personal revolution. A different art strike again was envisioned in 1974 for a London exhibit by Gustav Metzger, who intended a mass cessation of all artistic work from 1977 to 1980, as an ultimate challenge to state and corporate interference in culture.

In 1981 British artist Stewart Home (b 1962) founded Smile magazine and used this vehicle to revive Metzger’s idea in international mail-art networks (see Correspondence art). Understanding not only the hopeless nature of this appeal for three years without art (1990–1993) and acknowledging their role in the commodification of the precedent, they nevertheless aimed to raise critical questions about art’s production, distribution, and consumption and hoped to promote postal networking.

Mail-artists associated with Neoism had earlier added to the anti-art panoply when, in 1978, Canadian mail artist David Zack created Monty Cantsin, an artist whose name anyone was free to exploit. Home’s magazine Smile was also open for anyone’s use, and shortly thereafter he created Karen Eliot, a counterpart to Cantsin. Since 2004 Claire Fontaine, an anonymous Paris-based collective described as a ready-made artist using a commercially known name, has exacerbated confusion over the status of the artist, and, like Austrian artist Oliver Ressler’s politically oppositional documents of social crises made by and with participants, has mounted sophisticated institutional critiques from within, using an intertextual weave of anti-art history and theory in creative defiance of contradiction.

If, as Bakunin attested, the urge to destroy is a creative passion, then any triumph of anti-art must inevitably take a turn in the flow of art history and in the ceaseless cycle of production and consumption, creation and destruction, that enlivens art.


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