Pop Art and Fluxus: The Necessity for a Commodified Art

Andy Warhol’s Pop Art and the International Fluxus era are best described as emphasizing attitudes of artists towards the mass consumption of art in the 1960s. Although Pop Art did not emphasize any direct participation or accessibility from the audience that it is directed towards, its images of famous celebrities were well known. Much like Pop Art, “Fluxus advocated anti-art, [but] it also, paradoxically, commodified itself” (Hopkins 108). To make art for everybody, it almost required “commoditization” because then it will become more easily accessible, thus engagement with art is entirely open to the audience, and even imposed. They both also exude a humor and play, perhaps at the expense of mass industrial processes and their effects on consumers of art. Warhol’s Pop Art embraced this concept from its conception, only through the mask of “high” art, or fine art. Although both modes of producing art aimed at creating art easily accessible and understood by the masses for who it was intended, the ways Pop Art and Fluxus achieved this goal are fundamentally different.

Gold Marilyn Monroe Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987) 1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 6′ 11 1/4″ x 57″ (211.4 x 144.7 cm). Gift of Philip Johnson. © 2013 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Warhol’s Pop Art advocates the idea that nothing is “original,” that is to say, no one concept or idea that an artist “comes up with” is “unique,” thus out of reach to the general consumerist public. Warhol’s Pop Art expresses this explicitly by painting the celebrity Marilyn Monroe several times. These are painted from original photographs, a medium that is easily distributable and found in the newspapers. Warhol portrayed a worshipping of commodity culture through his silkscreen paintings, as seen in Gold Marilyn Monroe. In Gold Marilyn Monroe, Warhol paints an image Marilyn Monroe’s face, characterized by bold solid colors to give her a minimal amount of dimension. It is interesting to notice that her face is so easily recognizable by the few colors and dimensions given to her image, because she is that iconic and embedded into the culture this painting is meant for. The rest of the canvas is painted in gold, giving Monroe’s image a sense of preciousness, as well as distance from the average art admirer. A plate of gold surrounds her image, and she is unobtainable by the average consumer, yet she is worshipped.

“The “sincerity” of Pop Art” (Hamilton 344) is something to consider when viewing and interpreting art made by Warhol that was essentially screen printed directly from a photograph so easily accessible by anybody. It is almost difficult to take a painting like Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe seriously because it seemingly glorifies a major celebrity of the time, but it is also causing isolation on the part of the viewer. Richard Hamilton says, “Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience)… expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy,… glamorous, big business” (Hamilton 344). Gold Marilyn Monroe does not seem to agree with all of these characteristics because a painting like this one is not “low cost,” nor “expendable.” In fact, Gold Mariliyn Monroe, as is true for many of Warhol’s artworks, attempts to merge the “glamorous” and “mass produced” through a means of elitist “high” art.

Ay-O. Finger Box from Fluxkit. 1965, Fluxus Edition announced 1964.

Fluxus artworks aimed to make “art for everybody” through a different method. George Maciunas initiated an organized international collective of artists throughout the world to create art that represents, “internationalism, experimentalism… play or gags… globalism… intermedia, experimentalism, chance, playfulness, simplicity, implicativeness…” (Smith 121). All of these proposed qualities of Fluxus are dependent on communities of people who enjoy creating art and try to do something different with it, or just do whatever they think is fun or thought provoking. Fluxus also fundamentally works “against the traditional relationship [in] art of the passivity of the viewer and the domination of the object” (Smith 134). The Fluxkit, assembled by George Maciunas, is an example of a collection of artworks that the “viewer” can actively interact and play with. The artworks included in the Fluxkit featured many objects (films, toys, games, etc.) made by artists that were a part of Fluxus. Ay-O’s Finger Box, a part of the Fluxkit, contains a small hole at the top, which is meant for the art admirer to put their finger through and feel an unknown object within the box. The Fluxkit playfully integrates the two experiences together in a way that Warhol’s Pop Art doesn’t do.

Fluxkit, 1964/65 George Maciunas (American, 1931-1978) Fluxus Collective (International, active 1960s-late 1970s). Fluxkit, 1964/65. Fluxus edition, assembled by George Maciunas (American, 1931-1978). Mixed media (vinyl attaché case), printed matter. 11 x 17 5/16 x 14 15/16 in. (28 x 44 x 38 cm) opened. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, Detroit / Photo: Walker Art Center

It is important to remember, “much Fluxus ‘mass-production’ was pledged not to profit-making but to the elimination of artistic ‘auras’”(Hopkins 109). This means of producing artwork is fundamentally different from that of Warhol’s Pop Art. There is a separation between the artist and the artwork, and this idea makes the artwork much bigger than the artist. This is a fundamental part of making artworks conceptually and practically accessible by anybody. “Although Fluxus’s nature can be traced to the works and artists associated with it, these are not exclusive determinants of Fluxus, but rather the residue and artifacts of its existence” (Smith 122). The art itself and the concepts behind them are more important than the name an artist makes for themselves.

Benjamin Buchloh argues that Warhol, “freed himself… from obsolete concepts of originality and authorship and had developed a sense of the necessity for “teamwork” and “collaboration” and a… commonality of “ideas”—those universally prevailing forms of social production from which, traditionally, only the specialized and condensed talent of the artist as unique and singular creator had been exempted” (Buchloh 7). One idea or icon does not belong exclusively to the artist and those who can afford to consume “high” art. Oldenberg seems to articulate very well key common goals that represent Pop Art. He declares, “I am for U.S. Government Inspected Art, Grade A art, Regular Price art… Extra Fancy art, Ready-to-eat art, Best-for-less art, Ready-to-cook art, Fully cleaned art…” (Oldenburg 387). He declares an almost non-elitist type of art, which is consumable by anybody. However, the art of Warhol does not only appear to celebrate commodified celebrities and tragic events pictured in the newspapers, he appears to distort it and emphasize our desensitized and superficial relationship to the subjects depicted.

The relationship between Pop Art and Fluxus are present in the way they were presented to the public, in that they were both “commodified”. Warhol created paintings that were hung in museums and galleries and Fluxus works were produced in a way that encouraged an international collective of artists to come together in their various regions throughout the world to have fun and create art. Fluxus was also in a way inspired by what Pop Art was doing largely at this time because of the idea that “mechanical reproduction created the conditions for a politicized (socialistic) art for the masses” (Hopkins 98). Warhol emphasized this idea through his art and by saying, “mechanical means are today, and using them I can get more art to more people. Art should be for everyone”(Buchloh 5). Both seemed to exist for the masses and to question (and perhaps condemn) industry, but it could only do so through a mode of “mass production.”

In Pop Art, there is a separation from the concepts of the artist and the idea. Pop Art also did not advocate direct participation from the masses like Fluxus was. The Fluxkit was made and assembled by Maciunas and with small “toys” and games made by artists that could be directly interacted with, unlike a work of art created by Warhol, which were primarily paintings to be hung on a wall. That is not to say that Warhol did not encourage an environment where people could get together to create works of art themselves. But, he did it on a much smaller scale than was done by Fluxus, an international collective attitude towards art. In Fluxus, the participant is invited and required to take part in the art works. In Pop art, the inclusion of the viewer is imposed. A statement is being made about the masses, about their desire for possession of commodities, rather than giving them power over the artwork itself.

One cannot always take the resulting artworks of Pop Art and Fluxus too seriously. So who was more successful in their goals? In this sense, both attitudes toward art and mass production, are alike, but the way they appealed to the masses were fundamentally different. There is also a shortcoming to a fundamental aim that both artworks like the Fluxkit and Gold Marilyn Monroe seem to represent: accessibility to the masses. Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe solely did this by the iconic image of a celebrity during the 1950s and early 1960s. On the other hand, the Fluxkit, assembled by George Maciunas, made it into the hands of people who wanted to have a direct interaction and possession of artworks. However, Fluxkits only made it into the hands of few art admirers. In the end, these works ended up in elite museums, only to be gazed at because of their “uniqueness” and “preciousness” to art history. They did fulfill goals they were originally made for at one point in time, but they now serve as artwork, which is inaccessible and belonging to an exclusive and expensive collection of art that must be preserved.

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