Essays

A Radical Artist’s Journey from Fluxus to Full-On Commercialism

A retrospective devoted to pioneering Fluxus artist Ben Vautier tracks his evolution from a radical thinker and early conceptual artist to salable brand name.

Ben Vautier, “Art = Ben” (1963), acrylic on canvas, Collection of Jon and Joanne Hendricks (all images courtesy the artist and Musée Maillol, unless indicated otherwise)
Ben Vautier, “Art = Ben” (1963), acrylic on canvas, Collection of Jon and Joanne Hendricks (all images courtesy the artist and Musée Maillol, unless indicated otherwise)

PARIS — Perhaps the egotism that claims life-as-art has always existed, but until provocateur Ben Vautier (best known by his first name) and others in the 20th century made a hard point of this theoretical position, it had endured mainly as a subject of interest for lifestyle, opera, and architectural theorists. Particularly starting in the late 19th century, some artists and architects wanted to expunge the differentiation between major and minor art in the creation of a total-art by centering art in human life. Therefore, architecture, which has an immediate and immersive sway on human existence, was the prominent art with which other artistic propensities (such as the art and craft objects within it) were to be thoroughly integrated.

Vautier’s égoïste style of life-as-art work has greatly expanded on the early modernists’ drive for all-encompassing, total-art fullness, perhaps to the point where his type of grand, flamboyant gesture has become increasingly obvious as a contributing factor to the global rise of pop zombie classicism. This is the type of art that is key to integrating the world’s diverse and discrete cultures into a flat monoculture. In so doing, Vautier’s hubristic verve has been increasingly trivializing (one might even say erasing) the once important concept of high art as a cognitive artifact of tasteful discrimination.

Installation view of Ben: Tout est art? at the Musée Maillol (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Ben: Tout est art? at the Musée Maillol (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

If one accepts this premise about the dangers of a continuous ascendance toward global pop monoculture, Vautier’s retrospective at the Musée Maillol, Tout est art?, raises a wealth of philosophical issues for deliberation that may benefit our art and even our social ethics. It certainly offers the opportunity to review the premise of total life-as-art as a relentless, consumerist drive requiring a philosophic element that anti-capitalist criticism, a-historical art curation, and anti-art postures do not possess.

In light of the global rise of the use of art objects as an alternative form of wealth management, it is worth recalling Theodor Adorno’s assertive view that the radical potential of art lies in formal innovations that refuse to allow its passive consumption, demanding instead an active and critical intellectual involvement in opposition to unthinking assimilation. These days, the once liberating assertion of gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”) ideals that led to life-as-art assumptions has turned ever more commercially mainstream, its cultural impact consequently souring. There appears to be a need to shape a more critical, spiritual, conceptual, and electronic media-specific opinion of total-art propositions within the current context of global capital. Under reconsideration must be the falsity and dangers of (supposedly) totalizing concepts and their darker connotations, particularly those aspects of totalizing ideologies that have tended to impede reconfigurations of their boundary definitions from achieving a greater reflexivity.

Ben Vautier, “Festival Fluxus de l’art total et du comportement à Nice” (1963)
Ben Vautier, “Festival Fluxus de l’art total et du comportement à Nice” (1963)

Jasper Johns, rejecting totalizing terms in advance, has written of Marcel Duchamp’s work as a “field where language, thought, and vision act on one another.” Vautier, however, surpasses this field metaphor for a far more triumphant, all-enclosing metaphysics. Art and technology historian Ina Blom claims in The Fluxus Reader that Vautier disrupts the comfort of the standard avant-garde ideal of totality as spiritual unity because his totality is about his own death. She takes as important an obvious but central point in his oeuvre: that the world resists his total appropriation because he cannot actually hand-sign everything in it and thus, for Vautier, the material and physical presence of his signature or handwriting is all-important as a sign of frustrating lack. By seeing one indiscriminate display of Vautier’s handwriting, one is supposed to be reminded of all the millions of spaces onto which his hand cannot reach. However, I don’t see a reflection on death, absence, and frustration in the work at the Musée Maillol — quite the opposite. Just consider the painting “Être” (1975), which simply says “Being.”

Ben Vautier, “Être” (1975), acrylic on canvas
Ben Vautier, “Être” (1975), acrylic on canvas

Total Recall

Vautier was once an intense and polarizing theoretician of Fluxus. Ad Reinhardt, one of his greatest intellectual opponents, proclaimed in his theoretical text “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” that “Art is Art, and Life is Life,” and “Art is Art and Everything Else is Everything Else.” It is remarkable to me that both of these positions share a totalizing position that is less than subtle or transactional. They both remind us that totalizing maxims have often been fatuously and unequivocally sententious in their urge toward controlling domination, embellished (as they seem to always be) with a sort of self-importance and fallacious, sweeping universalism that entangles the difficult idea of the multiple into the simple and unitary. Reinhardt and Vautier’s positions both feel false to me. What feels true is that an artist stands inside her or his art and sees the entire world through the aesthetic choices and explanations that are the basis of her or his art.

Vautier’s total-art philosophy of harmonizing and engulfing the wildness of life under the unifying concept of art can also be (indirectly) explained in Adrien Henri’s important book Total Art. Henri ties the total-art approach to an extension of the philosophy of Romanticism in that it proclaims a sweeping, transcendent gesamt (“total” or “whole”) resolution of diversity that is all-embracing and envelopes (supposedly) all aspects of our lives. A piece like “Geste: détruire mes oeuvres d’art” (“Gesture: Destroy My Artworks,” 1961/1972) might suggest otherwise, but Vautier’s work is not supposed to be about a return to Romantic expressionism. It is about the anxieties of the ego. Yet I cannot dismiss his adoption of a transcendent, all-embracing, total-art ideal that sprang from monotheistic religious submission into Romanticism (with its Neo-Platonic roots) through the Arts and Craft Movement, flowering as the reason d’être of the Art Nouveau movement. Stripped down but smoothly persisting as transcendent concord, this embodiment of a general longing for sweeping synthesis became the central motivating ideal of orthodox Modernism’s unified, reductive model.

Ben Vautier, “Tout est art” ("All is Art," 1961), acrylic on wood, collection of the artist
Ben Vautier, “Tout est art” (“All is Art,” 1961), acrylic on wood, collection of the artist

To grasp my point about Vautier’s transcendent overreach, one need only to glance at the title of a key écriture word painting in this show, “Tout est art” (“All Is Art”) from 1961. Though this bombastic statement is problematic if not patently false, with it Vautier declares in an unfiltered style of utterance that the world and art make up a unified and absolute whole; and that everything, in post-Duchampian fashion, constitutes art. Vautier does this by assuming the principle of intention that informs Duchamp’s artistic leap into an approach where anything can be art if the artist intends it as such. Duchamp wanted “to put art back in the service of the mind,” but Vautier moves to surpass mindful art with life by dumbing art down to habitual, unmindful, banal events.

Vautier continues to state this grandiose “all is art” speculation as fact in a Nietzschean, will-to-power way that plays well to mass media and pop culture. Particularly during the current political season, such blowhard hyperbole seems almost mainstream. With “Tout est art,” Vautier puts forth a paradigmatic model of art as an all-over, engulfing, omnipresent agent. I find this conceptually odd and slightly ridiculous coming from a key member of one of the first genuinely heterogeneous international art movements since Dada.

Total Bull

I also find Vautier’s “all is art” mantra untenable, as the validity of any totalizing theory came under severe attack from Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism, which showed that concepts and images of totality were always already heavily laden with specific cultural values and implicated in networks of prejudiced and invested power. That may have been articulated most forcefully in 1984 with the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s tract The Postmodern Condition. In it, he emphasized the anti-holistic aspects of French Post-Structuralist theory and their opposition to metaphysical wholes and grand narratives (theories that provide totalizing explanations). Soon after, Frederic Jameson lamented the lack of distance between postmodern theory and the schizophrenic capitalist society that generated it. He argued that we needed another theory capable of representing the complex realities of a global economic order that, as he saw it, exploits the vast majority.

Installation view of Ben: Tout est art? at the Musée Maillol (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Ben: Tout est art? at the Musée Maillol (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Previously, Structuralist concepts of totality led French Post-Structuralists to formulate the impossibility of maintaining total transcendent meanings, and this trend has carried over into the outstanding work of Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze opposed transcendence in favor of “immanence,” and his rhizomatic and labyrinthine view of postindustrial global society takes into account the rich ensemble of relations possible — the diversity, the unexpected links, the ruptures, the amalgamations, and the connected heterogeneity we all know through the electronic flux in our daily lives. So I think it fair to say that Vautier’s conception of total-art as a unified exemplification of his overriding mindset and worldview no longer holds.

Totally Rad

Laboratoire 32, Le Magasin, in 1958 (© Ben Vautier, ADAGP Paris)
Laboratoire 32, Le Magasin, in 1958 (© Ben Vautier, ADAGP Paris)

However, Vautier’s theories did once hold sway. George Maciunas, who shaped and pushed Fluxus, called Vautier the “100% Fluxus man.” The year he gave as the official genesis of the Fluxus group — with founding members La Monte Young, George Brecht, Alison Knowles, Arthur Køpcke, Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Benjamin Patterson, Karl Erik Welin, Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, Wolf Vostell, Jackson Mac Low, and Vautier — is 1962. That is also the year of the Festival of Misfits, which the Nouveau réalisme artist Daniel Spoerri organized in London. There, Vautier became a living sculpture, taking up residence for two weeks in Gallery One, where he ate, slept, waved through the window at passersby, wrote, and spoke on the phone. The space was packed with text panels (at once crude, brutal, playful, expressive and political) that Vautier also sold through his record shop in Nice.

Through the shop, Vautier incorporated impertinent anti-art acts and language into his all-enveloping artistic posture. His short, silent movie “Je ne vois rien, je n’entends rien, je ne dis rien” (1966) makes this point well. Building on the totalizing rigor of “Tout est art,” he became one of the few artists since Duchamp and Yves Klein who had the capacity to plan and complete a comprehensive program of idea-based art. Through exchanges with an audience that included live public performances of everyday actions and the transformation of these conceptual exchanges into handwritten word slogans (which could in turn be written on things as artworks for sale), Vautier propagated an idea of what he called “total art.” He first formalized this process through Laboratoire 32, his record shop-cum-art gallery in Nice (later renamed Galerie Ben Doute de Tout, or “Ben Doubts Everything Gallery”), and then through the Theatre Total performance group, which he founded in 1963 following the Nice Fluxus festival. (He also released a record that year, titled “Disque de Musique Total,” which I have been unable to hear.)

Ben Vautier, “Regardez-moi cela suffit: Promenade des Anglais, Nice” (1963) (© Michel Moch, ADAGP, Paris)
Ben Vautier, “Regardez-moi cela suffit: Promenade des Anglais, Nice” (1963) (© Michel Moch, ADAGP, Paris)

The Nice Fluxus festival of 1963 was largely shaped by Vautier and was notable for adapting Fluxus event principles for the street, adding an important element to the movement’s lexicon that would be expanded and used regularly in future happenings in Europe, America, and Japan. Vautier’s once edgy and important theory of total-art poses a plurality of philosophical issues for deliberation that deal with the history of metaphor and comparison. Given the roughly 30 manifestos on total-art featured on his QuickTime-heavy website (spanning from 1960 to 1974), he could be a pivotal figure of theoretical nuance in the network of idea-based artists. Yet so far, as an entertaining critical theorist, Vautier is only really credited for (supposedly) merging art into life by abstracting and then concretizing the profound artistic and intellectual ferment of Duchamp, Klein, and Kurt Schwitters — the latter of whom, in 1947 began work on the “Merz Barn,” his own form of what he called “total art.”

Today, it is more than obvious that if the arrogant premise that “all is art” were accurate, we would not need art blogazines, art objects, art auctions, art museums, art galleries, art critics, or even artists. This scenario might seem amusing but, if ever actualized, Vautier in particular would be hoisted by his own petard. Things have only gotten worse for the state of art since Vautier declared that everything is art, and it may be the time for artists and art thinkers to lean away from total-art propositions. What they mean in practice is the disappearance of “high” art into commerce and entertainment.

Vautier’s theory flop suggests that what is more fruitful today are efforts to facilitate access to, and appreciation of, art. While art education has been declining, networks for teaching art and disseminating images of (and ideas about) art have greatly developed. Meanwhile, most museums’ entrance fees have become more expensive than ever, thus still reserving the high art experience for an elite that formerly was intellectually cultivated, but today is financially endowed. So “art for all” seems a more encouraging mantra than Vautier’s “all is art.” But considerations of form must take precedence, too. There must be theoretical and critical support for art that resists easy media reproduction and distribution, because such art is shaping the crucial framework within which much of the important artistic thinking of our time is taking place. The idea that art is everything — and thus nothing — no longer holds the capacity for attentive creation that it once did.

Totally Awesome

Ben Vautier, “Sculpture objet suspendu et boîte mystère” ("Suspended Sculptural Object and Mysterious Box," 1958/1962)
Ben Vautier, “Sculpture objet suspendu et boîte mystère” (“Suspended Sculptural Object and Mysterious Box,” 1958/1962)

We are well aware that the culture industry is driven by intellectual fashion and is often art historically illiterate. Many of the word-based artists whom Vautier may have influenced — one thinks of John Giorno, Hanne Darboven, Bruce Nauman, and Jenny Holtzer — most likely have little or no knowledge of him as another source of their ideas and work. Certainly when Kanye West, explaining his self-promotional fashion moves as total-art, says, “Everything is art. We’re all a big part of one giant movie, one giant painting,” he — like Lady Gaga — is following in Vautier’s footsteps. But these artists are also distorting his ideas by inflating them to pop-corporate scale (proportions are everything). West in particular follows in Vautier’s tradition of framing the ego as the road to fame and flinging out punchy, bombastic statements. In Ben’s écritures paintings there is no significant amount of time for the eye to bring the word/image into focus, to distinguish figure from ground. Yet through them, Vautier’s ham-fisted handwriting is theorized to be virtually projected everywhere, spread across every available object and surface. As a result, Vautier fuses the boundaries of his art with media not previously considered art, broadening what can be used to make art, from writing, painting, performance, and assemblage sculpture — such as “Sculpture objet suspendu et boîte mystère” (“Suspended Sculptural Object and Mysterious Box,” 1958/1962) — to happenings, mail art, radio, film, typography, chat room net art, book art, and DIY publishing.

As we see in the painting “Art = Ben” (1963), Ben is very much into his ego (he never appears overly beguiled by the elusive nature of the self) and often attempts memorable gestures under his brand name. Through this branding approach, Vautier stresses the elimination of the struggle to reconcile the public address of art with the inescapably personal imperatives of art making. Through the brand “BEN,” his “all is art” premise is no longer a generative set of non-linear dynamic relations typical of art, but a sealed proclamation ripe for ontological foreclosure.

In principle, Vautier’s framing of total-art as total-ego seems unexceptional. Aren’t all artists egomaniacs? But as practiced by the BEN brand, the “all is art” half-truth means that instead of talking about artworks as valuable, quizzical, cultural things in the world that we can encounter and explore, we talk about artworks as recognizable brand names — something the secondary market adores. That said, I believe Vautier is still concerned with far more than his own brand; he reputedly owns an outstanding art collection and remains engaged in the work and ideas of colleagues he respects. Yet it is also obvious from this exhibition that his approach to art plays into (rather than resisting) market-friendly branding strategies. As such, he is situated squarely within today’s thriving selfie-taking, self-branding, self-trumpeting, click bait culture.

Ben Vautier, “Partie du tout à Ben — tout signer” (1961), photograph
Ben Vautier, “Partie du tout à Ben — tout signer” (1961), photograph

Get Over Yourself

An anti-BEN, anti-logocentric aesthetic would be one that attempts to break from personal ego and seeks, perhaps through chance operations, to undo the privileging of the artistic ego. For today’s speculative realist thinkers, for instance, speculation is necessary precisely because of the limits of our ego — there is so much that is real but that we cannot ever possibly know. For them, 21st century speculation begins where our ego ends. Far from making dogmatic claims like “all is art,” these new art theoreticians paradoxically explore the space of the ungraspable in unpredictable times. Through their eyes, the dated cultural ego production of Vautier is usually seen as a reflection of art-about-art in its most essential form. Indeed, Vautier and other Fluxus artists have been praised for focusing on aspects of the ordinary. Yet in their writings on art (by Timothy Morton, Steven Craig Hickman, Levi Bryant, Etienne Turpin, Graham Harman, and others) and noise music (by Ray Brassier), speculative realist thinkers incorporate into the banal an awareness that the cosmos is radically indifferent to our ego. Comforting presuppositions of ego are dissolved and vast, ungrounded speculations are all that is left to be dealt with in art.

Vautier’s endless appropriation strategy consists of writing on everything Moi, Ben, je signe (“I, Ben, sign”). With that decision of taking it all for himself, Vautier allows himself to appropriate anything for art in the name of art. Vautier’s postmodern art thus aspires to employ the affective capability of popular sentiments, much as standard corporate culture does. Typical of this danger is the old con of promising commodious closure to the masses via totalizing statements that operate at various levels to justify the exploitation and manipulation of people through their emotional attraction to concepts of contented closure.

Ben Vautier, "Si Dieu est partout ...” ("If God is Everywhere ...", 1962), acrylic on object
Ben Vautier, “Si Dieu est partout …” (“If God is Everywhere …”, 1962), acrylic on object

So, in Tout est art?, a tangled topsy-turvy crammed exhibition bursting into a climatic gift shop, Vautier’s standing as a radical artist is subject to reconsideration. Long before Christopher Wool’s facile word paintings (like “Hole,” from 1992, which reads “HOLE IN YOUR HEAD”) started fetching small fortunes, Vautier made word paintings (often impertinent tautologies) renowned for simply affirming life, like “Le bon lait” (“The Good Milk,” 1958/60). In so doing, he created an art of the idea/word before the advent of conceptual art, as heralded in 1963 by Henry Flynt’s “Concept Art” essay published in An Anthology of Chance Operations. Vautier then developed conceptual themes through his writings and handwriting paintings, such as “Si Dieu est partout …” (“If God is Everywhere …”, 1962) and “Écrire c’est peindre des mots” (“Writing is Painting Words,” 2009), many of them psychologically charged with ego, death, sex, and money. In 1999, he made the tautological painting “Money is Money”; in fact, since the 1990s Vautier has become widely know in France for these kinds of dopey phrases reproduced on branded goods including calendars, pens, T-shirts, and socks. His attraction to banal, industrially produced home objects is a weaselly application of Duchamp’s iconoclastic found object readymade, wherein an ordinary object becomes a work of art because the artist designated it as such.

Vautier’s total-art proposition led him to embrace a wide variety of subjects that circle around what he sees as the truth of the ego’s central, privileged place in defining art. In his 2006 book Après la finitude (After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency), philosopher Quentin Meillassoux opens a frontal assault upon the ego assumptions typical of Vautier’s proposition, insisting upon what he calls “ancestrality”: the indubitable existence of the universe prior to human ego and thereby prior to any possibility of being observed, interpreted, or evaluated. Seen in light of Meillassoux, the viability of Vautier’s privileging of the truth of the ego as central to art must be questioned. Human perception and understanding are less special than we generally believe; they belong to a much broader spectrum of processes of relation and causal influences. According to Meillassoux, ego cannot be given priority anymore, because understanding and knowing are themselves caught up within larger movements for which they cannot themselves account. Art is a realm far too vast and weird — and radically uncertain — to be subsumed by our own egotistical values and norms.

Ben Vautier books in the gift shop at the Musée Maillol (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ben Vautier books in the gift shop at the Musée Maillol (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Vautier’s “ego equals art” position has long been in the process of being usurped by Robert Filliou’s development of the concept of Eternal Network — Filliou and George Brecht closed their art space La Cédille Qui Sourit in Villefranche in 1968 and announced the formation of this network — which holds that the purpose of art is to make life more important than art (a communications concept that foreshadowed other networks subsequently made possible by the internet). But I disagree with Filliou’s objective as well. Art, in its multi-purposed uselessness, makes life more interesting than artless life. Vautier has provided some valid (if conflicted) meditations on issues like the nature of truth. Inspired by Duchamp’s readymades and their highlighting of context, Vautier has systematically promoted the notion that a work of art is truly recognizable not by its material form or content, but only by the signature of the “artist.” Yet he was also one of the first artists in Europe to take art into the streets. The short silent film “Regardez-moi, cela suffit” (“Look at Me, That Is Enough,” 1963) is a fine example of his “street actions,” which incorporated everyday activities like waiting at a bus stop.

Ben Vautier, “Écrire c’est peindre des mots” ("Writing is Painting the Words," 2009), acrylic on canvas
Ben Vautier, “Écrire c’est peindre des mots” (“Writing is Painting the Words,” 2009), acrylic on canvas

In the mid 1960s, several years after Vautier’s “Tout est art” (1961) painting, it was no longer clear that one could pick the artworks out from the non-artworks. Arthur Danto’s favorite example of this was Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” (1964). The silkscreen print on wood sculptures, first shown in 1964 at Manhattan’s Stable Gallery, looked so much like actual Brillo Pad cartons that one could not tell from a photograph which of them was or was not art. Eleanor Ward, the dealer behind the Stable Gallery, found them difficult to sell in 1964 — even when affordably priced between $200 and $400 each.

Today’s speculative realist critics (at least those with no stake in the art market) may well bash Vautier’s repetitious production of recognizable and salable physical artifacts. His total-art is now marketed under the brand name BEN, and as such it is expected to embody a stable brand value. Of course, it has been a persistent irony of the art world that many of the critics and curators who view themselves as opponents of market mechanisms and corporate branding expect art to be packaged in readily identifiable formats. Vautier once took this appetite and used it to play an important role in shaping the laboratory of ideas that swirled in and around Fluxus. So I hope this rather outdated and unperplexing show, set in the newly renovated Musée Maillol (a small museum set up by Dina Vierny, with a tasteful collection that includes works by Henri Rousseau, Duchamp, Picasso, and Cézanne), will eventually be followed by completely new kinds of intimate artworks by Vautier. As it is, BEN-the-brand’s “all is art” notion seems less interested in finding infinite diversity within art than in sustaining a total uniformity.

Installation view of Ben: Tout est art? at the Musée Maillol (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Ben: Tout est art? at the Musée Maillol (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ben: Tout est art? continues at the Musée Maillol (59–61 Rue de Grenelle, 7th arrondissement, Paris, France) through January 15, 2017.

comments (0)