BooksWeekend

Dick Higgins: Avant Garde Provocateur and Philosopher

Higgins was a participant observer of outrageous innovations in art, music, poetry, performance, and independent publishing for decades beginning in the 1960s.

Intermedia, Fluxus, and the Something Else Press (2018, Siglio Press)

The boundary-smashing artist and performer Dick Higgins (1938–1998) was a “consummate explainer,” observes Steve Clay, co-editor with Ken Friedman of a new and comprehensive gathering of Higgins’s writings, Intermedia, Fluxus, and the Something Else Press (2018, Siglio Press). As Higgins was a participant observer of a cluster of outrageous innovations in art, music, poetry, performance, and independent publishing, there was a lot of explaining to do. The editors’ selection begins in the mid-1960s, a time when Higgins, not yet 30, was already a veteran of the era’s performance-oriented avant-garde. A standout figure in the milieu of Allen Kaprow’s Happenings and a seminal figure in Fluxus, Higgins directed these movements’ oppositional energy and playful anarchy toward the unlikely medium of print. Funded indispensably by an inheritance from his family’s steel business, his Something Else Press carried out a freewheeling and ambitious publishing program that included not only Higgins’s own works and those of his Fluxus peers but also modernist publications that had fallen into near-oblivion, among them Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach (1920) and many books by Gertrude Stein. For Higgins, these reclamation projects were derived from a belief that the past could—and should—be as forward-looking as the present.

During its 10-year run (in its final year, 1974, Higgins was not involved) Something Else’s well-crafted books were complimented by its inexpensive Great Bear pamphlets, a series whose egalitarian aims and unconventional distribution anticipate the later upsurge of zine culture: for a time the Great Bears were available for purchase at the Berkeley co-op supermarket. Looking back after the press had shut down, Higgins called the entirety of Something Else’s publications a “big collage with many contributors,” a characterization that isn’t just a metaphor but also suggests the guiding spirit of the enterprise, which embraced contradictions and unexpected juxtapositions even as it consistently expressed a core orientation. It was, he wrote, “so much like an art movement of its own.” The Something Else bibliography included in the anthology, often accompanied by Higgins’s idiosyncratic catalog copy, allows the reader to experience the totality of its books (and a few unrealized projects) as a kind of large-scale, organic composition in the medium of publication.

Higgins himself always sought to clarify his aims, and how he might best articulate his aesthetic philosophy—or philosophy in general, since he rejected as artificial even a notional separation of aesthetics from life, of thinking from doing. In 1984 he remarked on his longstanding “near-obsession” of bringing together theory and practice in all his varied endeavors. Already in the Something Else newsletters of the mid-1960s (reprinted in Clay and Friedman’s collection in facsimile), a heady if not always prescient sense of world-historical import—“We are approaching the dawn of a classless society, to which separation into rigid categories is absolutely irrelevant”—had underwritten the message that the old hierarchical distinctions governing the arts were crumbling right beneath our noses. His brief Something Else manifesto encouraged a protean vitality that called more for resourcefulness than reverence toward masterpieces or generic orthodoxies: “Tomorrow one will write Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, cook some kohlrabi, develop a non-toxic epoxy, and invent still another kind of theater; or perhaps one will just sit and scream; or perhaps….”

Dick Higgins, “Five Traditions of Art History, an Essay” (1976), reproduced in Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writing by Dick Higgins, Siglio, 2018

Higgins turned the Gesamtkunstwerk inside out. Rather than seeking to build a multimedia assemblage as a unified, tightly controlled monument, he advocated a casual multiplicity across media, an attitude of productive flexibility that takes creativity and expression to be human birthrights, subsuming the energies of the body’s metabolism (all that soon-to-be-consumed kohlrabi) and the abstractions of the greatest music.

Given his disdain for conventions and the audacity of many of his works—his Danger Music pieces are made up of directives such as “Write a thousand symphonies” and “Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream!”—one might expect Higgins to have taken a loosey-goosey approach to his theorizing. The opposite is true. He adapted the term “intermedia” from Coleridge to describe works realized in the space between different media, distinguishing these efforts from hybrids such as performance art or multi-media art. Later in his career, he tried to reinvent himself for a time as a more conventional scholar, earning a B.A. and Masters in English from NYU and eventually publishing an extensive study on the precursors to concrete poetry (“pattern poetry”) stretching back to antiquity, replete with hundreds of examples spanning the globe.

Although he knew that leaders of art movements can abuse their power and, in the fashion of André Breton and surrealism, become immersed in incestuous internal gamesmanship, Higgins did regard himself as a spokesman for a “new mentality” and was comfortable making pronouncements ex cathedra, even as he was wary of didacticism. A sermonizing current runs through his writings—an Episcopalian churchgoer throughout his life, he claimed to have wanted to become a priest. What differentiates him from more conventional preachers is his openness, his commitment to play, and a delight in insouciance. As he interjected, seemingly out of nowhere, during a discussion of the history of Fluxus in his Postface: “Is there anything more glorious than a cool breeze on a hot day?”

Higgins’s questing spirit, his fundamental restlessness as a thinker and avant-garde impresario, can’t be separated from his tumultuous personal life and its cycles of psychic peril. His waywardness began at a fairly early age: a precocious youngster (from whom his family expected much), he was expelled from Yale and was hospitalized after a breakdown. He soon found his bearings, and more, in New York City, studying with the composer Henry Cowell at Columbia and with John Cage at the New School. His relationship with the artist-performer Alison Knowles, the mother of their twin daughters and twice his wife, was profoundly important to him, but his gay partnerships, especially with Eugene Watson, the son of the poet and Something Else editor Emmett Watson, burned with a greater flame. Alcoholism brought Higgins to a low point in the early 1970s—he committed to sober up after experiencing a vision of Meredith Monk, one of his collaborators, looking down at him from the Vermont clouds—and pursuit from the IRS for Something Else back taxes took its toll, not just financially. His career in the 1980s and ’90s, which is not very well known, was largely devoted to painting.

The contours of Higgins’s forceful personality, at times impossible but possessed with its own peculiar magnetism, are vividly present in the writings Clay and Friedman have collected — not least in his daughter Hannah’s lovely, judicious portrait that concludes the book. Apart from its value in making several had-to-find essays available, this volume imparts a nuanced sense of a man who not only styled himself an avant-garde philosophe (not unlike his teacher John Cage) but also made a sustained and messy effort to create a worldly space for a certain kind of art, performance, and writing—and life. He didn’t always succeed, but then again, attempts to fully reconcile theory and practice never really do.

Intermedia, Fluxus, and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins, edited by Steve Clay and Ken Friedman and published by Siglio Press, is available on Amazon and other online retailers.

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