Life to Live


Miklós Erdély quotes George Brecht in his book titled Művészeti írások (Writings on Art). The quote is this: “A source of dripping water and a vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel.”

As we know, George Brecht was one of the best known representatives of the Fluxus movement, a man (I avoid using the term artist intentionally) who took himself seriously, and (by doing so), he also took seriously what he did. In his statement quoted by Erdély he formulated poetically this natural action that hikers and stray adolescent girls perform instinctively, without any logical or philosophical inspiration. He described it as a creative act shaping the way and the order of the world, creating new relations to show that it is what it is and also to demonstrate that the judgment of the real weight of our actions depends only on us. Underlying secrets, speculative or spontaneous relations are built up in us, we know their meaning and the context of their operations reflects our concepts.

This has nothing to do with the fact that certain events take or could have taken place without our participation because what matters is not the event itself but how we relate to it. What is important is what I see in it, the meaning I attribute to it, either in its concreteness or in commentaries and interpretations of it. In this context art elevated to eternity does not exist. Nor does tradition, or at least, it is primarily not of an artistic or cultural nature but it is private, spiritual, unknown to the observer or known only accidentally – perhaps it can be deduced from the event and its various relations.

Reflecting on by and large the same circle of questions, George Maciunas writes the following in a letter to Tomas Schmidt: “Fluxus’ goals are social (not esthetic). They (ideologically) can be related to those of the 1929 and are set up like this: step by step elimination of the fine arts (music, drama, poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, etc., etc.). This motivates the desire to direct wasted material and human capabilities toward socially constructive goals such as the applied arts: industrial design, journalism, architecture, engineering, graphic and typographic arts, printing, etc., which are areas that are all closely related to the fine arts and offer the artist better career opportunities. […] Beuys writes in a similar manner: “The best Fluxus “composition” is the most strongly impersonal, ready-made sort, rather like Brecht’s “Exit” it does not demand that any one of us perform it, but it happens every day […].”

Beuys’ clearness of vision is also shown by the fact that he recognised the relevance of the concept propagated by the LEF Group to his own conditions of artistic production and life. The LEF considered that the significance of art in changing the conditions of the life of the society consists not in the professional standard of the artworks that are produced but in the fact that man producing art masters an everyday practice that can also be used successfully in fields of life other than art. An action related to politics, with an end beyond art, but inspired by artistic experience was when, using willow sweeps Beuys and his students and comrades swept Bundeswehr troops out of a forest that was to be cut down for the purpose of building military barracks there. It was art that taught him how to use soft violence but it was the ability to go beyond the points of view and everyday practice of art that made it possible for him to take this political action.

Yves Klein’s confessions about the complex relationships of physical, biological and creative existence are of a different nature: “The fact that ‘I exist’ as a painter will be the most outstanding oeuvre in painting of this period. […] Monochromy is what intoxicates me most. In any case, I think it is only with monochromy that I can truly live the life of painting, the painter’s life of my dreams.” […] (Cf. Klein’s statement with Mark Rothko’s oeuvre and his suicide. I. A.) […] Blue has no dimensions. It exists beyond all dimensions, whereas other colours have them. All colours are associated with concrete, material and tangible ideas, but blue recalls, if anything, the sea and the sky, the most abstracts elements of touchable and visible nature. […] I realise that the pictures are merely the ashes of my art. The authentic quality of the painting, its ‘being’, is situated beyond the visible, in pictorial sensibility in its primal state. […] The city of tomorrow will be built using the three classical elements of fire, water and air, and it will be flexible, spiritual and immaterial. […] After all, my aim is to extract and obtain the trace of the immediate in natural things – be the circumstances human, animal, vegetable or atmospheric.”

As opposed to Beuys, Klein was a self-taught artist. His parents were decent dilettante artists. In an ingeniously made photo montage, he even ridiculed death. He could never regard the making of art as a kind of ‘sacred’ activity, which it was for Rothko, whose attitude to creating art was a kind of religious devotion, or for Beuys who was obsessed with technical development. (As we know, the level of development in that field let Beuys first to want to become a child surgeon, which idea he dropped in favour of becoming a bomb carrier pilot because the most advanced technology at the time was used in aircraft manufacturing.)

What I admire most in the tragically short creative life of Yves Klein are the inventiveness of his spirit playing freely with the elements and free from any learnt or conditioned reflexes, and his independence of social expectations. As I was watching the film made of his ‘wedding action’ and I saw the invitation cards to this action at the retrospective exhibition of his work at MUMOK in Vienna, it reminded me of the wedding of Maciunas, another genius who had a similarly short life, as that wedding appeared in the film of Jonas Mekas, where the play of the terminally ill husband wearing his wife-to-be’s dress and the fiancée dressed in the groom’s clothes described the situation of the two men more tellingly than any affected expression of sympathy.

There is something in the life of Yves Klein that made me his fan forever: namely, his passion for judo. As he became a committed user, an architect of the basic elements, fire, water and air, he constructed and presented new figures around himself from human bodies or became a sign himself, following the curve of the throws of his judo partners. He even wrote books about judo and spent years in Japan. Other people called it art when they did just a fraction of what for Klein was the natural and evident way to exist. However, although he used different means, like Beuys, he wanted more than just to create works of art. He also wanted to recreate the world and life in a new spirit. I think when he wrote that the mere fact of his existence as a painter “will be the most outstanding oeuvre in painting of this period”, he called his reader’s attention to the fact that he had stepped beyond painting from the outset. And nothing justifies his decision better than the fact that despite his decision to go beyond painting, the world regards him as a painter. In other words, the world tries to force him into some baby’s clothes from which his oversized hands, head and legs stick out ridiculously.

He pointed out that in the 20th century, the role that entitled somebody to appear as an artist, which was also the basis on which the society regarded him or her as an artist, determined much more strongly the general judgment of these people than the nature, quality and originality of their activity. In the logic of this type of thinking an artist is a person whom others regard as an artist.

János Baksa-Soós, aka Prince January HORO OLH pioneer artist, citizen of the Universe, who was born in Hungary and now lives in Berlin has made observations that show a stunning closeness to the ideas of Yves Klein and proposes an artistic programme similar to Klein’s in our days (this is not by accident: he has been making his observations for many years). “When, by the age of 30, I had already studied a part of the artist-pastor material, I came to understand that the universe is a path of creation in the infinite, which is constructed by innumerable smaller or greater creators. It became my personal mission to depict galaxies, animals, planets, minerals, suns, plants, stars, insects, friendly individual creatures, and to give a soul-fresh colour even to spaces between the objects. […] The path of creation became more and more visible from painting to painting, drawing to drawing. […] Life is an uninterrupted path. It is also a path of tales, […] which, unfortunately, we lose already in our childhood. Simply because we only speak of the soul but are no longer in it. Our religions have, for a long time, been unable to keep pace with our latest achievements. There is no art of tale, and consequently, there can be no present-day folk art stemming from it. In times without a soul historians also speak only in their own interest. We do not possess enough knowledge to see and understand life as a whole and as a process, the present together with all of our past. We are surrounded by fellow creatures. My created fellows, death is short and life is long. […] Creator in the creator, galaxy in universe, Star in the Galaxy, Planet in the Star. Man, animal, insect, plant, micro-organism. Mineral, atom, electron in the Planet.”

It is not only January’s way of thinking that is universal, but the way of life he pursues is also open in all directions. The everyday practice of his life is above the arts: in Hungary, his native land, he was the first representative of the view that put the emphasis on truths and relations universally characteristic of all the various forms of concepts and phenomena, underlying every genre. His art is not only a form of self-expression, it can be called that less and less, but it is, in part an activity of investigating and documenting facts, spreading knowledge and doing research.

I spent a longer period in New York for the first time in 1982. I spent most of my time in the East Village, near 4th street. Those were agitated and eventful days. The streets were swarming with people living in the frenzy of rap music, break dance and graffiti sprayed on the sides of metro wagons. Those were the early heydays of the cult of first generation rappers, when the tracks really justified the name of this musical style. What you heard was really rhythm and poetry. Near the place where I stayed there was a new gallery that staged an exhibition entitled Beautiful View. The show was quite popular. It attracted a large number of young people, mainly Afro-Americans and Puerto Ricans from the neighbourhood, but many independent artists came to see it from the East Village and the Lower East Side as well. The gallery was in a loft, four or five kids kept break dancing by the entrance to the building, and rap music was on all day long. Quite surprisingly, when I entered there were no other visitors in the gallery. The gallerist, an Afro-American guy about my age was lying on a mattress. The walls were empty. When I asked him where the works were he pointed at the open window. I walked up to the window and looked out at the Village. I could see far to the West too, and could also see the Soho to my left. The East River was also visible. Basically, the view was not surprising to me because the place I stayed at was high up in a loft very near this place. Although my windows looked out on the city in other directions, what I saw was similar, or, in part, the same. Nevertheless, now that I looked upon the neighbourhood not the way I usually did – because it became the theme of an artwork chosen by me, and partly also constructed by me – my perception of it changed. New details caught my attention, and I discovered new beauties. I realised that I became the artwork: a biomachine that invents and constructs new variations of from existing materials, using its eyes and imagination.

I had never experienced anything like that before. I saw the pictures I constructed with new eyes because now I was conscious of the experience that I am behind them. I looked inside myself – from outside. It was then that I experienced most immediately that there can be no living art without multidirectional creative participation (of the artist and the viewer). This also helped me understand that all the artworks that were produced before the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, before the avant-garde of the early 20th century, had to become museum artefacts. We can (and even have to) admire their beauty, we have to explore the mechanism by which they produce their effect, but they should be kept in museums because they have no direct connection to our everyday life. This connection can only come to exist for people of certain types of personality and for people with a special sensitivity in specific life situations. The reason for this is that at the end of the 19th century society entered into a spiritual contract with artists, under which society will remunerate artists for their mere existence as artists, in return for the reproducibility of their works. It was from that period on that in artistic production the calculability of the effect and style of the works and the quality of consistence became more important criteria in the judgment of works of art than their innovative character. The quality of a work lending itself to categorisation became a higher value than the freedom of imagination and behaviour and the uncontrollability of talent. This ‘contract’ made the lives of innovative artists on the 20th century inevitably schizophrenic.

The atmosphere and the nature of the artist’s concept were similar to those of Beautiful View in an exhibition that I saw in Hungary not much later. Zoltán Lábas and Tivadar Nemesi painted, from bottom to top, all the walls of a flat (if I am not mistaken, they had formerly used it as their studio) that they had to leave because the building was to be demolished. They painted a large number of paintings just to be annihilated. Nobody could see their works anymore after the exhibition opening. They remained only memories for the artists, too.

Miklós Erdély held his lecture and action Demokratikus festmény (Democratic Painting) on March 5, 1984. He painted a picture with the same title as part of the action. He chose some elements of the work, their colour and shape as well, by inviting his audience to vote. Erdély and his partners in the discussion that took place, art historian Lóránd Hegyi and painter Ákos Birkás, sat behind their desks, facing the audience, but covered with a tulle net. Erdély painted his work from under the net, following the orders of the audience: “I want to eliminate the sharp difference between role of the audience and me in the following way: We will cover ourselves and will continue our discussion under the net. Furthermore, we will try to win your votes, that is, your approval, to our further actions. We hope that by doing so, we can improve or even restore the balance between these roles. […] This casts a light on the problems of creative art and painting. A performing artist can only imagine what he or she will do but can never see what he or she has actually done – only if it is documented in a film. In contrast to this, when a painter draws a line it immediately talks to him. This is a huge difference. To imagine something and then to realize it and see the result immediately is deeply and essentially different from involving and exposing myself, without seeing it and leaving it to the audience to see what they see, while I work without any kind of self-checking. These things are so different that I don’t understand how fine artists could switch from their original fields to actions.”

I was present at this action, and, as a member of the voting audience I could see that in Erdély’s brilliant action (whose after-effect on my spirit and intellect is perhaps even stronger than the immediate effect it had on me then and there), art was only an excuse for an exceptionally open man of immense knowledge and wisdom to share his philosophical thoughts with us. Here, art became applied art in the relationship of the performer and his listeners/viewers. It became a language that (on the level of interpretation and consumption), could be understood by all those who were present. It was accepted and was even suitable for entertainment. It became suitable for communicating complex ideas easily end effectively to a large number of people at the same time. They were even made to believe that by expressing their opinions or by voting they could influence the course of events. Thus, art came to perform the therapeutic function of exposing problems.

“The mental attitude characterizing the movements from the Inconsequents to Dadaism, to Fluxus, to Beuys’ Social Plastic and to Deconstructivits is based on individuation, the development of the ability to use free will, to which we are predestined. Fluxus marks a spectacular phase in this process. Individuation is more than Fluxus, this is why Fluxus declares that “life is more than art.” This consciously subordinated relationship makes possible for Fluxus to behave anarchistically in this hierarchy, that is, to achieve heterarchy. Fluxus, fluctuating heterarchically between hierarchy and anarchy, is global. This is the primary characteristic feature of Fluxus (Ken Friedman). It is global – in fact, it is global in its effect. And people clap their hands astounded when they see the changes – and then the Fluxus artist smiles and bows. Like Maciunas, he puts the turn-up of his trousers straight. Then, like G. Brecht, he leaves through the EXIT, but comes in through the ENTER on the other side. Because all the world is a Flux concert.”
“Ultimately, it is not art that is important but the thing whose changing it serves. Everything that rally changes our lives, that steps over the mythical barriers and fixed ideas, that is, any tool or structure that generates or contains new relations is art. Art changes as it appears in areas where it never did before, or where it was considered forbidden before.”

I took these quotations from Tamás St. Auby. They conclude the chain of thought that began with the quote from Erdély I used as a starting point for this essay. The aim of this chain of thought was to place the artefacts of the near and distant past among the treasures of museums. I am pleased that St. Auby wrote about Fluxus too, because I consider that it was the appearance of the Fluxus movement that indicated most spectacularly the beginning of the overall decline of old types of artistic values and forms of behaviour. It was then that making art in the traditional sense was replaced by the everyday creative programme of using artistic inspiration to create and experience the values of our living space.

The old rule, according to which an artist is a person whom others regard as one no longer applied in the thinking of the most progressive creators. Some of them did not consider themselves artists anymore, others, like St. Auby went on strike, and some gave up traditional artistic practice but they kept on calling themselves artists ‘arbitrarily’. By doing so, they defined their everyday actions as artistic activity, like Allan Kaprow did, who declared that shaving in the morning is art because when he is shaving, an artist is shaving, which makes it art (offering a counterpoint to the principle that ‘an artist is a person whom others regard as one’, held generally earlier). There were artists who came to deal with politics, environmental protection or education, that is, passing on experience, initiating the new generations. Others, such as graffiti artists, created a counter-culture whose effect was so strong and functioned so well that the curators of museums, the representatives of the official, accepted and traditional culture asked to be admitted to their circles. Keith Haring, for example, stored his works in a film studio while waiting to be discovered. He worked constantly. He painted on metro wagons and the walls of metro stations with his airbrush. He paintied his paintings in the studio. He decorated playgrounds. He knew he would become a star. His figures became part of the city. And eventually, he was commissioned to decorate a metro station and design playgrounds. He conquered New York.

By far the most conceptually consistent artist-expert of politics and environmental protection was Joseph Beuys: “… real future political intentions must be artistic. This means that they must originate from human creativity, from the individual freedom of man. […] Art in my opinion is the only evolutionary power. This means that only through man’s creativity can circumstances change. And I believe that many people feel that humanism can best be further developed through art.”

A forest of demonstration signs installed by sculptor Gyula Pauer in the summer of 1978 at the colony of artists in Nagyatád was left in place only for a few days. According to the concept of the artist they were arranged in a way that they followed the course of the Sun, and had surprising, sarcastic or witty texts on them. They were sawn off and removed from the colony at the order of György Aczél, the omnipotent politician who had the ultimate control of Hungary’s cultural life. Only one original piece survives: “KLOTILD, I WOULD LIKE TO / MAKE SCULPTURES THAT / WILL SPROUT, / IF THEY ARE DUG INTO THE GROUND, / NEITHER BULLDOSER / NOR ARCHEOLOGY WILL BE NEEDED,/ THEY WILL SHAPE / THE SPACE FROM UNDER THE GROUND / ACCORDING TO THE LAWS OF THEIR EXISTENCE.”

It seems as if Pauer had suspected what the future held for his signs. Just like in the case of this sign: “Let’s not mince our words: / freedom and order / are contradictory / ………….”

In an essay written in the 1970s Tibor Hajas makes some statements that are not only philosophical but also approach the problems of the language of art from an external point of view, reflecively and self-reflectively: “For a deaf person, who can lip-read, there was no age of silent film! The characters that appear in silent films keep moving their lips to create the impression that they speak. What did they say? Was the silent (secret/lost) part of their roles also written for them? And when they bloopered or forgot their lines, did the scene have to be shot again? Or could they say whatever they wanted because the only point was that their lips had to be seen moving? It must have been strange to read from their lips how they complained, in the middle of the most dramatic scenes, about the deteriorated food they had for dinner the previous night- and all that in a foreign language!” In the cultural situations of our day this issue is no less relevant than it was when Hajas wrote his essay.

The questions of existence are more burning than the problems of art. Our awareness of this fact determines our self-expression and the methods and means of our communication approaching art.

We try to find the islands, most of which are closed communities, where we can express ourselves to others and ourselves in a way that we let out the intense emotions, stress, recognitions, elevating or humiliating experiences that we struggle with day by day, or by which we stay alive. We do it in forms that come from us naturally – in forms that are composed of the gestures by which we survive.

Hopefully, our actions have a greater significance in everyday life than in the eyes of those who pass judgments of art history.


Translated by Zsolt Kozma


Sources of quotations:

Jelenlét / Szógettó. Válogatás az új magyar avantgarde dokumentumaiból. (Presence / Word Ghetto – selected documents of the new Hungarian avant-garde.) Colleted and selected by Tamás Papp, (ELTE BTK, 1989)

Joseph Beuys: Life and Works. Ed. Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, Karin Thomas. New York: Barron’s, 1979. Orpheus irodalmi folyóirat (Orpheus journal of literature) 1993/1, 52-72

Miklós Erdély: Művészeti írások (Válogatott művészetelméleti tanulmányok I.) (Writings on Art – Selected essays in the theory of art I.), Ed. Miklós Peternák. Budapest: Képzőművészeti Kiadó, 1991

Pauer. Ed. Annamária Szoke. MTA Művészettörténeti Kutatóintézet (MTA Research Institute for Art History), Budapest, 2005.

Január Herceg HORO OLH pioneer művész Baksa-Soós János (Prince January HORO OLH pioneer artist), Szent István király Múzeum, 2007 (exhibition catalogue)

Yves Klein. Ed. E. Köb, and E. Badura-Triska, Museum Moderner Kunst, Stiftung Ludwig Wien, MUMOK, 2007