TOWARDS AN ACOGNITIVE CULTURE
Henry Flynt talks to Stewart Home, New York 8 March 1989.
Henry Flynt was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1940. In 1961, after his New York debut in Yoko Ono's Chambers Street loft, he originated the idea of concept art. Then, in 1962, Flynt initiated a utopian critique of art from the stand-point of the absolute subjectivity of taste. He destroyed most of his early works, left the art world and began a campaign to 'demolish serious culture.' Flynt continued to produce music but his cultural activities tailed off in the late sixties. Despite this he did appear in Ira Cohen's 1968 drugs and magic underground short "The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda" as a member of the The Universal Mutant Repertory Company with cohorts Loren Standlee, Ziska Baum, Angus MacLise, Raja Samayana, Tony Conrad, and Jackson MacLow; the resultant celluloid is notorious as perhaps the most drug damaged cinematic experiment of the psychedelic era.
During the seventies Flynt returned to college to take a phd in communist economics. In 1987, he resumed making concept art in conjunction with the crystallisation of his researches into the foundations of science. Flynt now views his previous assessment of art as being heavily conditioned by the period in which he entered the New York art scene. Nevertheless, his critique provides a useful starting point for discussing the class basis of culture. As the eighties draw to a close, Flynt's extreme utopianism is gaining currency among a younger generation of thinkers (particularly those who emerged from the now defunct Neoist movement). Simultaneously, his recent work is creating ripples of interest among the cognoscenti of the official art world.
The principal collection of Flynt's writings is "Blueprint For A Higher Civilisation" (Multhipla Edizioni, Milan 1975). A recent essay on concept art by Flynt and an interview with him can by found in "Io" #41 edited by Charles Stein (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley 1988).
My interview with Flynt took place in a sandwich bar on the corner of Broadway and Spring, a few yards away from the Emily Harvey Gallery where Flynt's "Classic Modernism and Authentic Concept Art" was on show. It is chiefly concerned with Flynt's activities during the sixties and his utopian critique of art.
HOME: How did your ideas develop, what direction were you coming from in the early sixties?
FLYNT: My early work was philosophic, what would be called epistemology, I was convinced I'd dicredited cognition. When somebody says that all statements are false, the obvious problem is that as an assertion it's self-defeating. I had to find a way to frame this insight which was not self-defeating and that's in "Blueprint", the essay entitled "The Flaws Underlying Beliefs." One has to do what Wittgenstein claimed to do in the "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus," which is to use the ladder and then throw it away. The way I devolved, moved out from, this position of strict cognitive nihilism, was with the idea of building a new culture which would depart profoundly from the scientific culture in which we live.
I was a student at Harvard and that's where I learned about so called avant-garde music. Jackson Pollock, abstract expressionism and action painting were well known at this time, but the music was more of a cult thing with individual composers doing very unusual work. It was very hard to find out about what these people were doing. I was told that people like Cage were the latest thing. Christian Wolff, who was an associate of Cage, was at Harvard as a graduate student and there were a lot of concerts of so called avant-garde music held at the university.
HOME: How did you got involved with the set promoting this type of music?
FLYNT: I was trying to be up with the latest thing. To a point I just took what I was offered, logical positivism in philosophy and the so called avant-garde in music. I began composing works which were imitative of the music I was being told about. I was also very interested in translating the music into visual terms. At the same time I felt a tremendous disquiet about the avant-garde, there was something very inauthentic about it. There was the mystique of scientificity, Stockhausen was making claims which were actually false, that were philosophically discreditable.
Another thing that happened was that when I came to New York, I began to meet the people who became the most famous artists of our time. I was insecure about my own level of ability, I didn't know whether I could compete with these people and, at the same time, I was wondering what is this anyway? I felt very uneasy about the fact that all these people were competing with each other to become rich and famous and the original reason for all this activity had been lost.
HOME: So it was when you came into contact with the people composing this music that you became critical of it.
FLYNT: When I began competing with the other artists in New York. Also, at that time, I discovered classical North Indian music. I spent a lot of time with this and began to question the whole enterprise of classical music as such. I have a lot of problems with modern European culture. I find European music to be very four-square, it really lends itself to computerisation. In classical oil painting, there seemed to be a radical turn to seeing things as the camera sees them, with that technological modification. I began to have a tremendous problem with all of this. At the same time I was listening to black music and I began to think that the best musicians were receiving the worst treatment. The people who were doing the greatest work were despised as lower class, with no dignity accorded to what they did, while the stuff being promoted as serious culture and performed in the Lincoln Centre was absolutely worthless. There was no real emotion in it, the possibility of ingenuous experience had been replaced by an ideology of science and scientism.
I became very angry about the fact that I'd been talked into going to these Cage concerts when I was in college, that I'd sat and tried to make myself like that stuff and think in those terms. I felt I'd been brainwashed, that it was a kind of damage to my sensibilities. I'm still mad about this, I still feel I've not recovered from the experience.
HOME: How was this anger expressed in your activities during the early sixties?
FLYNT: At that time I was initiating concept art. I was doing a lot of things, many of them imitative. The purpose of concept art as a genre is to unbrainwash our mathematical and logical faculties. At the same time it's bound up with aesthetic delectation. I think these two aspects are integral to concept art, it's not just an artificial pasting together of the two things, they actually change each other in the course of their interaction.
From there I moved to an absolutely subjective position aesthetically, where each individual should become aware of their unformed taste. I used the term brend to signify this and thought that it would replace art. Basically, at this time, I viewed any work of art as an imposition of another persons taste and saw the individual making this imposition as a kind of dictator. I don't think there's any irony about the fact that I was beginning to dabble in political leftism at the very time I was inventing a theory in which art disappears and is replaced by a kind of absolute individualism. It's not strange if you understand what the final utopia of socialism was supposed to be. It's no different from talking about getting rid of money or the state.
It was then that I began demonstrating against serious culture. In hindsight, the actual course of events has been very humiliating for me because no one picked up on the intellectual critique I made of Stockhausen. Another point I made was that black American music was a new language and I don't feel this was ever really acknowledged. What happened was that rock became an incredible commercial success, people just became bored with serious music and it was forgotten. It was not an intellectual battle or a battle of principle at all.
HOME: How was the group Action Against Cultural Imperialism organised?
FLYNT: It wasn't, the organisation didn't exist, it was just a bluff.
HOME: You didn't hold policy meetings?
FLYNT: No. There were two stages to this affair, at first we were demonstrating against all serious culture. The organisation was really just me and Tony Conrad. At that time Tony was living with Jack Smith, who just came along with us. At first he didn't want to do it, he told us he had work in the Museum of Modern Art and that he wouldn't picket them. Then I got out the signs that I'd made for the demonstration and he began giggling hysterically. He ended up coming along because he thought it was funny. The focus changed tremendously as my interest in politics developed. I was meeting people who were calling my attention to issues of socialism, which I'd never really thought about.
HOME: Who were these people?
FLYNT: You wouldn't know them, somebody named Richard Ohmann, he's an English professor today. I converted myself to Marxism through reading. The Cuban revolution had just taken place and there was a tremendous discussion going on about it, there were books coming out on the subject. I got into it in that way and by 1964 I was affiliated with a Marxist group. The focus of the cultural demonstrations changed tremendously, I began to concentrate on the issues of race and imperialism. As a political statement the demonstrations were an absolute failure, nobody understood why I was holding them. I was told my activities were creating deep confusion about where I was coming from and why I was angry. The chairman of Workers World Party suggested I write a book. He said, you don't present a new theory at a demonstration, you write a book about it. That's how "Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership In Culture" came to be written.
HOME: So this was in the mid-sixties?
FLYNT: Yes, a lot of things were happening then. Around 1967 I began backing away from dogmatic Leninism, not so much because I thought it was false, I just decided there was nothing utopian about it. When you translate it from theory into practice it becomes just another political event.*
HOME: To return to the point about confusion, to me that seems central to what you do. Before we started taping the conversation, you said your writing was a black hole which would suck people in and deconstruct their mode of thought.
FLYNT: That was in relation to cognition. I have a picture of an ideal consciousness which the writings are directed towards producing. It's not confused, I'm actually a great fan of lucidity.
HOME: I wasn't implying that your formulations were confused, what I was trying to say was that the texts have a disorientating effect on the reader.
FLYNT: I associate lucidity with belieflessness. I'm trying to assemble materials for a different mode of life, but it's a completely open question about how they might connect up. The whole drive of western culture, the part of it which is serious, is towards an extreme objectification. It's carried to the point where the human subject is treated almost as if it's dirt in the works of a watch. I'm trying to go to the source of this insane aberration, so that I can dissolve it. I want to do this by integrating subjectivity and objectivity, by making these two things intrinsically interdependent.
* i.e. the modernisation strategy of last resort. c.f. 'The Three levels of Politics' in 'Blueprint.' [Note added].
First published in Smile 11, London Summer 1989.
Henry Flynt's website
Chapter on early Fluxus from "Assault On Culture" (Flynt dislikes being associated with Fluxus and views those linking him to this anti-art group as hostile to his thought, but within the art world he is widely but "wrongly" perceived as a "Fluxus artist")
Jack Smith (underground film-maker) and Henry Flynt picket MOMA (Museum of Modern Art in New York) on 27 February 1963 to protest against "serious culture". Photo Tony Conrad.
Installation shot of 1989 Henry Flynt show "Classic Modernism and Authentic Concept Art" at Emily Harvey Gallery, New York: north-east corner.
In 1994 I went to a Tate Gallery lecture on Fluxus by art historian Simon Anderson who I hadn't seen since he'd left London in the eighties, I took a copy of "Smile" with my Henry Flynt interview in it to give to him, since I knew it would interest him. However, after I'd opened the publication at the Henry Flynt interview to show it to Simon, French Fluxus anti-artist Ben Vautier snatched the magazine from my hand and walked off with it after saying: "I'm having this, I collect everything to do with Henry Flynt..."
Flynt did not endorse my revival of his 'Demolish Serious Culture' slogan as part of my Art Strike campaign of the mid to late eighties, nor was he very keen on some of my re-uses and appropriations of his past activities...