There’s a phenomenon discussed in philosophy and psychology called the bias or tendency toward coherence. In general terms, it deals with the fact that we want things to make sense, and we want to live and think in a way that makes sense. More specifically, we want things to make sense in terms of the way we view the world. If something strange happens, we want to make it fit our worldview, we want to explain it to ourselves in a way that doesn’t compromise the structure we think we’ve figured out for things happening around us.
The tendency toward coherence comes up a lot in psychology because we have perceptions of ourselves (good and bad) and coping mechanisms (good and bad) that dictate a lot of our behavior and our thoughts about the value of what we’re doing. And we use these perceptions and coping mechanisms to help ourselves act in a way that is consistent with the way we think of ourselves. So, if you’re at a restaurant trying to choose a meal and you think of yourself as someone who likes to try new things, you’re more likely to try a dish you’ve never had before than someone who thinks of themselves as a person who sticks with what they know and like already.
In fields like biology or anthropology, it can refer to the tendency of scientists to try to make the data and observations fit the theory they’re working on, even when it doesn’t quite fit. Or worse, they might ignore data and observations that don’t fit, so that they don’t have to compromise the coherence of their theory.
All of which is to say, it’s a really prevalent phenomenon. It helps us maintain our sanity in confusing and difficult situations, and it allows us to build technology and structures based on largely coherent ideas. But it can also limit our worldview and bind us to ideas that are no longer useful.
The thing it really throws into focus, though, is that life is absurd and terrifying and inexplicable and nothing if not completely and utterly incoherent.
This all came up for me when I stopped by Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life, an exhibit currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery (through December 3), which is part of this year’s Performa 11 performance art biennial.
The Fluxus artists (a loose collective working in different media from the 1960s through the present) are kind of fantastic for regularly embracing incoherence, or at the very least challenging it. Interesting then that the legacy of the Fluxus group is tied up in a small-scale battle to fit it into a very specific place in the art world to suit the pet theories of a handful of collectors and academics. I’ll spare you the long version of that story, because it’s a dull one and you can get the highlights of it over at Wikipedia. The very short version is that a small group of people feel that they have a vested interest in placing limits around the Fluxus artists, particularly around who is able to be classified as one, and what time period they were operating within. It’s precisely the kind of negative parts of coherence that make us want to put things in boxes because we think that by labeling or containing them, we can control them.
It speaks to the troubles faced by collectives or amorphous groupings of all kinds. Without offering people easy ways of categorizing or making sense of these groups, outsiders decide to adapt them to their own ways of thinking—their own versions of coherence. And once a strong, rich, and/or loud enough outsider has stamped the group with a label, it’s almost impossible for the group to combat this imposition, though internally they can go right along doing what they were doing before, if they can manage it. This is precisely the issue that infuriates and excites many people when it comes to the Occupy Wall Street protests, and countless other radical movements and small affiliation-based groups of the past and present.
People have a hard time accepting incoherence. Our brains don’t seem to like it. We seem to prefer coherence. In some cases we seem willing to destroy things, including lives, in order to maintain it.
So, in the face of all that, it seemed like a good moment to be walking around this exhibit, wondering about the value of incoherence.
The exhibit contains over 100 objects, documents, and pieces of ephemera, along with excerpts from a handful of films. Despite having so much on view, it in no way feels overly encyclopedic or dense. The organizing principle behind each section of the exhibition comes from the essential questions of the title. Questions like “Art (What’s It Good For)?” or “Love?” or “Death?” are the headings under which the works are organized. And while these earnest inquiries into the difficult and largely unanswerable questions we all face might elicit eye-rolling from many gallery-goers, the humor and connections to the everyday in the work of the Fluxus artists gives even skeptical viewers an opportunity to let go of their cynicism.
John Cage’s experimental compositions helped to inspire the early Fluxus artists. Cage’s fundamental questioning of what it means to compose, what actually constitutes music, and what an instrument is, helped to blow open an art form that most people thought they understood. This tendency to ask basic questions and to produce humorous, playful, and insightful responses is what characterizes a huge swath of the work by Fluxus artists.
Because it was a loose collective at its inception, it’s hard to say who was and wasn’t a member of Fluxus, but some 50-60 artists are affiliated with the group, including a handful of women (which was unusual at the time for prominent art movements) and even a couple of artists of color (very unusual at the time). George Maciunas is generally acknowledged as one of the leaders of the group, at least in the sense that he named it and organized events, exhibitions, and meetings. A large percentage of the works on display in this exhibition are by Maciunas.
Much of the group's work makes use of simple materials that were readily available to anyone living in a city at the time. One of the most common forms the work took were Fluxkits, typically small boxes or containers filled with objects and printed cards that invite or dare the viewer to make use of them, such as George Maciunas’ "Burglary Fluxkit" (1971), which contains a mixture of keys, or Robert Filliou’s "Ample Food for Stupid Thought" (1965), which contains cards asking things like “is everybody in the same boat?” or “why not walk away?”
The most important thing to remember when walking around a Fluxus exhibition is that all of these things were meant to be handled, to be used and manipulated and explored by the person who encountered or bought them. Fluxus artists created ad-hoc “stores” in which they would sell these items at purposely low prices so that the works could be owned by those far below the typical art collector’s economic status. These works were not meant to sit quietly in vitrines, they were meant to be interacted with. The Fluxus artists were asking each of us to participate in the art, to take on the questions they were asking, and to think about how they prompt us to blow open our own fixed notions about the world and ourselves.
There are a number of great works in the exhibition. A couple of those that struck me in particular were Maciunas’ "Literate Man vs. Post-Literate Man with Contemporary Man," which is simply a printed poster featuring four charts akin to phrenology diagrams, indicating Maciunas’ suggestions of the thoughts and ideas that rule us. In the contemporary man chart was one of the best descriptions of one of our leading tendencies today, labeling the frontal lobe region as “non-sensory world of speed-up & play-back of experience & data.”
I was also struck by Robert Filiou’s "Optimistic Box No. 1" (1968), which consists of a small box filled with a squarish stone and a note that reads, simply, “we don’t throw stones at each other any more.” It seemed to be a wry evocation of the Situationist demonstrations that took place in France that same year, in which many stones were thrown and one of the major slogans that emerged was “sous les pavés, la plage,” (under the cobblestones, the beach), which referenced, among other things, the way in which capitalism had paved over the stuff of life.
Some of the work around the notions of love and sex seemed more than a little misogynist and characterized by a reduction of women to nothing more than sex objects or objects of desire. A particularly glaring example being Robert Watts’ "Fluxfilm No. 13, Trace #24" (1965)—a black and white film featuring a disembodied female lower torso and crotch, rolling and writhing on the floor. But these works are countered by other works mentioned or displayed in the exhibition, such as Yoko Ono’s famous "Cut Piece," in which Ono sat with a pair of scissors in front of her and allowed audience members to come up and cut off pieces of her clothing and take them with them. This performance notoriously devolved into a threatening, violent, and unpredictable series of audience interactions when it was performed.
By taking on grand, playful, and un-ironic questions about life and our place in it as the organizing principle of the exhibit, this work manages to celebrate the very thing that great art represents in our society—a public interrogation and discussion of philosophy in a media that is both approachable and not driven by dogma.
The exhibition also serves as a wonderful reminder that life is absurd and terrifying and inexplicable, and that sometimes our desire to fit things into patterns and systems is holding us back more than it’s helping us.