Ben's Butterflies: what's left of the blurring of art and life

University of Navarra

Talk abstract

In discourses around life and art of the last fifty years, Fluxus- and Fluxus-affiliated artists have played a leading role. Among the most vocal of these was visual artist Allan Kaprow, inventor of the Happening. Kaprow’s dominant concern from the late 1960s until his death, documented his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Kaprow and Kelley 2003), was “lifelike art”, which he opposed to “artlike art”. The former category emphasizes the phenomenology and personal meaning of making, independent of the art context; the latter requires and celebrates the Western art-historical tradition and its frames, including spaces of presentation and the artwork itself.

Kaprow’s notion of lifelike art remains influential in some circles. However, it has also taken an ill-fated turn toward ubiquity in our present age of reality-show politicians and chatbots. As critic Claire Bishop (Bishop 2004) has argued, there are ever better reasons to assert the autonomy of artistic creativity. What, then, does the blurring of art and life still have to offer?

For speculative answers, one might look to black Fluxus composer and visual artist Ben Patterson. Patterson’s early work, as exemplified by his legendary piece Variations for Double-Bass (Patterson 1999; Williams 2018), both embodies and challenges the notion of “lifelike art” as theorized by Kaprow. Though he shared Kaprow’s attraction to intermediality, generalism, and art at the service of life, Patterson strayed from dogma. In his work, for example, one finds no conflict between the personal value of creative work-as-verb and the performance of artworks-as-nouns. For Patterson, furthermore, an artist’s job was not only to experience, but also to discover and educate.

In this presentation, I will explore the terms of an expanded Pattersonian notion of lifelike art, focusing on concrete examples from my experience of performing Variations. In particular, I will share the process of selecting and working with the metal butterflies from Variation V which are catapulted from the strings of the contrabass. In so doing, I will argue for the continued relevance of the blurring of art and life beyond its Fluxus origins.