L’art, est ce qui rend la vie plus intéressante que l’art. – Robert Fillliou
Shalom Neuman espouses an anachronism whose time has come. Neuman’s notion of “Fusionism” harks back to an aesthetic and a practice at least fifty (and by some accounts a hundred) years old. But in the context of today’s world, Neuman’s Fusionism seems newly vital, even urgent – as vital and urgent as Neuman has long insisted it was.
Fusionism comes to us at a crucial juncture in human consciousness. We live in a world not simply dominated, but defined, by the computer. Our minds are connected digitally, our lives depend on the calculations and recordings of electronic machines, and – resultingly – our perceptions are now forged by the myriad flat, physically featureless images that come to us on laptops, tablets, and cell phones. The visual, and temporal, stimuli that act most profoundly upon us do so at a remove, speaking to us from behind an invisible but obdurate barrier, one that removes all haptic sensation. Everything we know, or at least see, is virtual.
As a result, a hunger seems to be emerging for actual experience, for real textures, real colors, real shapes – things that act upon us by sharing not just our visual space but our physical space. The resurgence of enthusiasm for painting, for instance, attests to this hunger. So does a growth in bibliophilia. (The book itself has relinquished its indexical responsibilities to the computer, and now can exist as a self-contained art form.) And artwork that exists in time as well as space, while adequately recorded and replayed on easily accessible Websites, attracts new audiences to its live, unique and fleeting presentations.
Neuman’s Fusionism situates itself squarely at the heart of this emerging “new materiality.” Neuman’s aesthetic does not reject the experiential advantages and sensorial peculiarities of computer-generated, computer-retrieved art, or even of the playback and dissemination made so easy by digital technology. (He is diligent, for instance, about posting videos of recent performances and manifestations on Facebook.) Fusionism is an inclusive approach, indeed, an inclusive ideology: “We aim for maximalism,” states Neuman’s 1995 “Fusionism Manifesto,” “to bridge and combine rather than reduce, minimize and restrict.” And, “We espouse the use of all contemporary technological mediums and the melding, the fusing, thus creating the art of the future.” The art of 1995’s future is happening now – and Fusionism at once reflects and helps drive it.
Fusionism thus answers to a deeply felt need on the part of art’s audience. It harkens back to the values and attitudes of a more idealistic time, and proffers art, still and moving, whose elaborate playfulness captures a bygone spirit, free of post-modernist cynicism and doubt. But now more than ever we need to recapture modernism’s passion and unbridled, visionary inventiveness. At a time when artists operate under far more constraint than do their counterparts in business and technology, Neuman challenges the contemporary imagination: art, he declares, is the province of those who make it and attend to it, not just to those who pay for it.
Neuman has preached and practiced Fusionism for almost a half-century at this writing. Indeed, when he embarked upon Fusionist practice, such practice was widespread, practically commonplace. “In 1967,” he has written, after exposure to the range of classic 20th century modernist work and thought, “I made a commitment to invent a methodology in which all the arts are fused into a seamless multi-sensory art experience.” That modernist work and thought had also spurred many artists in all disciplines to push at the practical and conceptual boundaries of their disciplines, and to seek an artistic “unified field” that could stimulate any and all senses of artists and audiences alike. Neuman was the artistic child of this impulse, codifying it early on and making art ever since according to that code.
Fusionism, in fact, is in the DNA of modernism. The concept of multi-media – or, if you would, intermedia – goes back at least to the Gesamtkunstwerk espoused by Richard Wagner in the middle of the 19th century. In the wake of Wagner’s postulation came many more attempts at combining art forms, embodied in everything from the livre d’artiste to explorations of musical-visual synesthesia. Each generation of modernists investigated the possibilities of intermingling and fusing disparate artistic practices in its own way, and every art form found its equivalent across aesthetic boundaries: Cubist poetry, Expressionist prose, Futurist music, Dada theater, Constructivist dance, Surrealist cinema – for each movement now recorded in the annals of art history, parallel phenomena occupy positions in the histories of other art forms.
When Neuman studied his modern art, it was this ism-driven yearning of the arts to collapse into one another that struck him. And, working on the east coast of the United States at a time of unprecedented artistic activity throughout North America, he was surrounded by others as inspired as he to “fuse the muses” in veritable orgies of boundary-dissolving artistic practice. In the wake of the postwar Beat scene, engaging the best minds of its generation in a vast and varied artistic efflux, artistic activity could hardly maintain the segregation of its components (as enforced in more academic contexts). And, following the lead of John Cage, several generations of artists around the world sought an art that effectively erased all barriers between media and, more importantly, thought. Under Cage’s sway, Robert Rauschenberg invented the Combine, Allan Kaprow invented the Happening, and a loose network of experimentalists given the name Fluxus proposed an art so thoroughly integrated with life as to obscure disciplinary distinction.
Neuman was touched by all this activity, from “concrete poetry” to “conceptual music” to the revolutionary proposals of the Judson Dance Theater, culminating as it did at the time of his own emergence. And by declaring himself a Fusionist, he implied an embrace of any and all of these hybrid practices. But if his own practice, then and since, could be identified under any one of the new rubrics, it would be under that of the Happening, the most materially ambitious “intermedium” and arguably the most direct descendant of the early-modern Gesamtkunstwerk. Al Hansen called Happenings “time/space art,” sprawling across three and four dimensions as they did – and as Neuman’s Fusionist presentations still do. His sculptures and installations, even his paintings, embrace a vast array of materials and images – centering, to be sure, on themes of alienation and mechanization, but also celebrating both man and machine for their salutary qualities. Their physical and imagistic complexity can only anticipate Fusionism’s sprawling, time-eating theatrical presentations, however, are many-layered spectacles in which many different events occur and overlap, equally by design and by chance, very much in the form as well as spirit of 1960s Happenings.
Kaprow had not conceived of the Happening as such a “baroque” endeavor; his own early (1958-62) work, and those of most of his peers, was structured much like traditional plays or even musical compositions, the disparate elements somehow harmonized in time and space. But the Happening remembered popularly from the ‘60s was indeed broad and ungainly, often undermined by amorphous, half-baked libertine philosophy and the license taken by indulgent participants. While the performances Neuman stages under the Fusionist rubric assume the physical and artistic ambition of those colorful happenings, they reject the silliness and shapelessness of their predecessors. Neuman is as careful a technician, even craftsman, in his performances as he is in his stationary work. Fusionism may dissolve disciplines, but it relies on discipline.
That said, Neuman’s own aesthetic is one of inclusion, not exclusion. Fusionism itself resulted as much from his negative reaction to the reductivist tendencies of the ‘60s as to his positive reaction to the era’s inclusivist tendencies. Indeed, at one point in his 1995 Manifesto, Neuman decries “the continued creation of minimalistic, abstract and concrete art” as “repeating the past and not creating the future.” In this, he reflects his own background as a figurative painter and his investment in the tradition of humanism that he derived from historical modernism and its antecedents equally. In “The Philosophy of Fusionism,” Neuman wrote that, “By not abandoning traditional methodologies, artists can create art by continuing to bring the classical into the contemporary by using traditional methods and artifacts in combination with new media for a maxim[al]ist approach, combining sound, smell, text, moving image, painting, sculpture, sound systems, digital loops, motion detectors, dimming systems, video projection and myriad technological methods that enable the artist to communicate.”
There is an historic irony to the origination of Shalom Neuman’s Fusionism in classical figuration. The Renaissance and Baroque periods Neuman cites by inference were precisely those periods during which the arts were separated from one another into discrete disciplines, with their own dedicated academies. What Neuman suggests is that this separation need never have happened – or, perhaps, that it happened simply because 16th and 17th century European technology prompted the separation. Whatever the circumstance, he clearly believes that late 20th-early 21st century global technology can and should re-unify the arts – not by excluding the traditional art forms that allow creative expression to be palpably embodied, but by combining their actuality with the virtuality of digital means to determine an all-encompassing art, an art that has fused the disparate arts seamlessly to one another.
Los Angeles February 2014
By Peter Frank
Image of Peter Frank © Peter Frank (Facebook profile image)