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A Total Critique of Culture

Henry Flynt

(c) 1994 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.


I became active in the New York avant-garde at the beginning of the Sixties, and progressed to an anti-art outlook in 1962. The culminating section of my outlook was published in décollage Nr. 3 at the end of 1962. I pulled the entire theory together as a book, and read the manuscript as a lecture at Walter De Maria's loft on February 28, 1963. A photograph of me speaking, taken by Diane Wakoski, has been published many times.

Only parts of that vintage manuscript still exist. When Michel Oren published a historical paper, substantially about me, in Performing Arts Journal, May 1993, I was motivated to recreate my art theory as a new book.


Against "Participation" has the guise of a treatise; but has also aspects of intellectual autobiography, and of a memoir of my cohort group. So my treatment has an autobiographical or diachronic aspect. I could strip the manuscript of that aspect, but I don't want to, for numerous reasons:

My views were publicly presented over the years--in what amounted to a public dialogue with Cage, Young, Morris, Paik, Brecht, and others. I want to treat my early positions as Oren and Kristine Stiles have--as historical objects which require explication and reconsideration.

I want to be a rapporteur for my cohort group. What we knew and when we knew it made a big difference in the direction of our innovations. Additionally, I want to transmit the contempt which my cohorts of 1961 had for moderate modernism and feeble radicalism. To pretend that we were in awe of abstract expressionism or modern dance, for example, would not only misrepresent the past, but renege on positions which were well-taken.

I was aware of non-Western arts in the Fifties, but did not study any of the genres on a sophisticated level until the late Sixties and later. That has forced me to reconsider my condemnation of Serious Culture, which was too facile. (Denouncing Serious Culture solely for its tie to the ruling classes; and rejecting its knowledge-claims for reasons analogous to logical positivism.[1]) I have rethought my perspective in stages; and I want to preserve the process.

In 1963, I assumed that "Marxism" (or whatever one wants to call it) was an ascendant international tendency which I could gravitate toward, or accommodate to. Subsequent decades provided such lessons as the death of Communism, the disappearance of "cultural policy in a socialist state" as an active problem, and the erosion of Marx's economic ideas by developments in technical economics. I concluded that I cannot solve problems by citing Leftist creeds as authorities. In every case, the problem has to be rethought independently.

As of the Fifties, European supremacism in culture theory was an overwhelming consideration. Today, the landscape is quite different: there is a loss of interest in the European classics, combined with "inclusion." The old European supremacism has been buried, but it was never sorted out intellectually. One has to go back, to proceed diachronically, to get at what went on.


My treatment has other features.

As already indicated, I view the avant-garde as a participant and not from the outside. I suppose that gives me the advantage of not being dazzled by the outlandishness.

The entire argument requires philosophical approaches which are specific to me. I go as far as I can in sketching the underlying philosophy without crowding out the topic of art. First, an anti-credulous extremism; then a different direction called personhood theory (see below). Actually, the 1963 manuscript was much too casual about the underlying philosophy. (I could hardly proselytize a bohemian audience--that's what the avant-garde was--by reading technical philosophy to them.) This time around, the philosophical gaps have been the toughest thing to think through.

I view the spectrum of culture from an anti-art position. (I don't pat people on the head for being artists.) My predecessors in this regard, Rodchenko and Cage, were only practicing hit-and-run anti-art; theirs certainly were not exhaustively considered cases against art. Neither was John Zerzan's 1986 article anything more than a mythification of the primitive.

These features make my work extremist--I don't defer to the consensuses of the various professions as academic work does. But the extremism is not a mistake. I'm not, after all, going to repudiate concept art, brend, the question of the existence of language, the inherently alienating character of capitalism, etc.--when they are the premises of my recognized contributions.


There are yet other features.

An art theory must have the potential for acknowledging the levels at which various traditional non-Western genres communicated. It is not sufficient to appeal to an ancient belief such as Hinduism to account for the art, because one would then have to convert to Buddhism which discussing Japan, convert to Islam when discussing Islam, convert to Christianity when discussing Europe, etc. To proceed by declaring for one or another ancient parochialism won't wash. I rely heavily on personhood theory.

Once one commits to taking Indian or Japanese or Islamic work seriously, one is then forced to turn around and acknowledge Europe as a "spiritual package."--And to acknowledge Europe's upper hand or attempted upper hand. (E.g. the doctrine that the tempered scale is higher than just intonation; and worldwide export of the piano.) In turn, that means that my theory must have the potential for accounting for the obvious: what the European canon proposed to offer its traditional audiences. It is not acceptable merely to preach to the converted. One must account for traditions one does not endorse or admire.

Then, the North Atlantic region of the world has a new, sociological priority in world culture today. If one wants cultural credentials, one has to enter the arena of metropolitan high culture, because it is the only prestige venue. Also, everybody aspires to the "highest-volume market," which operates out of the metropolis. All the prominent Indian classical musicians are seen to become commercial-eclectic. The phenomenon of the professional artist who rigorously sustains ethnic tradition seems to have ended in the Eighties at the latest.


The conclusion of my theory is that all art embodies the lie of the advertiser who says "wear my clothes to be yourself." The only success possible to entertainment is to please subjective taste or penchant. But here is the difficulty: how can another person's production match my subjective taste better than experience which I "create"--once we get past entertainment's pragmatic function of regimenting people? In utopia, entertainment would be supplanted by a new modality of self-identified gratifications which cannot be objectively defined (and thereby transferred).

Brend is every doing of an individual which is not naturally physiologically necessary (or harmful), is not for the satisfaction of a social demand, is not a means, does not involve competition; is done entirely because the individual just likes it in doing it, without any consciousness that anything is not-originated-by-self; and is not special exertion. (And is done and "then" turns out to be in the category of "brend.")[2]

Against "Participation" is a critique of art which could only have arisen after positivism, after the European avant-garde, after a century of Marxist social campaigns. At the same time, it is far more generous philosophically to non-Western élite art and even classic European art than the twentieth century "isms" were capable of being.

* * *


Bibliographic Forward

Part I. Introduction

Chapter 1. Cognitive Nihilism and Astute Hypocracy

1.1 Cognitive nihilism and a new "culture"

1.2 Analytical and inventive methods

1.3 The involvement of integrity

1.4 Creeps and sentient individuals

1.5 The person-world orientation

1.6 Philosophically sensitive junctures

Chapter 2. The Supersession of Acognitive Culture

2.1 Avant-garde motivations for an unrelieved negativism

2.2 Marxism and production

2.3 Third-World culture and reductionism

2.4 Marxism and art

2.5 The inventory of critiques

2.6 The fetish of participation

Part II. Serious Culture

Chapter 3. The Abstract Objections to Serious Culture

3.1 Serious Culture as a Eurocentric sphere

3.2 Élite music as a project

3.3 The exclusion of non-Western culture

3.4 Serious art, folk art, popular art in Europe

3.5 Art music's "seriousness"

3.6 The generic refutation

Chapter 4. High Art as a Communicative Medium

4.1 The project of explaining élite art

4.2 Syntax in the communicative medium

4.3 Phenomenology of perceiving the communicative work

4.4 Induced narrative ideation

4.5 Toward a vocabulary for spiritual content

4.6 Re-examining non-Western élite art

Chapter 5. The Social Analysis of Serious Culture

5.1 The importance of validation

5.2 "Classic" art

5.3 Marx's indiscriminate assessments

5.4 Modern art and social élitism

Part III. Unfocused or Unworthy Purposes

Chapter 6. Structure Art

6.1 Concept art as a pivot in the origin of my program

6.2 Pure mathematics reduced to a pastime?

6.3 Structure art

6.4 Cerebration in non-Western art

6.5 The logic of text scores

6.6 Concept art and the rationale of mathematics

Chapter 7. Artists as the Bourgeoisie's Custodians of Sordidness

Chapter 8. Notes on Utilitarian Art

Aesthetic choices in the applied arts or design

Progressivism's promotion of didactic art

Chapter 9. Newness as Sole Value

Chapter 10. Post-Dada and the Crumbling of Art's Purposes

10.1 Taking post-Dada at its word

10.2 Works of displacement and dissolution

10.3 George Brecht's "non-art"

10.4 The critics of the period

10.5 The avant-garde responds

10.6 "Anti-art" in later criticism

10.7 Conclusions

Part IV. Recreation and Fulfillment

Chapter 11. Entertainment and Brend

Chapter 12. Production, Class, and Fulfillment in Life

12.1 Source texts

12.2 Meaningless work in 1960

12.3 Psychic hygiene of work and idleness

12.4 Is culture-innovation work?

12.5 The arts, life, brend

12.6 Postscript: is utopianism irresponsible?

* * *


A. Henry Flynt -- Abbreviated publication list

B. Bibliography on Aesthetics

C. Henry Flynt -- Early writings on acognitive culture

* * *

Bibliographic Forward

In 1962-64, I developed the manuscript of a panoramic critique of culture. I read the first complete draft publicly as a "lecture" in February 1963,[3] under the title From Culture to Veramusement. (Hereafter FCTV.) The next and last integral draft of the manuscript was titled From Culture to Brend. It must have dated from after March or April 1963, since that was when I introduced the word brend.

In length, FCTV was not more than a monograph; but it contained a dense and panoramic argument. I used the word culture more or less as it is used in journalism: to cover all of the sciences and all arts and entertainment. FCTV was concerned with culture exclusive of knowledge, that is, with the arts and entertainment. I referred to this subject-area as acognitive culture, and later, as adoctrinal culture. In 1963, my style was satirical; and I used the phrase Serious Culture for elite art (or metaphysically pretentious art). Even though `Serious Culture' is abstractly interchangeable with `elite art', my exposition has nuances which seem to warrant retaining it.


My culture critique was the product of a philosophical posture, unique to me, which had been launched from logical positivism. The critique was also the product of intense experiences in practicing several of the arts, and in orienting myself among artists, in Cambridge and in New York from 1958 to 1963, approximately. Cultural authority had been seized by the avant-garde. A much-filiated "disintegration of art" was taking place in New York. This chapter in the career of art has been so misrepresented by art historians as to have become invisible.

If one reviews the new music that was produced between 1950 and 1965 by Cage, Wolff, Klein, Brecht, Young, Paik, Kosugi, and numerous others, one must conclude that these figures' loyalty to the customary purposes of music was nonexistent. They were prepared to advance any whimsical gesture as music. There was, in fact, a doctrine of novelty which had become impatient with metaphysically pretentious art, and which resented all socially inculcated patterns as impositions. Discontinuous novelty was sought; experiences which could not be labelled were sought.[4] And yet, the composers' loyalty to the label `music' was absolute. The professional shell was sacrosanct.[5] One kept encountering the smirking remark, "Well, I think anything can be music."

That is where my intervention began. Why was it that the professional shell was an absolute, while the content was entirely arbitrary? My position--argued in detail with respect to serial music and text scores (word pieces)--was that one could not do anything well if one was blatantly sailing under false colors, and being pulled by mutually nullifying purposes.

In my own work, I began to reorganize the cultural panorama into what I called integral activities, that is, activities whose purposes were cogent and whose import accorded with their proclaimed descriptions or labels.[6] For example, I proposed (in effect) that emotionally modulated music should become "new ethnic music"; whereas fascination with accidental noise should become audart (later, audact).

A more ambitious reorganization was my proclamation of concept art. Another genre, or modality, which I proposed might be called non-narrative science fiction.[7]

Because my access to publication was very limited, the documentary record of my inventions is very fragmentary. In 1961, I circulated a four-page text called "Anthology of Non-Philosophical Cultural Works" which had samples of several of my new genres, as just explained. This document had a one-paragraph introduction which said in part

I cannot include here my essays which discuss at length the purposes of lingart, audart, strange culture description, concept art, and so forth ... each of the works in this anthology, if considered without rigid preconceptions, is pretty obviously good for only one thing. ...the lack of explanation will be a good thing if it leads the reader to decide for himself what the value of the works is, rather than depending on their being in a tradition, or having academic certification, or having a standard label ... These works stand by themselves.

"Concept Art" received book publication in 1963. "Mock Risk Games" was first published in 1966.[8] The "Perception-Dissociator" model was published in 1968.

Early on, Simone Forti complained that I was topheavy with theory. Jackson MacLow complained that I was compulsive in demanding that activities be "integral."

But the new genres were not the end of my adventure. My theoretical re-examination became more and more insistent. The view of art in logical positivism had an effect on my thinking. Once we agreed that art could not be a form of knowing, and that it only expressed emotion, then it seemed that all art was formally on the same level as amusement. My inquiry turned, then, to a ruthless scrutiny of the modality of amusement. As I will explain as I proceed, I concluded that institutionalized amusement was not a cogent activity. Since my new genres were formally at the level of amusement, that meant that they too were invalid. When I said all this in my lectures in 1962-63, I still supposed that I was doing my peers a favor, showing them the ramifications of their own "anti-art" positions.


Let me sketch the publication history of the critique which was consolidated in FCTV. But before I do, let me answer my earlier question as to why the avant-garde figures adhered so adamantly to the traditional genre labels. The answer, of course, is supplied by hindsight. They all went on to play the career card. In the light of their careers, their early escapades must be assessed as attention-grabbing. They clung to labels such as `music' or `sculpture' because they knew that music or sculpture would become their lifetime job. As for me, the opportunistic possibilities of sailing under false colors meant nothing to me. (Or to be more precise, I never confused concessions made under duress with what I really thought.)

In 1963, I submitted FCTV to Helena and Kurt Wolff Books through Christian Wolff. The Wolffs rejected the work.

Meanwhile, my theory saw publication as a series of fragments. The "brend" theory appeared first, in 1962, as "My New Concept of General Acognitive Culture." That essay focused on the final phase of the theory, the treatment of entertainment. I changed my term for the new modality which was meant to supersede art and entertainment several times: general acognitive culture[9] (May 1962); pure recreation; veramusement; brend (March or April 1963).

Publication of "Concept Art" was a keystone of my critical perspective. The essay offered a joint critique of serial music and mathematics which was unique to my philosophy. The prerequisite for the critique was the subsumption of serial music[10] and mathematics under a single rationale.

My philosophical perspective, which was the impetus of all of my other positions and innovations, was first represented in print in 1964 by the one-page "Philosophy Proper." The same publication included my March-April 1963 press release which chronicled my reading of FCTV as a lecture in February 1963.[11] The press release contained a brief abstract of FCTV.

In 1965, the pamphlet Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership in Culture was published. By this time, I sought to subsume my culture critique to Leninist doctrine. Sections of the pamphlet presented critiques of elite art, middlebrow art, and didactic art. (The pamphlet also promised a supporting book called Class and the Development of Culture, which I never assembled.) Broad sections of FCTV, then, first appeared in print in this form, heavily doctored on behalf of Leninism.

In 1968, I published the pamphlet Down With Art, headed by the essay "Art or Brend." This was, in fact, my second published treatment of the brend theory (the first having been "My New Concept of General Acognitive Culture"). The later treatment resembled the earlier in that I assumed that elite art was already on the defensive and did not need to be the focus of my critique. In fact, I tried to compress the entire problem of acognitive culture to the question of whether a given "work" succeeded in entertaining.

The opportunity to expand on my overall cultural program came with the publication of "A Summary of My Results" in 1972, and then with Blueprint for a Higher Civilization in 1975.[12] In the course of my explorations, modalities such as concept art, which I had originally envisioned as solutions to aesthetic problems, became recast as intellectual modalities, as challenges to the sciences. I assumed an audience sympathetic to the idea of a higher civilization, an audience for whom art was obviously a backward-looking institution (if not one of class society's outright parasitisms). Thus, again, the only treatment of acognitive culture which seemed to be necessary was my sketch of the brend theory.

That is why I was willing to let my entire critique of acognitive culture be represented by "Art or Brend." Today, "Art or Brend" is not as satisfactory to me as I had long assumed it was. It was written after I had subordinated myself to the sectarian Left for several years--and showed it. The initial sentences were too deferential to natural science. Then, there was a paragraph inserted to acknowledge Marcuse: in hindsight, an unnecessary concession to his romantic fantasy of the artist as the "saint of refusal." Finally, my exposition of brend was perfunctory. In particular, brend as a category has philosophical oddities which went unremarked.

Assuming as I did that elite art was on the defensive, and that my culture critique could be compressed to the brend theory, I destroyed large portions of FCTV, including the entire treatment of Serious Culture. Vintage versions of some portions of the book survive:

- the chapter on the issue of newness

- the chapter on "structure art"

- the section on applied arts

- the chapter on brend.


A casual reader who saw first one and then another of my fragmentary publications in the Sixties could not have inferred the sequential quest and the panoramic theory to which they separately pointed. Here I propose to reconstruct that theory in full. My early abruptness and unrelieved negativism remain instructive today. At the same time, a number of provocative premises were left tacit in the vintage versions, and I shall now spell them out. There were, also, reconsiderations which were forced by subsequent experience, personal and historical, and I shall now incorporate them. So it is that the present exposition will move between reconstruction and reflection.

The work which follows is far more accommodated to classic scholarly norms than the vintage drafts were. But that does not make the vintage drafts superfluous. In fact, they need to be an appendix to this work. The explanations which I furnish today cannot replace the vintage texts.

My vintage treatments express a spontaneously direct "literal empiricism." They are uncompromised by Hegelianization or Continentalization. (Except for my unfortunate use of the word `contradiction' to refer to dual purposes which are mutually obstructing.) There is no waltz of celestial abstractions, no mysticism. I announce rigid disjunctions, and follow them wherever they lead. The arguments take the form of a rigid purism of aims. I make intransigent demands for integrity--or (if the word "integrity" is bothersome) for disambiguation of aims. Beyond that, the expositions venture upon a subtle empiricist anti-phenomenology--especially in conjunction with the peculiar features of `brend' as a term to which each reader gives a different and incommunicable denotation.

Far more than purism is at stake. I employed purism to oppose pompous and sentimental rubbish which was long overdue for opposition. And, as I spelled out above, I spoke from experiences in practicing the arts, and in orienting myself among artists. The first outcome of my critique was to pass from existing institutions to novel, highly integrated solutions. Again, concept art was an notable example.

In 1962, I envisioned a dissolution of civilization's cognitive fabric. By 1963, this had metamorphosed to advocacy of a Communist higher civilization. By 1965, realizing that my visionary program was being ignored, I tried to make common cause with actual ongoing revolutions. As regards "art," my argument sought to transport the reader from art to the moment of incommunicable, unsourced gratification.

In a "community of enlightenment," that counsel would perhaps point people toward shared ineffable moments. But without such a community, my solution meant cultivating that which makes oneself opaque to other people--and separating oneself from other people because of their acquiescence to inherited, enslaving concepts and assumptions.


As I have just noted, my intellectual career is documented in a group of rather numerous, if scattered, publications. Here, I much prefer to assume that the reader has these publications available, or can obtain them as they are mentioned in the discussion.[13] The exposition would be intolerably ponderous if I had to refer each idea of mine to its first appearance in print and epitomize the publication in question. Apart from the appended bibliography, I am citing myself as lightly as possible.