The early Sixties
Nobody paid much attention to the activities presented at the March Gallery down on Tenth Street and later at the Gertrude Stein uptown, during the years 1959 and 1964. Now, when we look back at and contemplate the mainstream of modern art during the 1960's we may find that much of what the decade was all about was predicted by the artistic presentations of the March Gallery group-which included, more or less, Boris Lurie, Sam Goodman, Stanley Fisher, Yaoi Kusama, Ferro, Jean-Jacques Lebel and from time to time other artists.
In Allegiance with the Establishment
There is Iittle indication that the Pop-artists were, in the main, completely aware of the very real repressive nature of the capitalist military and industrial alliance. An easy and superficial claim for the relevance of Pop is to present it as a form of social protest. But most of the artists denied that their movement was specifically one of social criticism. They appear to hove claimed simply that they were engaged within the artist's traditional function as witness to the actualities of the social and material environment. Pop art, therefor, is seen as less a movement of social protest than a style well within the mainstream of Western art and the Western artistic heritage. Minimal art, the other major art style of the decade, remains like pop art an "establishment" art form.
What the March group NO!artists of the early sixties did was to introduce and begin the deritualization process in art. Deritualization is a modern cultural process that deserves some consideration, as it is acknowledged in numerous modern phenomena. Sometimes the clothing we wear is indicative of the deritualization process. Certainly the form and subject of some new art works beginning in the visual arts with the works by Duchamp, continuing through the March Gallery NO!artists group up to present, acknowledges this process.
The uniform no longer offers security, prestige, or anything else really. Modern man is concerned with the deritualization. Kids today wear fragments of military uniforms, fatigue jackets, bomber coats with military insignia, sailor pants, pea coats, U.S. Army labels, etc. And why? For the same reason the NO!artists' group gathered up and used a hoocjepodge of artistic materials. Smears and drips from the Abstract Expressionists, bits of junk like the Assemblage and Junk sculptors, mixtures of materials like the happening artists, poster and "pop" images.
The young today have fragmented the military uniform in a way the NO!artists fragmented aesthetic coherence and integrity. The uniform only counts when it is complete, un-violated, polished, clear and intact. It must be neatly pressed and the buttons must be shining (both an art style as well as a military uniform), if it is to have any message. Otherwise, it is "anti", it is a travesty, an affront and it becomes a protest statement. At the March group we found Lurie offering dead animals, specifically chicken heads encased in plastic brick, and Goodman presenting novelty-type excrement incorporated into box sculpture, to mention only two instances.
NO!artists made the mistakes of calling the aesthetic provocation offered there in "Art" . We can put up with almost anything-garbage all over the place, cops carrying and using guns and clubs, nice buildings torn down in the interest of urban disembowelment, school teachers who hate teaching even more than they hate kids, fascists in high positions hell-bent on imposing their visions on the world-almost anything except someone tampering with our notions of God, Country and Art. And little else need tampering with more than these, in whatever order you chose. This is exactly what was happening during those early years of the decade. Our notions of Art were seriously challenged. And the results of those early, sometime crude, yet always integral efforts to subvert the prevailing aesthetic climate are being felt today more strongly than ever before.
Herbert Marcuse pointed out that the graffiti of the Paris May Rebellion in 1968 was anti-art because it was entirely spontaneous and was not conceived with a deliberate artistic intent. The anti-art works offered by the March gallery pioneers may or may have not been conceived with deliberate artistic intent-at any rate the artistic intent did not correspond to formal aesthetic conditions prevailing during the period. Herbert Marcuse has written in "An Essay on Liberation": "... in its negativity, the desublimating art and anti-art of today 'anticipate' a stage where society's capacity to produce may be akin to the creative capacity of art ... the disorderly, uncivil, farcical, artistic de-sublimation of culture constitutes an essential element of radical politics; of subverting forces in transition." Therefore it may be necessary to search for significant anti-art works outside the realm of formal-art, and that is exactly the attitude that distinguishes the art works of the March group from the mainstream of art. At the same time, to be considered as art of any kind, these works must "... have become a productive force in the material as well as cultural transformation ... in shaping the quality and 'appearance' of things, in shaping reality, the way of life." Some critics will argue that art has always done this, at least to a degree. But Marcuse explains that in order for art to become a truly productive force it would require the "... end of the segregation of the aesthetic from the real ... the commercial unification of business and beauty, exploitation and pleasure." We find that the March artists began an aesthetic indicating the activation of imagination within the new morality as reflected within the new (underground) press, and more generally within the New Left, which has apparently broken through the rigid framework of capitalist repression.
The March Gallery NO!artists demanded a change in the prevailing receptive capabilities of the period, and mainly for this reason can they be awarded the anti-art label. Anti-art must not only be difficult to accept as art, but it must be unacceptable as art.
The assumption is that only the work that is unacceptable is capable of forcing a readjustment, a change, a disruption, a revolution of those capacities and faculties that ultimately determine the meaning and effectiveness for the individual of all information received.
Technology of Freedom
During the early sixties numerous artists were utilizing various technological discoveries as material for their art; and frequently the technology became the very subject, the content of the art. The March gallery artists noticeably avoided overt technological displays. And once again, as things seem to have turned out, they were right. Marcuse tells us "... freedom indeed depends largely on technical progress, on the advancement of science. But this fact easily obscures the essential precondition; in order to become a vehicle of freedom, science and technology would have to change their present direction and goals; they would have to be reconstructed in accord with a new sensibility ..."
Unless the artist, who is handed awesome responsibility by Marcuse-the responsibility to structure the new sensibility-meets his new role of technological, cultural and political subversion thoroughly and with keen understanding of the dangers and criticisms that will inevitably fall his way, he cannot hope to remain a relevant factor determining the direction of the revolution and the very environment for real freedom. It is this fact that the March group seems to have understood thoroughly. Their art reminds us that that very nature is empty-art essentially preconditions confusion, negative reaction, and misunderstanding. The March Artists did not equivocate. Nor can there be any equivocation at this time. As Marcuse warns, "Capitalist progress ... not only reduced the environment of freedom, the 'open space' of the human existence, but also the 'open longing,' the need for such an environment."
Commodity Status of Art
Lastly, one notices that the NO!artists seemed to go a considerable distance toward a rejection of the commodity status of art. Numerous artists today have arrived at a similar viewpoint. The "earth" artists are an example. Another example was demonstrated at the "Anti-Illusion" exhibition at the Whitney Museum in the summer of 1969. The "conceptual" artists go even further and make it clear that we can no longer define art as a commodity or even a physical fact of any commercial value. The new direction is a logical continuation of ideas implanted by the March gallery several years ago. They also coincide with Marcuse's thoughts. He points out that: "The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon people, for using these wares even at the danger of one's own destruction, has become a biological need ..."
The March gallery NO!artists initiated an art of freedom that is only now surfacing and appearing upon the aesthetic conscience. They objected to and avoided the elitism of the art marketplace-a market that has, up until recently, been one of exploitation and "... thereby of domination, insuring the class structure of society".
Source: Lurie, Boris; Krim, Seymour: NO!art, Cologne 1988