A mourning note: On the condition of possibility of fluxious art.
March 8, 2023

Mary Bauermeister as an artist has been and is reflected on in art criticism. The short remark at hand seeks to point out another aspect of her lifework, that is of relevance not only for music but also for the critical and conscious relations between the arts. Mary Bauermeister, born in 1934 in Frankfurt, died on march 2, 2023. In the early 1960s she started running the "Atelier Bauermeister" in her flat, Lintgasse 28 in Cologne. Here, she invited artists for exhibitions, concerts and performances, among them the ‚who is who‘ of what later would form the Old Guard of the Fluxus movement: George Maciunas, Wolf Vostell, Hans G Helms, David Tudor, John Cage, George Brecht and Nam June Paik. That is why the evenings at Atelier Bauermeister are considered pre-Fluxus events, as is Originale (1961, see Stefan Fricke 2004), an early collaboration of Mary Bauermeister with her husband-to-be Karlheinz Stockhausen, which also involved - together with the 1964 New York performance - Allan Kaprow, Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, Hans G. Helms, Dick Higgins, each of them in one way or another leading cadres in critically designing the relation between the arts. The later ringleader of the Fluxus movement George Maciunas, nevertheless, should exclude on this occasion a double membership between Stockhausen’s Originale and the Fluxus movement with the slogan: “against all bourgeois reactionaries, dogmatists and Stockhausen.” This already expressed a regression from the idea of the Atelier Bauermeister.

When Mary Bauermeister herself reflected on her role in art history, she would hardly say a word about 'her own' artworks, but in many occasions stresses the formulation of being a “melting pot” for the arts as well as the “grandmother of Fluxus” (the Fluxist Ben Vautier further traced the dynastic succession of Fluxus: „Satie is the great-grandfather, Duchamp the grandfather and Cage the father of Fluxus“). Taking that seriously and thus following Mary Bauermeister in her own assessment, means to – in this respect – consider not herself in her role as artist, but as someone who gives birth to an artist (or to the one giving birth to an artist), to consider as the product of her work not artworks in the original sense, but, as ‘melting pot of the arts,’ she produces the conditions for the critical transformation of the arts as they exist. What she gave birth to is the condition of possibility of art as a critical reflection of itself, the other art forms and the world. The Atelier Bauermeister hasn’t been mere application and administration of the division of the sensible but the critique of the division of the sensible. Susan Buck-Morss once defined the work of an artist as “to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience”, and she adds: “Our work as critics is to recognize it.” Buck-Morss articulates this relation under the threat of “the liquidation of art as we have known it.” Art as a critical practice thus existentially depends on the conscious mediation of the relationships of theory and practice, production and critique, artist and public. This relations, again, depend on someone who organizes them. The Atelier Bauermeister has been an organization for the critical intercourse between the arts and their interpretation that is the conditio sine qua non of the critical function of art. What if, with the death of Mary Bauermeister, the condition of the possibility of art as a critical reflection of itself and of contemporary life had died with her?

Mary Bauermeister's prisms are the art to gather and refract, to reflect and transform light.

And indeed, that is what is in question today. State funding, festival and concert promoters have absorbed nearly all the forces of free transformation of the arts. Artists, their historic grandparents as well as their contemporary critics are fully integrated in the cultural industry supermarket and occupied selling their musical commodities and hopping on the carousel of work commissions, table talks, work commentaries, fellowships, master classes and promotion articles which is what music criticism is reduced to today. It is hard enough to hop on that carousel and leaves no room for hopping off again to reflect on the possibility of free transformation of the arts. But at the same time, it is the pretention of that question that keeps the carousel turning at all. Under these conditions the artist is the salesclerk of sonic comodities, the public a passive custom and the art forms are just different market branches. Thus, the critical relations between artist and public, work and interpretation, theory and praxis are reified into objects of calculation and administration rather than objects of conscious transformation.

Mary Bauermeister, Malerische Konzeption, 1961, (private reproduction by Stefan Fricke).

Mary Bauermeister represented what is missing in this ever-turning carousel: introducing and organizing the space and the time for free production, reflection and transformation of art. She established the context for mediating the critical relation of theory and praxis within the process of production and interpretation of art by organizing and setting the ground for the articulation of artistic questions independent of state funding and the culture-industrial market. Both, the state and culture industry are obstacles to that purpose. The commodification and ideological occupation of the arts by the state and culture industry turn artworks into objects to be sold as commodities and into propaganda.

This is the reification of art that Susan Buck-Morss identifies with the “liquidation of art as we have known it.” The Atelier Bauermeister, in contrast to the reification and liquidation of the arts, was the organized liquefaction of art as we have known it –to go beyond and overcome ist reified condition. It is the condition of possibility of art that it is more than a reified, commodified object, but an object of fluxionary transformation of free consciousness. For that to be possible it is indeed necessary to melt the reified art commodities, and it is no wonder that this melting gives birth to something like Fluxus.

In this respect, one thing must be added: Neither did Mary Bauermeister earn money with the events nor did the artists who performed and discussed there. They wouldn’t add "Mary Bauermeister scholarship" in their CVs. They did it, because they seeked to give birth to something new, out of the necessity of free and conscious transformation. It wasn’t about getting a job. Of course, all the fluxists came to Germany through funding - Fluxus chairman George Maciunas even got his money as a designer for the US-troops in Wiesbaden, Germany, where he gave the official kickoff for fluxus in 1962, instead of the Atelier Bauermeister. The state and the culture industry are as much the condition of art as they are its fundamental obstacle, and art consists in the prismatic reflection and shaping of precisely this contradictory relationship.

Mary Bauermeister
"Mary Baumeister, eins und eins ist drei", Filmstill. Image: Courtesy Dokfest Munich.
There was a room in my studio where six musicians could sleep on mattresses, they all had no money, one had no money for a hotel. If there was a concert in Cologne, the musicians slept at my place, so they saved on the hotel, got the expenses from WDR (West German Broadcasting), also earned their money at WDR, and all the concerts at my studio were free. We didn't have any money either, there was no money available. [1]

This is only a tiny aspect of what the name and life of Mary Bauermeister might mean to us and will be remembered for. But it is an aspect that is of the most crucial relevance for us today. The most elementary necessity of music in the presence is to constitute its condition of possibility, meaning it is inexistent today. Only that can provide the context in which new art can be born and fluxionary liquefied and transformed. We need to establish contexts that are independent of both, culture-industry and the state, in which music can be played, performed, developed, discussed and criticized. We mourn Mary Bauermeister, grandmother of Fluxus, melting pot of the arts.

[1] Mary Bauermeister in conversation with Stefan Fricke, Rösrath June 10, 2022 (unpublished, transl. JIK).

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