An Interview with Henry Flynt
New York, New York, July 25, 2007
Musician, philosopher and anti-art activist Henry Flynt is known for his unique synthesis of Indian classical music and the music of the American South. He has written and lectured on a diverse range of topics: mathematics, musicology, psychedelics, meta-technology, revolutionary politics, acognitive culture, concept art and dignity, to name a few. In addition to releasing archival recordings of his music, Flynt and his niece Libby have recently toured as the rock ‘n’ roll duo, The Flynts. In this interview, Flynt discusses the circle of artists and thinkers with whom he associated in the late 1970s and 80s. The interview took place at the apartment of Virginia Tate in Tribeca, New York.
JULIA DZWONKOSKI & KYE POTTER: Here we are in Tribeca…
HENRY FLYNT: Yes and as a matter of fact we might go back to around 1980-1981. I have a niece, Libby Flynt, in North Carolina and I invited her to visit. At that point C.C. Hennix was teaching or had just taught in the Mathematics department at the University of New York at New Paltz. Libby and Hennix got a house in Woodstock, New York. That’s where they met Virginia Tate, whose apartment we’re in now. I had a rather grandiose idea that it was going to become a cultural collective and that it was going to be visited by important people and become a salon.
My idea of Woodstock was probably a myth but that was my fantasy. The house was visited by some important people like Pandit Pran Nath and the Soviet logician Yessenin-Volpin. So the circle is Libby, Hennix, Virginia, La Monte Young and myself. I wanted to show you a couple of locations near here associated with La Monte Young because these are his stomping grounds. He had a building that was a former stock exchange. I wanted to show you that. As I think of this circle, La Monte is a bona fide public figure and Pandit Pran Nath is certainly a world figure. Hennix was a disciple of Pran Nath. I was a student of Pran Nath. I don’t think that Libby came to that point. I think she was timid about stepping forward and saying she wanted to study. There was a point in time where something was going on here. There was a circle of people. Since we’re talking about me that makes me the hub of the circle. If it were Hennix it would be different personnel. If it were La Monte it would be different personnel. I’m talking about the people that I knew. We had something going on that was very different from the going thing, from the sort of run of New York or the run of the cultural community at the time.
JDKP: What did you talk about as a group? Were you interested in any of the same topics that you’ve been writing about recently?
HF: As I mentioned to you, I’ve been writing on so-called emotion and spirituality in art. Spirituality has a vernacular metaphor, the light. I’ve also been writing about dignity. Dignity has a vernacular definition, the sacredness that resides in every person. I’m critically rebuilding the notions these words label.
JDKP: And were these topics discussed when you got together in the 1980s… dignity, the light, and so forth?
HF: No, not explicitly, but I think that is what we were doing and I think it was highly unusual. As you either have or have not gathered—I am an insane extremist. I admit to that.
JDKP: Give us an example of an idea that you hold to be true that is insane…
HF: Insane extremism? Let me slide into it without taking a flying leap. Certainly I’ve spent a lot of time on what would be called the cognitive phase of culture, the dimension of culture or thought comprised by knowing, truth seeking, and the acquisition of true statements. There’s a piece on my website called Uncompromising Positioning that talks about what you have to do when you want to explain something and it’s going to be trivially self-defeating—I mean trivially self-defeating if you go into it in the ordinary colloquial way—and what you have to do, the formal bobbing and weaving that’s needed to end up with something which, instead of trivially defeating itself, defeats or short circuits the entire block of culture that it has been inserted into or focused inside of.
JDKP: Can you try to give examples because I’m lost…
HF: In other words, all beliefs are self-deceiving. To say that colloquially, as an assertion, is trivially self-defeating. that’s the first thing that a real philosophy student learns. So obviously if we’re going to do it right, we’re not going to come about it that way. What’s needed is a replacement that must be taken seriously as a shattering insight. I’m going all the way up to the very apex of my program, which is a wipeout of cognition. I then come down from that to a field that I crystallized in 1979 called metatechnology, which was the idea that if my insight is a sound insight, it should then be possible to alter the laws of nature at will. In other words, you should be able to look down on science from above and see that scientific results are just one delusion…
JDKP: When you refer to the laws of nature are you referring to things like gravity?
HF: Yes exactly, the law of gravity, elementary arithmetic. These are the two standard examples.
JDKP: 2+2 = 4?
HF: Yes and how should I say it… these are conventions which have enough delusion mixed in with them that you could go around them or you could break them from above.
JDKP: What are the tools that you would use to break them if they don’t come from science, or do they come from science?
HF: It’s actually eclectic. Many of my meta-technology studies come from science but it’s eclectic also. It’s not on the same plane or it’s not positioned in the same room, so to speak. One of the major metatechnological manuscripts is The Apprehension of Plurality—you can find it on my website. In that piece I’m ripping into elementary arithmetic, ripping it to pieces. I’m rising off of the plane of arithmetic as it’s commonly understood, but legitimately so. Meta-technology is essentially technical and specific.
JDKP: How did you come to question…
HF: To be so extreme in the first place? Yes, why in the world would someone come to the point of wanting to kill all cognition? When I was in college, which happened to be at Harvard—that was the first time I tried to go to college—I already thought of myself as a philosopher and I ran directly toward the big questions: truth, cognition, reality. I just ran right for that. My only credentials as a philosophy student were that I took Israel Scheffler’s philosophy of science course, which ostensibly had everything to do with what I was doing and wanted to do but in fact wasn’t that at all. The quality of instruction at Harvard was basically terrible, by the way. I don’t know if that matters or if anybody cares. What you got from going to Harvard was meeting other students who came there for the same reason that you had, because they thought it was a good school. Tony Conrad and I were classmates, taking the same courses. We were pacing each other.
During this period I embraced the logical positivist critique of metaphysics, [Rudolf] Carnap’s early empiricist or solipsist formulation. I then concluded that science cannot satisfy empiricist strictures, that it was not credible to assert anything outside of experience. I realized that the assertion that language exists was at the center of the problem. This is the background of my early “cognitive” texts. By the time I was 20 years old, I’d written my first monograph, short, 14 mimeographed pages. That was the first time I said, to put it informally: cognition is a charade.
I continued along the same lines in the 1961 monograph, Philosophy Proper.1 Beginning in 1962, I produced a series of one-page texts which foreground the question of the existence of language at all. The only one of these texts I could get published at the time was Primary Study, which George Maciunas accepted for Fluxus V TRE.2 Resuming with the question, when you say that language exists, that two-word assertion… well, what about that? I decided that, for epistemological reasons, this two word assertion short-circuits. And that’s the end of cognition.
I was setting things up in such a way that the mere possibility of thinking a certain thought could be a discovery or a revelation that did not depend on the truth of the thought. In other words, a thought does not have to be a truth in order to be interesting and in order for the fact that you can think it at all to be important. Concept art, the phrase that I coined in 1961, was an example of this.
JDKP: Concept art, as you describe it, differs significantly from “conceptual art” as we understand it today.
HF: Yes, now I’m retelling the story… you may already know it…
JDKP: But others may not.
HF: Of course they don’t. We wrote an entry for me for wikipedia and they actually rejected it because they said it doesn’t have any footnotes and things like that. That left us in an infuriating position because I had told them the truth. The wikipedia editors were slamming the door on the truth. What am I doing being indignant about truth? I weave back and forth between invoking the truth and announcing that I have blown up the truth. This is what the piece Uncompromising Positioning addresses. When I assert truthfulness, I mean: “it hews to exacting standards in some established discipline which has not yet exhausted its potential.” In my extreme program, those disciplines disintegrate. In any case, I can’t provide wikipedia with the footnotes because there is no scholarship on me. So you’re right that people will be hearing this for the first time, even though it’s tedious to me.
Concept art came because of the quasi-cognitive claims that were being made for serial music. At the time, Cage and his school were involved in a kind of manipulation… you could call it extreme formalism. As a matter of fact I can be precise and call it absurdist formalism. But the absurdist formalism of Cage, you might almost say the head-game aspect of it and the head-game aspect of La Monte Young’s word pieces… I looked at that and I said: Let us isolate the head-game aspect. Instead of being pseudo-cognitive as the serial composers are, let us get rid of that—get rid of what Milton Babbitt would eventually do with the twelve-tone set… that abomination, which I guess is some trivial kind of academic mathematics. I said to hell with that, but let us indeed have an art form that is about head games, that is about logic defeating itself. I was responding directly to these precedents but at the same time I moved it way over and away from where these precedents were.
Many, many years later I was talking to La Monte and Marian [Zazeela] and they were saying the word pieces were basically like social criticism or, you know, pulling the public’s leg, where you have a concert and the performers sit on the stage and watch the audience. They were talking about that as a social practical joke or something like that. I was saying: “Oh no, you’ve just ruined everything for me because I thought that this was a ferocious logical thing that you were involved with rather than a social prank.” That’s what I saw when I looked at these things.
JDKP: You were writing and also composing at this time?
HF: When I first met John Berndt, he said: “I don’t see what it is in your extremist insights that requires you to become some kind of quasi scientific scholar, to write what seem to be scholarly documents appealing to this or that known case in perceptual psychology or foundations of mathematics.” I was putting together things that came from widely different places, from dreams…
JDKP: And from psychedelics… you’ve touched on so many…
HF: Yes, well I must say that if we’re talking about altered states that would be for Hennix to handle.
JDKP: But I do want to ask you how, in phasing out cognition, overcoming elementary arithmetic and exposing science as a hoax… how these steps relate to what we were talking about earlier: the elevated experiences of splendor, radiance, and the light. Is it that once you get rid of certain set ways and day-to-day habits of thought, a door opens to these other states? “That might be an oversimplification but how do you see these other experiences…?
HF: These other experiences or ‘spiritual modalities,’ as I conceive them, are accessible to all people already. I’m just mentioning them. You’re not hearing about them from me for the first time.
JDKP: But where do those experiences fit into your views on science?
HF: This has to do with my long relationship with Hennix. Somehow, Hennix became an acolyte of Pran Nath when she was much younger than me. Hennix’s idea was that what we are presented by everyday life is totally profane. She asserted that logic is not a fantasy, that it is true. Logic is your access to reality. There is a reality and logic is true and real and all of that good stuff. Hennix simply assumed that higher mathematics and higher thought are one and the same.
JDKP: Higher thought meaning spiritual thought?
HF: Superior thought, elevated thought. We don’t need to use the word spiritual. In the European tradition, there’s a figure that really concentrates this and that’s Leibniz. Liebnizian spirituality combines with his interest in mathematics. He is considered to be one of the prophets of mathematical logic. He was a co-inventor of calculus. All of that, it all came together in him. Hennix might not like Leibniz as an individual but I see the mathematical mystique in her way of thinking as being characteristically European and Leibnizian. Hennix put that mentality together with what La Monte was doing, his work with the drone and tuning mystique and the arithmetical theory of musical intervals.
JDKP: So the two of you were interested in understanding how music, mathematics and an elevated dimension come together?
HF: When an educated Westerner comes to Hindustani music the first thing they see is the arithmetic of the scale. That may be the first thing they think about and they publish treatises on that, on the arithmetic of scales. They see the sustained tone and so on. Hennix’s idea was sustained states of awareness, which she wrote about in 1976.4 I finally realized that Christer was talking about being high, in the vernacular sense. In Hennix’s vocabulary, awareness was correlative to luminous.
JDKP: But the high could be achieved not only by using drugs but…
HF: …through logic, for Hennix. These things have long histories and all sorts of documentation. Hennix has an entire oeuvre that the world has never seen. She was trying to pull together logic, psychedelic drugs and the experience afforded by Indian music. Hennix’s idea was that you can’t get to an elevated state by accident. You have to have a formula to get there, or as she would say, an algorithm. She was trying to tie all of this together with formal linguistics. Her master’s degree was in formal linguistics. She believed in logic, truth, reality and so on. Perhaps after meeting me, Hennix began trying to stretch those more than before. Her other mentor, Yessenin-Volpin, made a big deal of the freedom of stipulation or the freedom of how you pay attention to something, how you select by paying attention… but that was as far as the freedom extended. It did not extend into terrain in which contradictions become meaningful expressions. That didn’t happen because it couldn’t happen.
JDKP: But this is possible within your system?
HF: Yes. Wittgenstein had all sorts of explanations for why a contradiction must be vacuous. For example, he said to imagine a plane surface that is entirely colored with one color and is entirely colored with some other color at the same time. He said this is obvious nonsense and that’s why a contradiction can never mean anything. It has no function in a logical system except to ruin the system. I’m involved in a massive war against that kind of thinking. I’m out to get the ones we call “identitarians,” the people who believe that A = A. To me, the people who believe that A = A are the bad guys.5
Hennix is an identitiarian—I think it’s fair to say that. this was a dialogue. Obviously I gained a great deal from Hennix but we were on different sides. I wrote an essay in which I try to reply to Hennix.6 I argue that the subject—the self who does meta-technology—has an uncanny manipulative power over reality.
JDKP: Can you, yourself, manipulate reality in uncanny ways?
HF: Not in a way that would matter to a scientist or engineer yet. In the history of mathematics you have the invention of zero. You could do a whole comedy routine about this nothing invention, which is nothing, which is actually about nothing and which says that it is nothing. Yet, it was of fundamental importance to all mathematics that came after it.
Not only was it of fundamental importance, it resulted in all kinds of problems for mathematicians. In other words, what do paranoids, e.g. the mathematicians, do? Paranoids start out with a delusional system and when there is evidence from the real world that contradicts their system, they have to keep molding the system to make it square with the new evidence that keeps proving that they’re wrong. To me that is the essence of mathematics and of all science. It’s layer upon layer of fixes. Needless to say, the history of the sciences is not taught this way at all. I wanted to tell you that one of the problems that zero creates is that if you raise zero to the zero power—do you know what one to the power of one is?
HF: What is zero to the power of zero?
HF: No, it’s one. The answer you like is the wrong answer.
HF: If I tried to explain it to you we would be here all night. That’s why I picked the example. The thing is that this happens way up in the conceptual system and it then has these reverberations that go all the way down and finally effect what kind of technology you can do. That is probably a reasonable way of thinking about what I do and what I want to do. I’m coming up with these little things way up at the top of the conceptual system.
JDKP: By “technology” you don’t mean the lever or the sewing machine, you mean a conceptual apparatus.
HF: It’s a good question. Why did I say “technology” rather than “science”? I picked the term in 1979 because I wanted to say that metatechnology is not a collection of propositions. It is not a discovery of reality in the sense that you are painting reality with this secured proposition and that secured proposition until you finally have a picture of reality. You’re right that I did not mean the lever and so forth but I meant that technology was instrumental, that it could be an instrumental activity without truth claims. the idea was that the meta-technologist, as a subject and as a self, is presumably going to have access to an uncanny situation.
At the same time, I began to notice that there were phases of experience that just did not come from any of these things that I was doing. My one psychedelic trip—I could not have gotten there by using what I think of as my specialty. I recorded “Celestial Power” during my trip and the way that I played… I tried to duplicate that way of playing without the drug and I couldn’t.
JDKP: That was the one time that you took acid?
HF: It wasn’t acid, it was synthetic mescaline, but there’s no question that it was psychedelic. I was having visual apparitions and full-fledged hallucinations. I still remember playing and seeing a glow around the scroll of the violin and what I specialize in doing does not bring you to that point. This is something else. I guess that I’ve gotten involved, in a rough and ready way, in trying to explore both at the same time. How they connect up… maybe I’m not that far along.
To come back to this group of people and why we were so different— I’ve given you a brief idea of some of the intellectual issues that were in play here. When you think of an artist normally, you think of somebody who trades on being a lowbrow. Pollock or whoever you want to talk about. Lowbrow is part of the job description. Hennix said to me in this apartment: “You know Henry, there isn’t any art that accomplishes anything intellectual and there was only one artist, Leonardo, who had a foot in both camps.” Hennix and I considered ourselves exceptions to this rule. The two of us gave a presentation on concept art at MELA Foundation. We promoted the idea of having art that not only addresses what they call science but actually means to blow it out of the water. We were ambitious in that sense.
JDKP: You’ve been lecturing recently on the subject of dignity.
HF: The idea of dignity is invoked by people who want to support some moral conclusion or other. People want moral conclusions, they insist on them. You have these science weenies walking around. You have Marvin Minsky’s famous line that a human being is a meat machine. In the greater part of their lives, however, these same scientists are totally unwilling to play by their own rules.
JDKP: Because they also want to have morals and values?
HF: Because they want other people to treat them with the greatest generosity, deference, respect, reverence and so forth and so on.
JDKP: Not as meat machines.
HF: Not as electric fans. There are enormous holes in the prevailing culture, which is vastly, systematically insincere in that sense. The whole thing is a hoax. I’ve never been able to get people excited about that. They have no problem walking from one side of the academic hallway to the other, being a physicist on Thursday and going into the theology department on Friday. Here’s another vast incongruity. Sophisticated people affect a secular view of history part of the time—but when it suits them they return to the obtaining monotheism with its divine view of history. It’s just stunningly insincere and dishonest. Apparently I’m the only person who even cares to make that observation.
JDKP: You’ve talked about how this scientific mindset has infiltrated art and music as well.
HF: I want to try to tie this together a bit. We had this circle of people and for me, when you challenge western civilization intellectually, you are also challenging what could be called its emotional side. The view of music that crystallized in Europe, for instance—curiously enough, painting and music became scientific. With painting, it’s perspective and perspective theory. With music, it’s the underlying sound theory, scale theory and the theory of harmony. You get the development of chromaticism and the move to serial music and you end up with Stockhausen and with Meyer-Eppler’s view of music as a branch of engineering.
It was very important to me as an object lesson to understand that the serious composers were saying: “This is it. This is the best. If you want musical popcorn you go somewhere else. If you want the real thing, it had better be scientifically organized.” If you read the early issues of Die Reihe magazine, it’s all there, that attitude. From that point of view, when you look at somebody like Robert Johnson and the country blues, well, it’s pathetic primitivism. That’s the only verdict that they can have on it.
I came to a point when I was 19 or 20 years old when I turned around so completely that I decided that it was the Robert Johnsons who were the real musicians in the West. Stockhausen, to the contrary, was what he sometimes presented himself as—an engineer with, in my point of view, no musical talent, who doesn’t even know what music is. He can put together assemblages of notes using technology like helicopters, which he’s really big on, and some other things that as far as I’m concerned have nothing to do with being a musician. Apparently Europe loves it. We have an entire civilization on that trip. I reject it wholesale.
JDKP: Tell us about your experiences studying with Pandit Pran Nath.
HF: I first heard Pran Nath on tape in La Monte’s loft. The next year La Monte was able to bring Pran Nath to New York. That was January or February of 1970. The lessons and the concerts began and continued for over fifteen years into the mid 80s. During that time Pran Nath had a heart attack, which weakened him, and at the end of his life he had Parkinson’s disease, which actually affected his ability to sing. The heart attack made him weaker but did not otherwise affect his singing.
Pran Nath became for me the person who was, in the most studied and considered way, a musician for the emotional and spiritual dimensions. I still have all my admiration for Robert Johnson but he was making music in extremely unfavorable circumstances, coming to it sort of catch-as-catch-can. Pran Nath had the advantage, more or less, of being honored by an elite in his own country, where this music was a cultivated tradition for hundreds of years. That is an oversimplification because… it’s very complicated. Pran Nath had to leave home in order to become a musician and his parents wanted no part of it. He was a Hindu from Pakistan who went to study Hindustani music with Muslims in India. He was not a member of the family. The music is the property of the family, the Khan family. In that sense he was always an outsider. As I say, his parents threw him out. I forget at what age he left home. It was a ridiculously early age. He was completely cut off from his family. He had no disciples from India and he told La Monte more than once: “The Indians are hopeless, don’t give them my music, they don’t deserve it.” He was that alienated from the very tradition on whose shoulders he stood. But taking all of that into account, he became, to me, the musician of musicians. Pran Nath’s presumed job was to reach you spiritually and to me he’s the only musician who both did that and knew exactly how he was doing it.
JDKP: Did he talk to you about that as a goal of his?
HF: Well there were interviews done with him but they may not have been very helpful for the same reason that interviewing a jazz musician tends not to be very helpful. Nevertheless, there was a tremendous amount of proprietary technique that he was completely cognizant of—I see this as a vindication of Hennix in a way. In order to do what Pran Nath did, you have to actually be aware that that level exists and you have to want to do it. One of the things that I noticed was that the younger singer in the Khan family, when I would go to hear him sing in New York… he simply was not on Pran Nath’s level. He could be an entertaining performer, a very proficient and polished performer, but he was not on that level. He may not have been aware of it. It may have demanded sacrifices that he saw no reason to make. There were all kinds of sacrifices.
JDKP: That Pran Nath made in order to sing the way he did?
HF: Yes, in order to do what he did. MELA had very exacting standards for his concerts. There were no concessions. The audience sat on the floor. They explained to the audience that, in the Indian custom, you cannot sit in such a way that your feet point at the teacher. That’s disrespectful. No applause. All of this was very important to them.
JDKP: Why no applause?
HF: Because it’s considered vulgar. He’s poured out a music that for some of us is life changing. You reward entertainment with applause.
JDKP: Wasn’t it also that he wasn’t making this music only or primarily for the audience? It was for God.
HF: Pran Nath would say that he was singing for God. He would say that you have to perform various devotions in order to sing in the way that he does. It’s an old culture. It’s an extremely sophisticated culture. You get a marked contrast when you’re looking at black music in the American south. It’s much more rough and ready. I think that it is also an achievement of the highest level. I personally have tried to take a great deal from that as opposed to Hindustani music where being polished is so important. I mean Pran Nath is… there’s a bootleg record where you can hear him coughing. He sang like a storyteller. He was informal enough to cough during his performance, but his singing always was perfectly in tune. There was no such thing as ever hitting a wrong note, although knowledgeable listeners would remark that he would throw in a note outside the raga.
JDKP: So how do you see the music that you make fitting in, being influenced by both…
HF: I staked out my own territory and sometimes it was the one, the other… both at the same time.
JDKP: But it’s somewhere in between, being influenced by Robert Johnson and Pandit Pran Nath both, but also vastly different from either.
HF: You also have to bring in white southern music. You have to bring in Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Bo Diddley, whose originality awes me now more than ever. What I do is all over the place. James Brown. I mean without James Brown there would be no “I Was a Creep”. That’s the way that I think of it. “Graduation” itself was… I mean it’s country music but there’s an eye on Pran Nath. Not even his technique, not at all, but perhaps the slow, low-slung way that it’s performed. In the piece, “Portrait,” the violin goes through Romanian music. It’s around the world in so many minutes.
JDKP: Do you have a sense of where your talent lies in music?
HF: It’s in the unique synthesis. It’s not a copy of anything. My musical training was in classical violin. I had extremely brief rock guitar training with Lou Reed and the vocal lessons with Pran Nath. The rest I’m kind of making it up as I go. I’m self-taught. The actual Indian training is formal but what I did with it on the violin is sort of my own problem. By the time I was past a certain age in my 20s, I was committed to standard instruments and to holding the violin in the standard way. I didn’t want to compose music that could only be played on weird instruments, where there was only one in the world or anything like that.
JDKP: Do you think of your music as a proof or manifestation of your philosophy?
HF: I never separated my intellectual critique of the civilization from the idea of opening the door to so-called emotion and spirituality in music. I think that Europe has slammed that door shut. It’s a complicated story because modern music was preceded by Romantic music. Music criticism in Europe had taken its best shot at talking about music as an expressive activity. You have classical painting… there is a European version of it but I would claim that, going back to the Greeks, Europe has gotten off onto this mechanomorphic, arithmomorphic kick: The object, the external object, the thing.
JDKP: Over and above experience?
HF: Just what I said. The thing. The exterior thing. That’s Europe’s fundamental ontological category. There is a modern anti-humanism which accuses European philosophy of glorifying the subject, but that’s bad historical judgment. Philosophy is viciously psyche-phobic. Carnap, for instance, abandoned “experience” for physicalism. Europe’s romantic irrationalism is a compensation, which does not remove the intellectual stumbling block. Cognitive scientists today are tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how they can put things together in some concrete way and then talk about consciousness. Of course it’s preposterous. They’re just spinning their wheels.
There are a number of other things that I find odd in Europe. For instance, the way medieval music played out in Europe is quite odd in being sort of a discrete phenomenon. The hocket, for example, where each performer has his one note and it jumps around from one guy to the other—this note to that note—it is so discrete. There’s a complete lack of the fluidity and bounce that are so important in other musical traditions. I am not surprised that by the time you get to the 20th century, it all becomes a disaster. You get serious modern music, which to me is just a big disaster. You get modern art, which… well I guess we have to decide whether we’re talking about high art or popular culture since they shift from one to the other as you well know. High art to me, I mean Duchamp and so forth, it becomes the scandal, the hoax, the practical joke.
JDKP: Are there people today who are becoming interested in the topics your circle was discussing in the 80s?
HF: It’s completely different. The ideas of splendor and radiance were just intuitive and axiomatic for the people I’m talking about. They didn’t sit down and make a decision: let’s do splendor and radiance this week. That’s where they always were, whereas nowadays I see a total deafness. I think that the going thing in the art world is smirky, campy, pulling the collector’s leg—very big, very important in the art world.
JDKP: You’ve talked before about how, at a certain point in history, what gains currency within the western art world is self-hatred.
HF: Art evinces the milieu’s self-hatred. Art becomes ironic, with no real emotion— practical jokes, etc. It’s all defilement, in fact. I look at it and my reaction is: how can anybody hate themselves this much? Apparently seeing some Indian culture must have had a bigger effect on me than it does on other people.
A South Indian dance performance, that’s an example. There are four schools of South Indian dance and what you want to see is Bharata Natyam, which is the oldest and maybe the most classical. The first time that I saw it was in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. I was walking by one evening in the summer around 1976 and two girls had a blaster with a pre-recorded tape and they were performing. They were Americans who were studying Bharata Natyam. They had an Indian teacher here in New York and they were getting ready to go to India to study. So the first time I saw it was with American performers. Then I went out to a Hindu temple in Queens and saw it a couple of times and got to see visiting Indian performers. It makes Western civilization look like garbage. They’re doing exactly what I would expect sane, self respecting people to be doing. It is dazzlingly beautiful. At the same time they are involved with structure. The girls explained that there is a whole philosophy behind it, there’s mathematics. If that is the case, they managed to take thinking and completely combine it—like Pran Nath did— with what we would call the funky.
To me, once I’ve seen that, western civilization is just an abomination. I have to hold myself back from calling for a war on it. A war of destruction would be a mistake because there are, so to speak, various secured positions in western culture that cannot be overcome by mere obscurantism. You have to meet it on its own level and defeat it on an intellectual plane.
If you read what I say about Pran Nath7, you’ll see that I try to talk about him without looking back at western civilization but I can’t quite do it. This was all happening, as I say in the essay, when you have The Sex Pistols… and The Ramones singing: “Beat the brat with a baseball bat.” It was bizarre to see Pran Nath walking down the street and to know that we were blocks away from the Mudd Club or CBGBs.
The person that struck me the most in that connection was Marian Zazeela. I guess you could call her work a cool minimalist art. Be that as it may, when they had the stock exchange a few blocks from here, she had this installation on the trading floor. It was Marian’s lighted aluminum mobiles suspended from the ceiling and also La Monte’s chords, which come from generators, playing on large loudspeakers. I was a great fan of it. What struck me so much about her was that she cruised along doing what she does while being surrounded by the culture of defilement, if you will. La Monte only pays attention to what he is personally involved in. Marian may have been more aware of the surrounding world, but there was still this enormous gulf between what she was doing and what was happening in the pop world and the art world in general. She just breezed along without seeming to care, whereas it seems necessary for me to engage with other people and to tell them what I think is important or worth while and to try to influence them.
1. Published in Henry Flynt, Blueprint for a Higher Civilization. Milan: Multipla Edizioni, (1975).
2. Published in cc Valise e TRanglE = Fluxus Newspaper No. 3 (March 1964).
3. This biography is available on Henry Flynt’s website: www.henryflynt.org
4. Hennix, Christer. “Notes on Toposes & Adjoints.” Stockholm: Moderna Museet, (1976).
5. See “Uncompromising Positioning” on Flynt’s website.
6. See “Elevated Experience” on Flynt’s website.
7. See “On Pandit Pran Nath (1918-1996)” on Flynt’s website.