The Happenings: A How to Guide in the Art of Mutability!

Kaprow Allan, “Untitled Guidelines for Happening” (1965)

In 1965 Allan Kaprow wrote the “Untitled Guidelines for Happening.” In this piece, the author literally gives step by step instructions on how to create a proper “happening.” Kaprow insist that in order for a “happening” to be successful, two very important events should occur. First, the art must contribute to the bondage that connects life and art together as one. Secondly, as a result of this connection between reality and art: the artist, as well as the audience, should walk away from the event with a revelation or an awakening of some sort. In order to achieve these two important goals, Kaprow suggests that the equipment, ideas and even the activity within the art piece should come from a variety of worldly experiences, but at the same time, not be contaminated by “the arts.” Kaprow suggests that the “happenings” should be original not because the fine arts are frowned upon, but instead because they [fine arts] “…contain highly sophisticated habits. By avoiding the artistic models there is the good chance that a new language will develop that has its own standards” (709). In other words, if the “happenings” are to exist within the art world, it needs to not only be separated from the fine arts, but also from the rules within the social norms of our society.

Kaprow’s guidelines then go on to describe how the physical aspects, referring to the place and time, of a “happening” should be played out. The author strongly insists that the events occur at any place and time. From Chicago to New York and eventually around the world, “happenings’ have no limits. They can take place in the streets, or a variety of apartments buildings, it all depends on how connected or isolated the artist wants each of their “happenings” to occur in relation to one another. While some performances are connected by location, telephone or letters in the mail, other “happenings” are solely connected by a constant theme that runs between them. Kaprow then warns his readers on the dangers in consistency stating that the importance of the performances is not how coordinated the performers are with one another, but instead how they value their time and space. “Happenings” can occur randomly, or as Kaprow stated, it “conforms to the clock”, either way the performances or events connection with time and space are mirroring what the unconscious mind does without us even realizing it. For example, “happenings” occur as simply and innocently as someone brushing their teeth in the morning. However, Kaprow suggests that even though the “happenings” mirror the unconscious mind, the performances should not become a routine. According to the author a “happening” should only occur once in a lifetime not only because “…routine is boring to a generation brought up on idea of spontaneity and originality, [but] to repeat a Happening at this time is to accede to a far more serious matter: to compromise the whole concept of change” (712). In other words, the “happenings” already embody society’s appreciation for mutability, so therefor, by performing a “happening” more than once is not only contradicting the purpose of the event, but at the same time rejecting the present views of its culture as well. The only time a “happening” should occur more than once is if the theme changes every time. One example of Allan Kaprow’s “happenings” took place in New York City where he re-created a junkyard and entitled the work Environment-Situations-Spaces. The materials for Kaprow’s art were a perfect example of a work that represents the “happening” because it is art that lives only in the now and will not last forever.

So now that the artist have everything down pact, what then should be expected of their viewers? As far as the audience is concerned, Kaprow continues to say that “most of the time the repose of such an audience is half-hearted or even reluctant, and sometimes the reaction is vicious and therefore destructive to the work…” (713).  In order for a “happening” to reach its full potential, the artist must take what they do seriously by respecting their craft, and discarding the participation of the audience just as any preacher conducting their sermon would do. The audience’s only job is to just observe the “happening” as it is performed. Kaprow even goes as far to suggests that, for the audience’s sake, the best performers of these events should be done by people who are not specialized in the arts because they portray the purity of realism at its best. Ultimately, the act of viewing, by the audience, and the art itself creates that initial bond between life and art that Kaprow mentioned at the beginning of the piece. Although the audiences are not actively involved with the “happening,” by simply watching the event, there is an exchange of experience being passed around by everyone who is involved.

-Regine Lawson


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