The Origin of Happening Author(s): Dick Higgins Source: American Speech, Vol. 51, No. 3/4 (Autumn - Winter, 1976), pp.

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THE ORIGIN OF HAPPENING 1950s all the avant garde arts tended increasingly to fuse, as artists explored new media. Visual artists such as Allan Kaprow made extensive collages, using machines, mirrors that reflected the spectators, and, ultimately, live performers. Kaprow realized he needed a term to describe what was obviously developing into a new art form, and he called it a happening,because, as he later told me when I asked about it, "I didn't know what else to call it, and my piece was something that was just supposedto happen naturally." Precisely when the term was first used is unclear-probably it was employed in April 1957, when Kaprowgave a demonstration of one of his collage performances for a group of fellow artists, students, and critics at the farm of the sculptor George Segal near New Brunswick, New Jersey. The first public use of the term, however, was in the Winter 1958 issue of Anthologist, the undergraduate literary magazine of Rutgers University, where Kaprow was teaching at the time. In it, some of Kaprow's students published the scenario for a very ambitious (and still unperformed)happening, "The Demiurge," above the text of which appears the caption: "Something to take place: a happening." Not long thereafter Kaprow became involved in setting up a cooperative art gallery in New York, the Reuben Gallery, most members of which had already become known through their associations with the earlier Hansa Gallery. Many of these artists, once Kaprow had blazed the trail, went on to do happenings themselvesnotably James Dine, Robert Whitman, and, later, Claes Oldenburg. Kaprow's first happening in the new space, "18 Happenings in Six Parts," described in Michael Kirby's book Happenings (New York: Dutton, 1965), caused a sensation in the art world, and the form was widely imitated by such diverse artists as Jean-Jacques Lebel in France, Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys in Germany, and T. Kubo in Japan. Others coming from different backgroundssaw how Kaprow's term at least partially described their work and so, even though they did not use visual-arts collages or environments for their performances, did not hesitate (to Kaprow'sdelight) to use the term. Thus it happened that musical composerssuch as Benjamin Patterson, Nam June Paik (now best known for his video-synthesizer sculptures), and

I called what we did happenings, at least for a while. Other artists did analogous works, but used different terms in order to differentiate



themselves from their colleagues: orgiastic mystical theater (Hermann Nitsch), kinetic theater events (Carrollee Schneemann), total theater (Ben Vautier). But the public quickly came to call all such performances happenings. The term also began to appear in odd places. Jack Kerouac refers to me in one of his writings of the time as "the Happenings man." Some off-off-Broadwaytheater productions took advantage of what seemed to be a faddish new term by promoting themselves as happenings. Because so many artists of various kinds were doing happenings, there appeared to be a happenings movement, and careless writers throughout the 1960s tried to define one. However, the differences among happenings artists were as striking as their similarities. Within the happenings format there was room for the ultra precise and controlledworks that I did, for the lyrical but still very controlled imagistic style of Kaprow and the visual artists, and for the almost unbounded imagistic improvisation of Jean-Jacques Lebel and Al Hansen. This last kind of work caught the journalistic eye; thus the public came to think of all happenings as wild, irrational free-foralls, so that by the mid 1960s most happenings artists had either to qualify their use of the term or to find another one. A complete bibliography from the heyday of happenings would be quite extensive, but the primary texts can be mentioned briefly. My book Postface (New York: Something Else Press, 1964) was the first, followed by Michael Kirby's Happenings (1965). Kirby, now the head of the School of Performing Arts at New York University, also edited a happenings issue of the Tulane Drama Review (Winter 1965). His book deals only with happenings by visual artists associated with the Reuben Gallery, but the magazine includes other sorts of happening, especially "events" (a genre of mini-happenings pioneered by George Brecht, Bob Watts, and others associated with the Fluxus group of experimental artists). The next major happenings books were Al Hansen's Primer of Happenings and Time/Space Art (New York: Something Else Press, 1965), a sort of do-it-yourself popularization that had much to do with the modishness of happenings in the late 1960s, and Wolf Vostell and Jiurgen Becker's Happenings und Pop Art (Reinbek, Germany: Rowohlt, 1966), the first international anthology and still the best overall source, though published only in German. Finally, Hanns Sohm and Harald Szeemann's massive happening & fluxus (Cologne: K6lnischer Kunstverein, 1970) is a chronologyand bibliography,profusely illustrated, of the happenings
and Fluxus artists.



Initially there was a good deal of resistance to defining happening, lest a definition prove restrictive, but here is a sampling of early attempts: Allan Kaprow: events which, put simply, happen ["'Happenings'in the New York Scene," Art News, May 1961, p. 39]; an art form similar to theater in that it takes place in a specific time and a specific location. Its structure and its content are a logical extension of the [performance]environment. [undated, circa 1965? In Vostell and Becker, p. 46] Claes Oldenburg: the term invented by Allan Kaprowloosely used to refer to my... work and the others in a medium one way or another expanding the material of the artist to include events in time and people [undated, circa 1962? in Sohm and Szeemann, inside front cover] Al Hansen: a collage of situations and events occurringover a period of time in space [p. 24] Michael Kirby: a purposefully composed form of theatre in which diverse alogical elements, including nonmatrixed performing, are organized in a compartmentedstructure [p. 21] Dick Higgins: all the various performance forms in which the emphasis is placed not on who does a particular thing or why, but on, simply, what gets done [1966, in Sohm and Szeemann, inside back cover] Wolf Vostell: staged or improvisedoccurrence;phases of reality. Preparation of facts, theories, dreams untied to a specific kind of space; but at various places in the city [p. 46] Except for Kirby's definition, which is better worked out than the others, these attempts show the beginnings, when everyone agreed what a happening was, even if nobody knew how to verbalize it. Other than a passing use of happening attributed to the writings of the Bauhaus artist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Kaprow's use of the word is the first in a special artistic sense. But its currency in art resulted in its widespread misapplication to a variety of staged situations or as a fashionable term for almost any event: Mealtime happenings are only part of the fun. [Italian Line cruise advertisement, 1965] Hoving Invites Public to 'Happening'in Park [New YorkTimes,26 May 1966, p. 49] HAPPENINGI Basket ball at 7:00 PM on FRIDAY[sign on a post-officedoor, 1967] that range from The library hosts a broadrange of community "happenings" jazz concerts to legislative reports. [Dorothy Hamel, "Libraries-Las Vegas Style," Library Journal, 1 June 1973, p. 1780]



Dali recently presented a happening in Granolas with Kaisic Wong, creator of Oriental fantasy fashions, and Steve Arnold, undergroundmovie director, both from San Francisco. [Women'sWear Daily, 3 September 1974, p. 161 It's also nice not to be able to look up what's coming next (the virtue of no texts): everything on the tape comes as a surprise, and you listen hard so as not to miss a word. It's rather like a happening, with all the virtues and defects of that modernart form. [New YorkTimes Book Review,6 April 1975, p. 371 The term is not entirely meaningless, even today; but the art work it now covers is very different from what it once included. Surprise, though possible, was never particularly integral in the happening; but to the author of the last quotation it is. As happening came into general usage, it ceased to be useful as a technical term for artists. Many of us have regretted the loss. I tried to. avoid the error of using a word that was too adaptable, such as happening, by my coinage intermedia (foreword to The Four Suits by Philip Corner et al. [New York: Something Else Press, 1965]; "Intermedia," Something Else Newsletter, February 1966; with a nod to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who used the word in a letter once but never systematically developed the concept). Intermedia covers those art forms that are conceptual hybrids between two or more traditional media, such as concrete poetry (visual art and poetry), happenings (visual art, music, and theater), and sound poetry (music and literature). The term is sufficiently technical in effect that, though it has enjoyed some popular use, it is still applied only to the arts and, except for some careless confusion with "mixed media" (in which the elements remain distinct though simultaneous), is usually applied in my original sense. The curious evolution of happening shows that an artist who needs a new term ought to use a word that sounds technical, if possible one made from classical morphemes. It is now too late for happening as a precise term. What we need is a word that can be used to cover the following, which I offer as a definition (based on Kirby's) of the word as the happenings artists understood it: A form of theatrical composition begun in the late 1950s, rejecting all narrative logic and all forms of stages in favor of maximum exploitation of the performanceenvironment, lyrical performingelements within a matrixed structure, and an overall synthesis of music, literature, and the visual arts.

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