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Happenings have found only a minor spot in histories of post-1945 art activity. Overview texts generally find it necessary to mention them in passing, in a "you-had-to-be-there, it was the major party of the decade" mode. But beyond a descriptive gloss, little of the substantial content of the gestures on which the Happenings were based has been considered critically. They are at best described in terms of their links to performance and alternative theater and music, rather than the legitimate art world. At the time that they happened, Happenings suggested an intersection of art world, performance milieu, and fashion in a community of those who were on the cutting edge of something not yet defined. Pop art would know what to do with that nexus once it became well defined, but the initial stage of Happening activity in 1958 through about 1961 was innocent of the valuable strategies of marketing art through such high-profile visibility. In retrospect, however, the very premise of the Happening takes on a different character, not exclusive of the traits of art-world in-group trendiness and smarts, but with an added seriousness of effect (if not always intention).
Reconsidering the structural form of Happenings requires remembering their relation to the other activities in the domain of art practice in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, it seems necessary to focus on the nonobject, nonproduct orientation of these events as they functioned within the art world. The assertion can be made that Happenings were a form of collaboration without object, that is, without either a preconceived goal or a resulting product. Still further, it is possible to claim that as collaborations which did not result in any produced form, they were activities, artworks, in themselves, which were most distinctly defined as relations among individuals. This relationship, which in the realm of art, as in the realm of nearly every other activity in capitalist culture, is in general displaced into a commodity, a fetish replacing the relations among individuals by a relation among objects that represents those relations, is in this case laid bare and made the subject of the work. In this sense, the very radicalness of Happenings seems yet to be fully theorized. This is especially peculiar since we have seen a long chain of theoretical claims made for the rest of post-1945 art, from art informel to Minimalism to Pop and Po-Mo as the "transgressive" and the "subversive" in contrast to the mainstream of either popular culture, culture industry, consumer capitalism, and so forth. But the simple points of distinction which define the Happenings--that they were collaborations, that they did not result in a product, and that they were events and activities designed to blur the lines between audience and performer, artist and nonartist--these very basic elements of definition which would seem to provide the basis for a theoretical investigation of the Happening have been overlooked.(1)
The first premise, then, on which my arguments will be based is that Happenings have more to do with the art world than with alternative theater, music, or dance. This is supportable on the basis of their sites and on the basis of their participants. Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Watts, and George Brecht in particular were and remained artists first and foremost.(2) However, other figures such as Dick Higgins, Charlotte Moorman, John Cage, and Jackson MacLow defined themselves ultimately as poets, musicians, or performance artists. The group which initiated the first round of Happenings was thus diverse, but the sites in which the activities were staged were at least as much art-world sites as not: George Segal's farm in New Jersey, the Hansa and Reuben galleries, the Judson Gallery, and so on. I realize that this premise is open to some criticism, but it remains sound if one thinks by contrast of the many performers in the period of the 1950s through the 1980s whose activities never appear within the chronicles of "art" history: David Tudor, La Monte Young, Merce Cunningham, Yvonnne Rainer, et al. These figures and the events they participated in define a blurred continuum of activity, it is true, but Happenings have acquired the dubious but indisputable status of art-world events.
As art-world events, then, Happenings must be situated in a historical relation to both high modernism, most particularly, the manifest form of postwar Abstract Expressionism, and in relation to the Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptual art practices which came into being in the 1960s. In large part, it is the collaborative process of the Happenings that granted them the character of artistic works which interrogate the constituent elements of the modernist tradition. The critical impact of the Happenings can be best assessed in terms of a refusal of product-oriented materialism, a rejection of the signature terms of mastery, originality, and authorship, and an overall subversion of the commodity- and object-oriented structure of visual art. Happenings may be read in relation to such terms through a systematic description of the events of several indicative Happenings which occurred mainly between 1958 and 1961.(3) This reading does not depend upon new or esoteric research, and in fact, will draw instead upon the most familiar, most typical of the Happenings--those events which serve as textbook examples--so that it is clear that what I am …