Happening – Definition, Examples, History & More – Art Theory Glossary

What is Happening?

Happening is a form of performance art that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a spontaneous, often improvised, event that blurs the line between art and everyday life. Happenings can involve a combination of visual arts, music, theater, and audience participation.

Happenings are typically multimedia experiences that take place in a specific location and time. They are designed to engage the audience in a unique and immersive way, often breaking down traditional boundaries between the performer and the viewer. Happenings are meant to be experienced in the moment, with no fixed script or predetermined outcome.

Origins of Happening

The term “Happening” was coined by artist Allan Kaprow in the late 1950s. Kaprow was inspired by the avant-garde movements of the time, such as Dada and Surrealism, as well as by the work of experimental theater groups like the Living Theatre. He sought to create a new form of art that would challenge traditional notions of art and performance.

Happenings first gained popularity in New York City, where artists like Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Jim Dine staged events in galleries, lofts, and public spaces. These early Happenings were often chaotic and unpredictable, with artists incorporating elements of chance and spontaneity into their work.

Characteristics of Happening

Some key characteristics of Happenings include audience participation, the blurring of boundaries between art and life, and the use of everyday objects and materials. Happenings are often immersive experiences that engage all the senses, creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy for the viewer.

Happenings can take many forms, from simple actions or gestures to elaborate multimedia spectacles. They may involve music, dance, spoken word, and visual art, often combined in unexpected and unconventional ways. Happenings are meant to challenge the viewer’s expectations and provoke a response, whether emotional, intellectual, or physical.

Key Artists and Works in Happening

Some key artists associated with the Happening movement include Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Yoko Ono, and Carolee Schneemann. Kaprow’s “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” (1959) is considered one of the seminal works of the movement, featuring a series of interconnected performances in a gallery setting.

Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” (1964) is another iconic Happening, in which the artist invited audience members to cut away pieces of her clothing with a pair of scissors. This provocative work challenged notions of power, control, and vulnerability, and remains a powerful statement on gender and identity.

Influence of Happening on Contemporary Art

Happenings had a profound impact on contemporary art, influencing a wide range of movements and practices, including performance art, installation art, and relational aesthetics. The emphasis on audience participation, the use of everyday materials, and the blurring of boundaries between art and life continue to resonate with artists today.

Contemporary artists like Marina Abramović, Tino Sehgal, and Ragnar Kjartansson have all drawn inspiration from the Happening movement, creating immersive and interactive works that challenge and engage viewers in new ways. The legacy of Happenings can also be seen in the rise of participatory art projects, community-based art practices, and social practice art.

Criticisms and Controversies surrounding Happening

Despite its innovative and groundbreaking nature, Happenings have also faced criticism and controversy. Some critics argue that Happenings lack coherence and structure, and are too reliant on shock value and spectacle. Others question the authenticity and sincerity of audience participation in Happenings, suggesting that it can be manipulative or exploitative.

Happenings have also been criticized for their often exclusive and elitist nature, with some artists and audiences feeling alienated or marginalized by the movement. The emphasis on spontaneity and improvisation in Happenings can also be seen as a limitation, as it may lead to a lack of depth or substance in the work.

Overall, Happenings remain a significant and influential form of performance art, challenging traditional notions of art and audience engagement. Despite their controversies and criticisms, Happenings continue to inspire artists and audiences alike, pushing the boundaries of what art can be and how it can be experienced.