intro’d to the term via Fred Turner‘s democratic surround:


democratic surround highlights on kindle

For many young Americans in the early 1940s, to lose oneself in irrational, ecstatic gatherings was to enjoy the forbidden fruits of fascism. For their children in the 1960s counterculture, it was to reject the ostensibly fascist tendencies of their own government.

In order to subvert that control, individuals turned toward media, and especially music, multiscreen images, and light shows, to shut down the analytical mind, awaken the unconscious, and allow individuals to come together in communities organized around a shared state of awareness

In his class, Cage transmitted that legacy to a group of artists who were seeking to escape the confines of the genres in which they worked. His students, in turn, transformed it into a foundational framework for the quintessential mode of 1960s performance and protest: the Happening.

John Cage

In a 1961 essay, Kaprow pointed out that “Happenings are not just another new style. Instead, like American art of the late 1940s, they are a moral act, a human stand of great urgency, whose professional status as art is less a criterion than their certainty as an ultimate existential commitment.”

Europeans, he suggested, remained wedded to a model of artistic production that featured a single overpowering artist inflicting his or her will on some material and ultimately creating a commodity such as a painting or sculpture that could be bought and sold. Happenings, by contrast, required collaborative action by performers and viewers who were, if not peers, at least significantly more equal in the production process than painters and their patrons. Happenings could not be bought or sold, but only supported and enjoyed, and briefly at that.

Happenings were made by people who were “free,” he explained, and they were “in no small part an expression of this [individual] liberty. – Kaprow

He (Kaprow) believed that Happenings could help snap people out of the perceptual routines foisted on them by mass media and everyday life in a bureaucratized society. At a Happening, Kaprow told critic Richard Kostelanetz, with Cagean understatement, “One becomes more attentive.”

On questions of gender, with rare exceptions, Kaprow and his colleagues tended toward misogyny

It was here, along the fault lines of power and discrimination, that the Happening diverged most strongly from the surrounds of the preceding decades.


wikipedia small

Happenings are difficult to describe, in part because each one is unique and completely different from one another. 

Kaprow’s piece 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) is commonly cited as the first happening,[by whom?] although that distinction is sometimes given to a 1952 performance of Theater Piece No. 1 at Black Mountain College by John Cage, one of Kaprow’s teachers in the mid-1950s. Cage stood reading from a ladder,Charles Olson read from another ladder, Robert Rauschenberg showed some of his paintings and played wax cylinders of Édith Piaf on an Edison horn recorder, David Tudor performed on a prepared piano and Merce Cunningham danced.

In Tokyo in 1964, Yoko Ono created a happening by performing her “Cut Piece” at the Sogetsu Art Center. She walked onto the stage draped in fabric, presented the audience with a pair of scissors, and instructed the audience to cut the fabric away gradually until the performer decides they should stop.