A Brief History of Happenings
You know the three of us collectively here as HappeningsCLT. While this may seem like a just clever name to cover all the arts events, openings, gallery shows, museum exhibitions, and miscellaneous occurrences that we highlight, the word actually has its foundation in a pivotal time in art history. “Happenings” is the name coined by artist Allan Kaprow in the 1950’s for a particular type of art that began occurring in the mid-20th Century. In the simplest of terms, Happenings were early iterations of multimedia performance art.
Furthermore, this genre of art is said to have been born right here in North Carolina at Black Mountain College. It was the film screening of Fully Awake: Black Mountain College at the Bechtler Museum that made us realize that we needed to share what this name means and why we chose it for our blog & organization.
Happenings as a genre of art is difficult to describe because every one is different and unique with each presentation. Typically a work of perfomance and/or installation by the artist or group of artists, Happenings required viewer participation; and the variety in each happening occurs when the performers react to the interventions of the viewers. Part of the intent of Happenings was based on the ideal of the Dadaists and Futurists of the 1910’s and 20’s that each work was meant to break down the “fourth wall” between the artist and the viewer. They are different from theatre in that while often scripted with specific rules or directions for the performers, they are typically without plot or story and more intently focus on the relationship of the art to its environment and the reactions of the viewer.
While the title “Happening” is reported by various sources to have been coined by Kaprow in 1957 or 1958, it was actually musician John Cage in 1952, along with Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham who are credited with presenting the first event in this genre at Black Mountain College in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Kaprow had been a student of Cage’s at Black Mountain College, and went on to name the genre and even be dubbed by Jack Kerouac as “The Happenings Man”. Other artists notable for creating work in the genre are Carolee Schneeman, known for her distinctly feminist performance; Red Grooms, known in his early career for Burning Building; Claes Oldenburg; and Yoko Ono, whose Cut Piece is one of the best known pieces of her career.
The Happenings were at the time of their inception avant garde and boundary pushing in the art world, sometimes highlighting issues of social justice and environmental responsibility; They united the viewer and the artist in an experience and they brought groups of people together. They were a challenge in the larger field of visual arts to reconsider the idea that art could only exist as an object that meets very specific technical and aesthetic criteria.
So why did we choose this name for our organization? Well, we are still watching the organic development of HappeningsCLT – but as we do this work and grow this place of conversation and gathering of art minds we strive for similar goals as the artists who created Happenings. We want HappeningsCLT in its fullest sense to push boundaries, address challenging topics, unite viewers with art and artists, and be a driving force in challenging the quality of visual arts in Charlotte. We think Charlotte has potential to become a leading city in the visual arts, not just in Banking or in Football (Go Panthers!).
If you want to know more about Happenings from an Art Historical context, check out these sources:
Allan Kaprow, Happenings in the New York Scene. Art News 1961
Michael Kirby, Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology. 1965
Happenings, The Art Story. Retrieved January 15, 2016