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Performance Art dates back to the medieval era, with the performances of travelling circuses and troubadours. However, its existence as we know it today, is due to movements like Dada, Futurism among others. These movements rejected the “formalist” conventions of traditional art. They did not accept the idea of a “finished product”: a painting, sculpture or other work of art in question. Instead, they focused on the ‘message’ or ‘concept’ of the artwork. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a lot of “happenings” took place in New York,. The term was first used by Allan Kaprow, an artist and lecturer. Kaprow had studied painting with one of the key personalities of Abstract Expressionism, Hans Hofmann, in the 1940s. Unlike the influential critic Clement Greenberg, Kaprow was less interested in the art object than the way to create it. He was excited by the performative possibilities of painting.

In 1957, Allan Kaprow and various other artists started to create a series of performances. Over there, the audience had the chance to experience a combination of music and artists performing live on stage for them. In 1959 he presented these 18 Happenings at the Reuben Gallery in New York. He translated the word happening as ‘something spontaneous, something that just happens to happen’.

Despite the name these performances were well thought, organized and planned. The audience responded well, because they were participating in all 18 of them. Lasting for ninety minutes, the eighteen simultaneous performances included painters painting on canvases, a procession of performers, readings from placards, the playing of musical instruments, and ended with two performers saying single-syllable words like ‘but’ and ‘well’ as four huge scrolls fell from a horizontal bar between them. The end of the event was a bell ringing twice.

What helped Kaprow’s idea was that rich people and celebrities of that time attended his events. As a result, the performances and the genre became rapidly popular. By 1966, it was mainstream enough for The Supremes to use it as the title for a song. In the end, Kaprow himself dropped the term.

I’d already repudiated the word, because many other people before that were using it. It was a catch word. You remember everybody went around going, ‘What’s happening, baby?’

I remember one ad showed a floating woman in outer space, a starry background, and the legend was, ‘I dreamt I was in a happening in my Maidenform brassiere.’

So by that time movies and The Supremes and all were in general usage around the word in ways that had nothing to do with my original sense, which became so foreign to me that I just dropped it. However, it’s like your name, you can’t drop it without somebody coming and picking it up and saying, ‘You dropped something mister.”

From their radical beginnings as forums for creative expression, to their eventual co-option by the mainstream, happenings reveal much about the wide cultural developments experienced during the 20th century, as well as the changing nature of art practice itself.

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