A critical turning point has been reached in a major area of avant-garde effort, which I believe is entirely to the good but which is forcing upon us the possibly disagreeable task of revising some cherished assumptions regarding the nature of the plastic arts.
Certain advanced works being done at this moment are rapidly losing their traditional identities and something else, quite far-reaching in its implications, is taking their place.
On the one hand, looking broadly at the whole of recent modern art, the differences which were once so clear between graphic art and painting have practically been eliminated; similarly, the distinctions between painting and collage, between collage and construction, between construction and sculpture, and between some large constructions and a quasi architecture. […]
This continuity is significant, the critical issue in fact; for drawing and painting, and in a large measure sculpture and the so-called minor arts, have until now been completely dependent upon the conditions set down by the structure of the house: one need only imagine a canvas without a flat wall and the cubic enframement of the room, a chair on an irregular floor. . . . Artists for at least a century have worked as though the only thing of importance were the work in front of them, a world unto itself. [. . . ] But I am saying that it is important to recognize very clearly how deeply involved with each other on a primary level the plastic arts have been. Once you change the conditions for °ne, you imply a conflict (a contrast at least, which is enough to call attention to the change) in the other. And these conditions are without any doubt changing now.
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[…] In short, contemporary art has moved out of its traditional limits. Painting, which has been without question the most advanced and experimental of the plastic arts, has over and over provoked the question, ‘Should the format or field always be the closed, flat rectangle?’ by utilizing gestures, scribblings, large scales with no frame, which suggest to the observer that both the physical and metaphysical substance of the work continue indefinitely in all directions beyond the canvas. . .
More recently, a large body of diverse compositions referred to as Combines (Robert Rauschenberg’s name for his own work), Neo-Dada, or Assemblage employs a variety of materials and objects in an equally varied range of formats, completely departing from the accepted norms required by ‘painting’ as we have known it. But this has brought sharply into focus the fact that the room has always been a frame or format too, and that this shape is inconsistent with the forms and expression emerging from the work in question.
Of course, some artists find a positive value in this contradiction and make use of it, as another generation (Pollock’s, for example) used the confines of the canvas as the only limit to an intrinsically limitless form; much the same is true in jazz, whose beat is the constant which defines the degree of freedom achieved in improvisation. These relatively unchanging factors are felt to be a kind of home base. Yet this may be temporary, a transitional value for today, since a number of younger artists do not find such methods acceptable any longer; they feel them to be excess baggage at least, which often involves needless discords with the past, in which these methods originated. If there are to be measures and limits in art they must be of a new kind. Rather than fight against the confines of a typical room, many are actively considering working out in the open. They cannot wait for the new architecture.
It should be evident from the foregoing that this suggests a crisis of sorts. Quite apart from the aesthetic re-evaluation it forces upon us, its immediate practical effect is to render the customary gallery situation obsolete. […]
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The evolution of this art is bringing us to a quite different notion of what art is. With the emergence of the picture shop and museum in the last two centuries as a direct consequence of art’s separation from society, art came to mean a dream world, cut off from real life and capable of only indirect reference to the existence most people knew. The gallery and museum crystallized this idea by insisting upon a ‘shshsh – don’t touch’ atmosphere. Traditionally, it is supposed that art is born entirely from the heart or head and is then brought, all shiny and finished, to the showplace. Now, however, it is less and less conceived that way and is instead drawing its substance, appearances, and enthusiasms from the common world as we know it; and this, without any doubt, is a hint of how vestigial the gallery-museum situation is. With such a form as the Environment it is patently absurd to conceive it in a studio and then try to fit it into an exhibition hall. And it is even more absurd to think that since the work looks better in the studio because it was conceived there, that is the best and only place for it. The romance of the atelier, like that of the gallery and museum, will probably disappear in time. But meanwhile, the rest of the world has become endlessly available.
Environments are generally quiet situations, existing for one or for several persons to walk or crawl into, lie down, or sit in. One looks, sometimes listens, eats, drinks, or rearranges the elements as though moving household objects around. Other Environments ask that the visitor-participant recreate and continue the work’s inherent processes. For human beings at least, all of these characteristics suggest a somewhat thoughtful and meditative demeanor.
Though the Environments are free with respect to media and appeals to the senses, the chief accents to date have been visual, tactile, and manipulative. Time (compared with space), sound (compared with tangible objects), and the physical presence of people (compared with the physical surroundings), tend to be subordinate elements. Suppose, however, one wanted to amplify the potentialities of these subordinates. The objective would be a unified field of components in which all were theoretically equivalent and sometimes exactly equal. It would require scoring the components more conscientiously into the work, giving people more responsibility, and the inanimate parts roles more in keeping with the whole. Time would be variously weighted, compressed, or drawn out, sounds would emerge forthrightly, and things would have to be set into greater motion. The event which has done this is increasingly called a ‘Happening.’
Fundamentally, Environments and happenings are similar. They are the passive and active sides of a single coin, whose principle is extension. Thus an Environment is not less than a Happening. It is not a movie set which has not yet seen action (like the blank canvas-arena of the ‘action’ painter). It is quite sufficient in its quieter mode even though, in the point of evolution, the Happening grew out of it. [. . . ]
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Although the Assemblages’ and Environments’ free style was directly carried into the happenings, the use of standard performance conventions from the very start tended to truncate the implications of the art. The happenings were presented to small, intimate gatherings of people in lofts, classrooms, gymnasiums, and some of the offbeat galleries, where a clearing was made for the activities. The watchers sat very close to what took place, with the artists and their friends acting along with assembled environmental constructions. The audience occasionally changed seats as in a game of musical chairs, turned around to see something behind it, or stood without seats in tight but informal clusters. Sometimes, too, the event moved in and amongst the crowd, which produced some movement on the latter’s part. But, however flexible these techniques were in practice, there was always an audience in one (usually static) space and a show given in another.
This proved to be a serious drawback, in my opinion, to the plastic morphology of the works. [. . .]
Unfortunately, the fact that there was a tough nut to crack in the happenings seems to have struck very few of its practitioners. Even today, the majority continues to popularize an art of ‘acts’ which often is well-done enough but fulfills neither its implications nor strikes out in uncharted territory.
But for those who sensed what was at stake, the issues began to appear. It would take a number of years to work them out by trial and error, for there is sometimes, though not always, a great gap between theory and production. But gradually a number of rules-of-thumb could be listed:
A The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible. The reciprocity between the man made and the ready-made will be at its maximum potential this way. Something will always happen at this juncture, which, if it is not revelatory, will not be merely bad art – for no one can easily compare it with this or that accepted masterpiece. I would judge this a foundation upon which may be built the specific criteria of the happenings . . .
B Therefore, the source of themes, materials, actions, and the relationships between them are to be derived from any place or period except from the arts, their derivatives, and their milieu. When innovations are taking place it often becomes necessary for those involved to treat their tasks with considerable severity. In order to keep their eyes fixed solely upon the essential problem, they will decide that there are certain ‘don’ts’ which, as self-imposed rules, they will obey unswervingly. [. . . ] Artistic attachments are still so many window dressings, unconsciously held on to to legitimize an art that otherwise might go unrecognized.
Thus it is not that the known arts are ‘bad’ that causes me to say ‘Don’t get near them’; it is that they contain highly sophisticated habits. By avoiding the artistic modes there is the good chance that a new language will develop that has its own standards. The Happening is conceived as an art, certainly, but this is for lack of a better word, or one that would not cause endless discussion. I, personally, would not care if it were called a sport. But if it is going to be thought of in the context of art and artists, then let it be a distinct art which finds its way into the art category by realizing its species outside of ‘culture.’ A United States Marine Corps manual on jungle-fighting tactics, a tour of a laboratory where polyethylene kidneys are made, the daily traffic jams on the Long Island Expressway, are more useful than Beethoven, Racine, or Michelangelo.
C The performance of a Happening should take place over several widely spaced, sometimes moving and changing locales. A single performance space tends toward the static and, more significantly, resembles conventional theater practice. It is also like painting, for safety’s sake, only in the center of a canvas. Later on, when we are used to a fluid space as painting has been for almost a century, we can return to concentrated areas, because then they will not be considered exclusive. It is presently advantageous to experiment by gradually widening the distances between the events within a Happening. First along several points on a heavily trafficked avenue; then in several rooms and floors of an apartment house where some of the activities are out of touch with each other; then on more than one street; then in different but proximate cities; finally all around the globe. On the one hand, this will increase the tension between the parts, as a poet might by stretching the rhyme from two lines to ten. On the other, it permits the parts to exist more on their own, without the necessity of intensive coordination. Relationships cannot help being made and perceived in any human action, and here they may be of a new kind if tried-and-true methods are given up. Even greater flexibility can be gotten by moving the locale itself [. . .]
D Time, which follows closely on space considerations, should be variable and discontinuous. It is only natural that if there are multiple spaces in which occurrences are scheduled, in sequence or even at random, time or ‘pacing’ will acquire an order that is determined more by the character of movements within environments than by a fixed concept of regular development and conclusion. There need be no rhythmic coordination between the several parts of a Happening unless it is suggested by the event itself: such as when two persons must meet at a train departing at 5:47 P.M.
Above all, this is ‘real’ or ‘experienced’ time as distinct from conceptual time. If it conforms to the clock used in the Happening, as above, that is legitimate, but if it does not because a clock is not needed, that is equally legitimate. All of us know how, when we are busy, time accelerates, and how, conversely, when we are bored it can drag almost to a standstill. Real time is always connected with doing something, with an event of some kind, and so is bound up with things and spaces. [. . .]
Feeling this, why shouldn’t an artist program a Happening over the course of several days, months, or years, slipping it in and out of the performers’ daily lives? There is nothing esoteric in such a proposition, and it may have the distinct advantage of bringing into focus those things one ordinarily does every day without paying attention – like brushing one’s teeth.
On the other hand, leaving taste and preference aside and relying solely on ehance operations, a completely unforeseen schedule of events could result, not merely in the preparation but in the actual performance; or a simultaneously performed single moment; or none at all. (As for the last, the act of finding this out would become, by default, the ‘Happening.*)
But an endless activity could also be decided upon, which would apparently transcend palpable time – such as the slow decomposition of a mountain of sandstone. … In this spirit some artists are earnestly proposing a lifetime Happening . . .
The common function of these alternatives is to release an artist from conventional notions of a detached, closed arrangement of time-space. A picture, a piece of music, a poem, a drama, each confined within its respective frame, fixed number of measures, stanzas, and stages, however great they may be in their own right, simply will not allow for breaking the barrier between art and We. And this is what the objective is.
E happenings should be performed once only. At least for the time being, this restriction hardly needs emphasis, since it is in most cases the only course possible. Whether due to chance, or to the lifespan of the materials (especially the perishable ones), or to the changeableness of the events, it is highly unlikely that a Happening of the type I am outlining could ever be repeated. Yet many of the happenings have, in fact, been given four or five times, ostensibly to accommodate larger attendances, but this, I believe, was only a rationalization of the wish to hold on to theatrical customs. In my experience, I found the practice inadequate because I was always forced to do that which could be repeated, and had to discard countless situations which I felt were marvelous but performable only once. Aside from the fact that repetition is boring to a generation brought up on ideas of spontaneity and originality, to repeat a Happening at this time is to accede to a far more serious matter: compromise of the whole concept of Change. When the practical requirements of a situation serve only to kill what an artist has set out to do, then this is not a practical problem at all; one would be very practical to leave it for something else more liberating. [. . .]
In the near future, plans may be developed which take their cue from games and athletics, where the regulations provide for a variety of moves that make the outcome always uncertain. A score might be written, so general in its instructions that it could be adapted to basic types of terrain such as oceans, woods, cities, farms, and to basic kinds of performers such as teenagers, old people, children, matrons, and so on, including insects, animals, and the weather. This could be printed and mail-ordered for use by anyone who wanted it. [.. .]
F It follows that audiences should be eliminated entirely. All the elements -people, space, the particular materials and character of the environment, time – can in this way be integrated.
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[. . .] This short essay has been in one sense an account of an avant-garde. It has also been an analysis of a world view. It has proceeded on the assumption that at present any avant-garde art is primarily a philosophical quest and a finding of truths, rather than purely an aesthetic activity; for this latter is possible, if at all, only in a relatively stable age when most human beings can agree upon fundamental notions of the nature of the universe. If it is a truism that ours is a period of extraordinary and rapid change, with its attendant surprises and sufferings, it is no less true that in such a day all serious thought (discursive or otherwise) must try to find in it a pattern of sense. In its own fashion a truly modern art does just that.
Thus, for us now, the idea of a ‘perfect work of art’ is not only irrelevant because we do not know what are the conditions for such a phantasm, but it is, if desired, presumptuous and unreal. Though great works are surely possible and may be looked forward to, it is in the sense that they may be moments of profound vision into the workings of things, an imitation of life, so to speak, rather than artistic tours de force, i.e., cosmetics.
I have focused upon this concept of the real, suggesting a course of action in art that is related to what is likely our experience today, as distinct from what are our habits from the past. I have considered important those aspects of art which have been consciously intended to replace habit with the spirit of exploration and experiment. If some of the past is still meaningful, as it assuredly is, then what is to be retained in the present work is not archaistic mannerisms, easily recognized and praised for this reason, but those qualities of personal dignity and freedom always championed in the West. In respecting these, the ideas of this book are deeply traditional.
The Preface states that it was ‘largely written’ in 1959, finished in 1960, and revised in 1961.