Explain yourself Kaprow!

My initial hypothesis when reading about Kaprow’s Happenings, is that Happenings are a folkloric artistic movement from a previous age that cannot possibly be practised in contemporary times in the manner that Kaprow intended. Herein lies the problem:  Kaprow is known for intertwining his knowledge of the social sciences in his art, but he is by no means a social theorist. He had a prolific output of academic material in terms of lectures, books and essays that were disseminated into the public sphere, but it is difficult to isolate a carefully articulated, peer reviewed aesthetic theory – from the CAOS 201 recommended reading list in any case! What I’m attempting here is to understand what Kaprow intended to achieve through the Happenings.

Kaprow observes patterns and events within the specific discourses of art and of “real life” and places both of these discourses within the wider discourse of society. He sees that the modern age is a chaotic “information deluge” which seems to reference some of the characteristics of Mass Society, which was the subject of a strong anxiety in the social sciences at the time. The Penguin Reference Dictionary of Sociology says: “The concept of mass society holds that contemporary society has the following characteristics: most individuals are similar, undifferentiated and equal, showing no individuality; work is routine and alienating; religion has lost its influence and there are no deeply held and important moral values, although the masses are prone to ideological fanaticism; the relationship between individuals are weak and secondary and ties of kinship are not important; the masses are politically apathetic and open to manipulation by dictatorships and bureaucracies; culture – art, literature, philosophy and science – has become a mass culture: that is, reduced to the lowest level of taste” (Abercrombie et al 2006, p.238).

Kaprow does not address all of these aspects of Mass Culture, nor does he openly acknowledge Mass culture – I’m just trying my best to place Kaprow within the ideological context of his times. What is key to understanding Kaprow’s Happenings is his observation of a kind of alienation that is occurring within the discourse of art, within the discourse of real life and also in response to each other as a result of this “information deluge”. The primary response by people to the “information deluge” is Moral Certainty, which interprets chaotic and meaningless reality by organising it into categories which become increasingly distant from each other and increasingly difficult to bring together and reconcile. Moral Certainty is pious, sentimental, in extremes pietistic and actually works against meaningful existence. Within the specific discourse of Art, there is at the same time increasing specialisation and disconnectedness that has resulted from historical forces as far back as Medieval times that continues into modern times and is exacerbated in response to the “information deluge”. Kaprow implies through his academic work and through his artistic practice that some kind of link with art and everyday life is vital for meaningful existence, yet real life and art have developed as increasingly separate discourses with increasing disconnectedness within those discourses. The result or perhaps the direction that this drives toward is a meaningless reality and an alienated human existence.

Abercrombie, N et al 2006, “The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology”, Penguin Books Ltd, London.



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