The New York artist Allan Kaprow coined the term ‘Happening’ in 1959 for the “antinarrative theatrical pieces”, often with the direct involvement of the audience, that he staged with other artists including Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Dick HigginsClaes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman.

An official definition published by Kaprow was as follows:

‘A Happening is an assemblage of events performed or perceived in more than one time and place. Its material environments may be constructed, taken over directly from what is available, or altered slightly; just as its activities may be invented or commonplace. A
Happening, unlike a stage play, may occur at a supermarket, driving along a highway, under a pile of rags, and in a friend’s kitchen, either at once or sequentially. If sequentially, time may extend to more than a year. The Happening is performed according to plan but without
rehearsal, audience, or repetition. It is art but seems closer to life.’

According to the Guggenheim Museum’s website, these “multimedia Performance events radically altered the conventional role of audience members, who, in the tradition of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, were assaulted by an array of auditory, visual, and physical phenomena. Composed out of the absurdities and banalities of everyday life and filtered through the gestural vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism, these spectacles incorporated junk materials, found and manipulated objects, and live or electronic music, sometimes in elaborate constructed environments intended to break down the boundaries between art and life. They explored the objectification of mundane movements and play-related activities, as well as the depersonalization of their participants.”

Kaprow established 11 rules for art happenings:

  1. Forget all the standard art forms.
  2. You can steer clear of art by mixing up your happening by mixing it with life situations.
  3. The situations for a happening should come from what you see in the real world, from real places and people rather than from the head.
  4. Break up your spaces. A single enactment space is what the theatre traditionally uses.
  5. Break up your time and let it be real-time. Real-time is found when things are going on in real places.
  6. Arrange all your events in the happening in the same practical way. Not in an arty way.
  7. Since you’re in the world now and not in art, play the game by real rules. Make up your mind when and where a happening is appropriate.
  8. Work with the power around you, not against it.
  9. When you’ve got the go-ahead, don’t rehearse the happening. This will make it unnatural because it will build in the idea of good performance, that is, art.
  10. Perform the happening once only. Repeating it makes it stale, reminds you of theatre, and does the same thing as rehearsing.
  11. Give up the whole idea of putting on a show for audiences. A happening is not a show. Leave the shows to the theatre people and discotheques.


Tate summary of a ‘happening’: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/h/happening