- The Sober Joy of Thieving
“The Museum gives us a thieves’ conscience,” begins Judith F. Rodenbeck’s excellent Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings (ii). The aphorism is from “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” one of the central texts that mark phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with aesthetic theory.1 Originally published in 1952 in Les Temps Modernes, the literary journal synonymous with left-leaning, postwar Continental intellectualism, Merleau-Ponty’s essay takes issue with the way our perception of art is institutionalized.2 He critiques not only our conventional historical understanding of artistic style but also the conventional reception framework that museums offer us; both, he proclaims, deaden our experience of artworks and restrict their ability to truly extend our visible world. The museum in particular disappoints because it too often serves as a “meditative necropolis” for artworks rather than a contextual “historicity of life” for them.3 In their standard form, they compel us to appraise and consume art retrospectively as a collection of objects, sculptures, and canvases in artificial communion. We as a society have invented these museum environments, and therefore our art viewing is tainted by this act of stealing artworks from artists and from their naturally evolving context. Merleau-Ponty suggests that, [End Page 151] paradoxically, the very museums we visit with “a somewhat spurious reverence” inevitably produce in us a “thieves’ conscience.”4
Radical Prototypes turns Merleau-Ponty’s dictum on its head. Rodenbeck evokes it conventionally in her first chapter, describing the guilty conscience that accompanies her own art history of an artistic practice as ephemeral, marginal, and resistant to institutional display as happenings. Conceived by artist Allan Kaprow in 1958, happenings were a kind of performance art that resisted theatrical performativity and sought instead to blur the definitional boundaries between creator, performer, spectator, and participant. Carefully organized and scored, happenings were nevertheless nonnarrative events; throughout the 1960s, Kaprow and others depended increasingly on improvisation and the unexpected as key factors of this process-oriented, open art form. Perhaps to spite this guilty conscience, Rodenbeck refashions the meaning of Merleau-Ponty’s dictum in the six chapters that follow, using this appropriation to frame her discussion of an entirely different relationship between art and theft in the 1960s. The book positions artist Allan Kaprow and those who took up the artistic practice of happenings he pioneered as exemplars of an artistic thieves’ conscience in action. Happenings arose out of a keen interest in reconstituting some of the formal, artifactual evidence left by the 1920s avant-gardes. In its failure or its success, this figurative reconstitution was a base from which artists like Kaprow, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, and Red Grooms could depart in the elaboration of their own artistic projects. Stripped of Merleau-Ponty’s moralizing overtone, the guiding thieves’ conscience that Rodenbeck locates in happenings inflected this collage-inspired performance paradigm with multiplicity instead of duplicity, subversion instead of guilt, and transparency instead of secrecy. Happenings are positioned as a kind of transitional aesthetic thievery. They occupy the definitional boundary between modernist détournement (a politicized practice of appropriation) and neutral postmodernist pastiche.
With her narrative, Rodenbeck deliberately sidesteps the dualism of formalism and the avant-garde that has dominated many of the art historical narratives of the 1960s. If happenings are best characterized as intermediary, open-ended, relational, and interdisciplinary, then their historicization would do well to reflect this, she reasons. Her book calls for and models a scholarly “matrix through which to approach a generation of postwar artistic efforts” (27). Her contribution lies in a series of individual “material, rhetorical, and discursive” histories (18) that enhance our [End Page 152] understanding of what happenings were and what they aspired to be. The wealth of material on the sociological climates, the architectural practices, the technological metaphors, the theatrical methodologies, and the photographic conditions that surrounded happenings acts like connective tissue, shaping and securing them within art history. In this sense, then, the...