Roland Barthes, Mythologies.
Against the Happening
Originally published as “Contra el Happening,” in Oscar Masotta et al., Happenings (Buenos Aires: Editorial Jorge Álvarez, 1967)
Spanish, translated by Eileen Brockbank
Within the field of the creation of works of art inside the mass communications media, the one we executed was just one possibility. To carry it out, we needed to obtain the support of the supposed participants and of the journalists. We explained our objectives to each, adapting our explanation to what each wanted to hear. If someone thought that it was all just a big joke, we convinced him that in fact it was just that (a public relations technique). These ad hoc explanations became confused with our true intentions when we created the piece; later they contributed to complicating its intelligibility.
One of those explanations consisted in reducing the work’s intention of demonstrating that the press deceives and deforms. This phenomenon, which is obvious and a matter of common sense, is actually only tangentially addressed. The fundamental content of our work is slightly more complicated: a play between the reality of things and the unreality of information, between the reality of information and the unreality of things; the materialization, through the mass media, of imaginary events, an imaginarium constructed on another imaginarium; the game of constructing a mythical image and the job of seeking the support of the audience’s imagination, only to tear it all down and leave them simply with “the spectacle of their own deceived conscience.”
One could also say that here thousands of spectators literally construct the work, but not as usually happens, springing from a concrete stimulus; rather it arises from an account of the piece. The account of something that did not take place (and therefore false, fictitious) was not however a simple literary fiction—as it would have been had it been included in a collection of stories—but the communicational context endowed it with a factual rather than a literary materiality. Another idea, that of playing a joke on the audience, excited some people who think that avant-garde art should be, above all, fun. That in itself should not be dismissed out of hand, but this piece does not contain the slightest trace of a sense of humor. As for the explanation that it is a sociological experiment, that is not altogether the case, since it is obvious that it does not meet the requirements for a true sociological experiment. But as Harold Rosenberg wrote us: “It is a sociological work, and that does not make it less valuable.” But just the same, it lacks rigor as a sociological experiment, so it is sociological as a work of art. Its very “materiality,” the mass communications media (concrete and material magazines and dailies), is more social than physical.
To put our idea into practice, we resorted to certain techniques used in “public relations” and not to “artistic” techniques. We had to interview people who are news- worthy, be polite to them, earn the support of journalists: in short, move inside these groups with the strategy of robbing the group of its dynamic, freezing it. We were trying to offer each the image of the overall situation that each imagined in his or her own mind. According to that strategy, it was appropriate that the topic we would be informing about be a myth: the Happening myth. In order to refer to that myth, we proceeded inversely to the way plastic artists work nowadays, by extracting a segment of the context to evaluate it aesthetically. We, on the other hand, homogenized a series of real events that had been mythicized through language (that of the news in the media) into an event that only existed through language. Thus, language became a factor of homogenization as much as of mythification. “Really the best defense against a myth is to mythicize it in turn, that is to say, produce an artificial myth: and that myth reconstituted will give way to a true mythology. Since myth robs language, why not rob the myth? This would be sufficient to convert it into a starting point for a third semiological chain . . . a second degree myth.”1 But the myth of the Happening was not in itself the work’s “message.” What was communicated was the paradox between the characteristics of the Happening (the lack of mediation, direct communication with objects and persons, short distance between the viewer and the viewed) and a great deal of mediation between objects and events, the nonparticipation of the receptor; in short, the conditions imposed by the mass media as a means of communication. In this way the message consisted of two levels: one aesthetic, the other mass-oriented, therefore implying a certain interpretation of one by the other. The “aesthetic” level was mediated by the “mass” level, that which concretely reached the receptors. In this way, what at first glance might look like a Happening became an anti-Happening because of the relationships it created with objects. “The point is to think then of an art of objects that we are not yet prepared to imagine, the material of which must not be physical but social and whose form should be constructed through systematic transformations of communications structures. Objects, in short, that will be difficult to preserve in museums for future generations.”2
When someone decides to paint a picture—whatever the style, the subject chosen, the skill of execution—he decides, by the very decision to “paint,” on a message. A “medium” (oil and canvas) not only transmits significant messages, but the medium itself, as opposed to other mediums, is significant. What is more, the medium “sets the stage”; it induces minds and bodies to a certain precise perception of time and space. The decision to choose one medium and not another implies ideas about the material and social possibilities of establishing communication. But just the same, they are ideas about society. When, for instance, an artist chooses a planar medium rather than a sculptural or a theatrical one, there are totalizing conceptions that do not reside in the “content” of what is said, but rather in the medium chosen to say it. Mass communications media have been analyzed in this regard, but the same has not been done with aesthetic mediums. These have been constructed on true myths, and as happens with all myths, they have wound up being naturalized to the point that no one challenges their validity. While it is possible to argue about the advantages, defects, and characteristics of television, it would not occur to anyone to question painting, dance, or theater. There is an acritical conception of aesthetic mediums by which they are accepted just as they are presented to us. There are attempts at innovation in the fine arts by changing “contents” and “formats,” when the problem really is: one medium or another. The concept of medium includes the categories of content and form, but for that very reason the discussion must be lifted out of this last level and be elevated to media as such.
The existence of mass communications media on one hand and aesthetic media on the other gives rise to split between two parallel cultures, one of the masses and the other “superior,” of the elite. The awareness of this split between the values of mass culture and those of the elite has become heightened among artists and intellectuals during the last ten years. Pop seemed to want to erase the separation by reproducing images produced by the mass media. It is as if these artists had tried to burst the limits of their own medium to turn their works into messages that would be distributed and accepted on a mass scale. Lichtenstein and Warhol, by reproducing comic strips and labels, turned the products of mass communication into the content of an aesthetic medium. For a Pop artist it is possible to regard the products of mass culture as beautiful, but only with the mediation of the aesthetic medium. In contrast to this idea, I believe that mass communications media have a materiality that is susceptible to being aesthetically shaped. We have only to look as far as writing and film, which were initially commercial techniques and scientific oddities. Taken later to aesthetic ends they became the new aesthetic media and, up to a point, worked as substitutes for the earlier media. The new media today are those of mass communication. And as new media, they offer a new way of perceiving and behaving. Cinema (a medium that sometimes behaves like an aesthetic medium and sometimes like mass media and in some cases is able to overcome this dichotomy) required the creation of new teams of manpower and technical equipment. In the same way, mass communications media art demands that the artists, if we are to call them that, be situated inside it, discover its functions and techniques.
We know full well that mass communications media are essential to controlling a society and are therefore implemented—no less than was writing, in other times—by the groups in power today. “Their manipulation, then, entails many perils for the artist and for the correct comprehension of his activity on behalf of the public. I would even say that they are sufficiently complex systems as to make it difficult to escape their ideological traps, even when one believes himself to be condemning them.” This requires of future artists that on one hand they be very well acquainted with the material they are going to work with and, on the other hand, that they be affiliated with social groups powerful enough to make their cultural messages heard. This obliges us to think in an entirely different way about words like “artist” and “art,” and to rethink the whole creative process. Once again, as when the Gothic cathedrals were being built—the artist ceases to be an isolated individual. “Artists are abandoning the ivory tower,” says McLuhan,3 “for the control tower.”4 For this reason, in the modern aesthetic message, the expressive function focused on the transmitter, which has tended to diminish in all modern art, and the cognitive or referential (that points to the context) may subside, though without disappearing, before the conative function of the aesthetic message. It will not be about, most likely, expressing the artist’s emotions or “showing reality” but about acting on the receiver, about “making making.” The predominance of the conative function will move art closer to propaganda and to the study of the structures of persuasion, just as at the turn-of-the-century art moved closer to mathematics and industrial techniques. What is more, perhaps, the old conflict between art and politics (“Art should reflect reality”; “all art is political”; “none is”; etc.), which people have tried to transcend by introducing a political “content” into art, will be settled by the artistic use of a medium as political as mass communication. The “moments” of the art of mass communications media would then be:
a) the transmitter; set up inside of teams familiar with communicational techniques;
b) the message, the materialization of which will be more social than physical. Discontinuous works (televised messages, waves of graphic information, posters, billboards, projections, radio transmissions, demonstrations, etc.); the predominant function of the message will perhaps be conative, encouraging making. Disappearance of the boundaries between mass culture and the culture of the elite.
Reflecting on the origins of Happenings, it is easy to see how artists coming from different artistic fields converged to form a hybrid genre. Painters, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, theater people, etc., crossed the boundaries between traditional genres, looking for the outlet they could not find in their own medium. Since 1952, when John Cage gave his famous performance at Black Mountain College, to the present, it must be said that the somewhat dying history of Happenings is the history of a desperate search for a new means of aesthetic communication. Today we know that if there is any hope for contemporary art, it is not the Happening, since the Happening, instead of becoming a new, independent, and totalizing genre (that could absorb all other art forms), is being incorporated as an enriching experience by artists who continue to work in their traditional genres. Despite this failure, those of us who think about the possibilities of creating or discovering it, believe that some valuable conclusions can be drawn.
The broadening of the notion of a work: The traditional temporal and spatial demarcations in which the work of art develops—theater, plastic arts, music, and film—are now open and discontinuous. A work can last fifteen seconds or twenty-four hours (Vostell); it can take place in five different points of a city or in three cities at the same time (Kaprow). In the traditional media—a book, a painting, a theater piece—unity is achieved through a plot and the unitary material characteristics of the work. The Happening, on the other hand, is an “open work” in that it literally opens relationships of time and space and different levels of materiality with which it works. In addition, and this is part of its mythology, the Happening attempts to modify the relationship between the spectator and the spectacle. It is not about hurling lettuces and chickens. It is about achieving unmediated communication, or communication with as little mediation as possible. This occurs on levels as various as those having to do with modes of behavior, called “performing,” to the placement and roles of the spectator. That’s where the advantages end, since the idea of communicating with a minimum of mediation converts the Happening into an exclusive and elite show: Rauschenberg and Oldenburg themselves are onstage to perform a Happening two or three times for two hundred friends, and all this in a city of twelve million inhabitants.
At this moment when the world is being transformed by new technologies and artists themselves are calling for the need for an anonymous, standardized art, the Happening runs the risk of becoming the most individualistic and exclusive art in history. Fortunately, laboratory experiences are useful and today we can imagine an art, collective in its creation and its reception, of the mass communications media. “As growing technologies began creating new environments, man became aware of the arts as anti-environments or against-environments, giving us the means for perceiving the environment itself. Because, as Edward Hall explains in The Silent Language, men are never aware of the basic laws of environment-setting systems.5 Nowadays, new technologies follow each other in such rapid succession that each environment makes us conscious of the next. Technologies are beginning to play the role of art by making us take notice of the social and psychic consequences of technology.”6
The Happening is, in this case, an anti–environment-setting art—its structure being exactly the opposite of that created by the mass communications media. A mass media piece, like our own piece, summarized earlier, is therefore an anti-Happening, since the Happening is a medium of the immediate, while “mass communications media is a medium of whatever is immediate in the mediatizing of the object.”7
Eliseo Verón, article reproduced in this book. [Not included in the present anthology. Ed.]
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 65.
But the one who controls is in turn controlled. The information media, in every kind of society that has existed to date, are controlled by concrete social groups that ideologically infiltrate the media. This presents a new and serious problem since the artist can no longer work in isolation from the groups that own and control the information media, be they dominant groups, sectors of the state, parties, companies, or unions. To some degree film had already obliged artists to take into account the different interests of different groups and in a way, film is always a kind of conciliation of those interests. No doubt mass information media art will accentuate the phenomenon. The artist will be unable to create outside of concrete social groups. Seen from an individualistic viewpoint, this position, which is nothing more than a description of the situation, may seem painful, or outright cynical and totalitarian. But isn’t it fortunate that artists—who in a bourgeois society went from total marginalization to integration on the condition of rendering their messages useless—can make art that will be positively social from the very moment of its conception?
Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959). [Ed.]
McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 65.
The two quotes of Masotta are taken from his seminar on avant-garde art and the information media, given at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in 1966._ [It is unclear which other quote he is citing as Masotta’s. Ed.]