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Allan Kaprow, Notes on the Creation of a Total Art (1958)


Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 10-12.

Universiteit Antwerpen, Theater- en Filmwetenschap, 2010

Belgium is Happening

Notes on the Creation of a Total Art


It has been inconceivable until recently to think, of the arts as anything other than separate disciplines, united at a given moment of history only by vaguely parallel philosophical objectives. During certain periods in the West, notably the Middle Ages in the atmosphere and ritual of the church, the arts found a certain theological harmony—a blending perhaps, but not a total unity. Painting, music, architecture, ceremony—were each an identifiable genre. With the advent of the Renaissance, an emphasis on unique personal styles led to more specialization. Conscious thoughts about a total art did not emerge until Wagner and, later, the Symbolists. But these were modeled on the earlier examples of the church: essentially hierarchies of the several arts organized by master directors. The Bauhaus's experiments continued this approach, only modernizing the forms and subject matters. A total art could not come about this way. A new concept and new means were necessary.

Art forms developed over a long period and articulated to a high degree are not amenable to mixture: they are self-sufficient so far as their cohesiveness and range of expression are concerned. But if we bypass "art" and take nature itself as a model or point of departure, we may be able to devise a different kind of art by first putting together a molecule out of the sensory stuff of ordinary life: the green of a leaf, the sound of a bird, the rough pebbles under one's feet, the fluttering past of a butterfly. Each of these occurs in time and space and is perfectly natural and infinitely flexible. From such a rudimentary yet wonderful event, a principle of the materials and organization of a creative form can be built. To begin, we admit the usefulness of any subject matter or experience whatsoever. Then we juxtapose this material—it can be known or invented, "concrete" or "abstract"—to produce the structure and body of our own work.



For instance, if we join a literal space and a painted space, and these two spaces to a sound, we achieve the "right" relationship by considering each component a quantity and quality on an imaginary scale. So much of such and such color is juxtaposed to so much of this or that type of sound. The "balance" (if one wants to call it that) is primarily an environmental one.

Whether it is art depends on how deeply involved we become with elements of the whole and how fresh these elements are (as though they were "natural," like the sudden fluttering by of the butterfly) when they occur next to one another.

Paradoxically, this idea of a total art has grown from attempts to extend the possibilities of one of the forms of painting, collage, which has led us unknowingly toward rejecting painting in any form, without, however, eliminating the use of paint. In fact, the theory, being flexible, does not say how much of one element or another must be used. Because I have come from painting, my present work is definitely weighted in a visual direction while the sounds and odors are less complex. Any of these aspects of our tastes and experiences may be favored. There is no rule that says all must be equal. Although I expect that in the future a greater equivalence of these different senses will reduce the role that the visual side now plays in my own work, this result is not necessarily desirable for another artist. Any moment taken at random from life may have differently accented components: we may be primarily aware sometimes of the great number of sounds produced by a waterfall and at other times of the penetrating odor of gasoline. Someone trained as a composer may begin to create in this new art form by showing a preference for sounds over odors, but this person, at the same time, will not be dealing simply with the older art of music, any more than I believe I am engaged in the arts of painting, sculpture, or architecture.

In the present exhibition |Allan Kaprow: An Exhibition, Hansa Gallery, New York) we do not come to look at things. We simply enter, are surrounded, and become part of what surrounds us, passively or actively according to our talents for "engagement," in much the same way that we have moved out of the totality of the street or our home where we also played a part. We ourselves are shapes (though we are not often conscious of this fact). We have differently colored clothing; can move, feel, speak, and observe others variously; and will constantly change the "meaning" of the work by so doing. There is, therefore, a



never-ending play of changing conditions between the relatively fixed or "scored" parts of my work and the "unexpected" or undetermined parts. In fact, we may move in and about the work at any pace or in any direction we wish. Likewise, the sounds, the silences, and the spaces between them (their "here-" and "there-"ness) continue throughout the day with a random sequence or simultaneity that makes it possible to experience the whole exhibit differently at different times. These have been composed in such a way as to offset any desire to see them in the light of the traditional, closed, clear forms of art as we have known them.

What has been worked out instead is a form that is as open and fluid as the shapes of our everyday experience but does not simply imitate them. I believe that this form places a much greater responsibility on visitors than they have had before. The "success" of a work depends on them as well as on the artist. If we admit that work that "succeeds" on some days fails on other days, we may seem to disregard the enduring and stable and to place an emphasis upon the fragile and impermanent. But one can insist, as many have, that only the changing is really enduring and all else is whistling in the dark.