How We Frame the Value of “Experimental” Art Badly

Gabe and I were talking about the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab the other day. For context: the HSEL is an experimental form of documentary-making. Each film places you, without narration, into some unfamiliar situation, about which you become educated, ideally, solely by the power of your own observations. It’s as much experimental anthropology as it is experimental art.

I’m not about to say that experimental art is inevitably shitty nonsense and shouldn’t exist. Experimental art should definitely exist. But the fact that it is experimental should not be grounds to claim that it is better than other art. In fact, I find the idea of expecting experimental art to be good or complete to be totally crippling of its possibilities. The point of an experiment is the potential for failure. The HSEL is the perfect example of a good experiment. It takes an extreme idea–eliminating narration and much editing–and takes it as far as it can go, in the hopes of revealing something of value. It should not be concerned with being a complete work of art because then it will become inhibited by having to mean something. Our duty as observers is to refrain from assigning meaning in order to let the experiment run its course.

As precious as it is, you can point to something like the movie Babies as a coincidental example  of an artistic refinement of the tools and ideals the HSEL proposes. For the record, I don’t remember if the movie was any good as art—I haven’t seen it recently—but that doesn’t really matter so much as the fact that it’s a composition and not an experiment. The idea is that compositions and experiments have different goals and thus different grounds for success. Babies compiles long, slow, observational scenes of the development of babies in different parts of the world, but unlike the HSEL’s films, it compiles them in an intentful way. The filmmaker is directing you to an understanding both of how culture shapes upbringing, and how babies are all the same blah blah. It’s using tools of objectivity and ‘drawing your own conclusions’ to cause a humanistic/empathic understanding in the viewer. The reason the HSEL is bad art is precisely the reason it’s a good experiment: it removes intent (intent that something like Babies reintegrates). The HSEL puts so much in the hands of the observer that it becomes nearly meaningless. It is a static thing, not art. Attempting to claim that that is the “meaning” of the experiment is a valid impulse, but in my opinion creates intent that isn’t really there. That sort of claiming comes from a need for things to make sense, or to affirm high status things as high status. This is why I say “our duty as observers is refrain from assigning meaning”–until, of course, that meaning proves itself.

The more experiments we do, the more tools we have, the more ways we have to convey meaning, and maybe the more meaning we can find, period. Futurism was a great experiment. It was fairly terrible, awkward art (unlike the HSEL it had an excess of intent)—but it was a good experiment. Its brazen failures encouraged the development of modernism. And modernism was a truly complete artistic idea.

When a work is labeled “experimental” it ought not to produce either disdain or admiration: it should only make us demand some rigor in the experiment. I think the reason we get so much bad experimental art is because no one understands how to make a good artistic experiment. We act like because something is “experimental” that somehow absolves it from having any standards at all. Bullshit. Just because a scientific experiment is an “experiment” doesn’t mean that scientists can do whatever they want. We apply rules to them so that the answers the experiment provides are answers we can use. Optimize experimental art for a certain result, rigorously. Know you’re experimenting. Avoid pretense. Then you’ll be able to say whether or in which realms you’ve failed or succeeded. You can use that information to make better art. Shitting on a canvas and calling it experimental so it will mean something gives us some nice information about people, but no useful information about art.

Author: haleyT

"There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that."

4 thoughts on “How We Frame the Value of “Experimental” Art Badly”

  1. “ …one of the funny things about experimentalism in regard to language is that most of it has not been done yet. Take “mothball” and “vagina” and put them together and see if they mean anything together; maybe you’re not happy with the combination and you throw that on the floor and pick up the next two and so on. There’s a lot of basic research which hasn’t been done because of the enormous resources from the past which have precluded this way of investigating language. I wrote a story once called “Bone Bubbles” which did just this—put together unlike things—and everyone who has ever read it has loathed it. The editor of the book in which it appears didn’t want it in there. I insisted that it should be in there. I am still interested in that story and intend to work more on this rather simple-minded principle of putting together more or less random phrases—but not so random as all that. This particular piece—which is only about eight pages long—was not easily written, was not whacked out, it was rewritten and rewritten and rewritten, and in one sense it still is as nonsensical at the end of this rather arduous process as it was in the beginning except that to me it seemed right. ” –Don Barthelme


  2. This is a very interesting way of approaching the entire idea of “experimental art” I’m not sure I’ve encountered elsewhere. It makes a very interesting companion piece to Roger Scruton’s recent editorial about how modern art’s defining narrative of the avantgarde as guiding ideal has come to represent a cultural dead end, or at least opened up to failure modes the artistic community does not seem to understand completely how work.


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