“Experimental Art” is a Tautology

In the process of putting together a grant application on behalf of the Big Fag Press, I’ve been thinking a little about the notion of experimentation in art. This has been prompted by a new category of funding, called “Experimental Art Grants“:

These grants support artists, groups and organisations investigating experimental arts.

It is an open grant category for any stage of your experimental arts activity that meets the selection criteria.

Some examples of what you might apply for include investigating new emerging and experimental arts processes in a creative arts lab or through workshops; initiating innovative creative collaborations and partnerships; or creating and/or presenting new and experimental art work.

To keep this program as open as possible, Inter-Arts will consider any proposal from artists proposing to explore emerging or experimental arts.

Two questions:

  1. what the hell is “experimental art”?
  2. are there any examples of art which are not experimental?

…if the answer to question 2 is NO, then what is the need for this grant category?
If all art is inherently experimental, then surely the existing categories of art funding would already adequately support the experimental.

Donald Brook, bless him, has been thinking about this stuff since at least the early 1970s, when he was involved in collaboratively setting up the Experimental Art Foundation (EAF) in Adelaide.

In a conference a few years ago at the National Institute for Experimental Art (NIEA), Brook presented a cogent paper which cut to the heart of this strange idea. I’m going to quote a chunk of his paper below (you can download the whole thing here).


‘Experiment’ has two senses
[…] the word ‘experiment’ […] unlike the word ‘evolution’—most definitely has two senses.

The more potent of them is, on the face of it, the less reputable. It is the sense in which the gesturing experimenter does not have the slightest idea what to expect, even within a range of probabilities. This is the sense of ‘experiment’ in which, as an eager child, I took my first chemistry set into the garage to perform experiments. There was an instruction book explaining the familiar memes of chemistry, but I was too impatient to read it. I simply added some blue crystals to a yellowish fluid that I extracted from a bottle with a warning label. Nothing much happened. But it might have done. I might have discovered how to make a more terrible smell or a bigger bang than I could have generated by exercising any of the familiar memes of chemistry.

This is the sense of ‘experiment’ in which the experimenter lurches optimistically around in a limbo of ignorance. It is the sense in which, in the course of doing something one does know how to do, such as boiling urine, one discovers how to do something that one did not know how to do. This malodorous example is of course drawn from Joseph Wright’s wonderful picture, The Alchemist in search of the Philosopher’s stone Discovers Phosphorus (1771). Following this epiphany alchemists everywhere became capable of making phosphorus. A new meme had emerged.

The other sense of the word ‘experiment,’ to which science has recently given more respectability, is different. This is the sense in which an experimenter purposefully deploys familiar sets of memes with the expectation of generating results that will falsify (or fail to falsify) some theory or hypothesis. I apologise to those philosophers of science who have moved on since Popper, and say no more about this because it is at least obvious that the mindset of the scientist, considered as a purposeful scientific-theory-maker, is no different from that of the artist considered as a purposeful work-of-art-maker. They both know very well how to set about making recognisable items of their respective cultural kinds.

‘Experimental art’ is a tautology
So, drawing several of these threads together, I am saying that when we use the word ‘experiment’ in its most primitive and potent sense, the expression ‘experimental art’ is a tautology. In the sense of ‘experiment’ in which the outcome of the behaviour is not anticipated, art cannot but be experimental. To say that a meme is new is to say that a behaviour or set of behaviours has unexpectedly acquired a regularly useful purpose. It has become an action that is now regularly imitable, not only by its discoverer but also by other people. Our collective powers have been extended.

[…]

The expression ‘experimental art’ does not describe a distinctive sort of art, contrasting with other sorts of art. In the relevant sense of ‘experimental’ (and using the relevant word ‘art’) there is no other sort of art.


As I understand it, Brook is arguing that experimentation in art involves a kind of muddling along with a sense of open-ness to outcome, rather than a replication of the scientific method of hypothesis – action – results – conclusion. Because I’m not a scientist (and neither, admits Brook, is he), I don’t know whether this caricature of scientific process is still relevant. Either way, the point seems to be that the ability to articulate clear goals is not a pre-requisite for experimentation.

Just a few days ago, Brook wrote an obituary for his good friend, the artist Bert Flugelman which reiterates this idea:

What animated Flugelman was that sense of the word “experimental” in which experiments are taken not as purposeful exercises of skill with statable goals. It is the sense in which experiments are taken by stumbling forward optimistically, hoping for those unpredictable and incoercible illuminations that come only occasionally.

This is Brook’s distinction – although “art” by definition is experimental, not all “works of art” are produced through this form of experimentation. In fact, most works of art are carried out as “purposeful exercises of skill with statable goals.” However, sometimes (rarely, perhaps), what emerges from experimentation is a new meme which is then (in retrospect) recognised by the artworld as a “work of art”.

If we return to the image of the young Brook and his chemistry set, blithely adding two chemicals together to see what would happen, a question arises… We cannot all start from a position of innocence and not-knowing, all the time. Like it or not, as life goes on, we learn things. We reflect on our past experiences, which leads us to produce hypotheses about what might happen in different circumstances. We cannot always blunder around blindly. We do develop a sense of the range of possible outcomes resulting from our actions.

Does this mean it gets harder to make art as time goes on?

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