What Is Experimental Art?

Edgar Degas, "Les Danseuses Bleues" (1890)

One typically hears unusual art called three different things, often interchangeably:

  • Innovative
  • Avant-Garde
  • Experimental

But what do these three words mean? Do they mean the same thing? I don’t think so, and in this post I’ll point out some basic differences between them. I’ll also define what I think experimental art essentially is, and how such art operates.


As I’ve argued here and here—and hopefully have been able to demonstrate in both those places and elsewhere—one encounters innovation simply everywhere: high art, low art, experimental art, mainstream commercial art. The Matrix (1999), for instance, was one of the most popular films of the late 1990s in large part because it exposed mainstream audiences to techniques and ideas that they hadn’t seen before. (I first heard about the film from friends who were bursting with excitement over it, talking on and on about how they couldn’t believe what they had just seen.)

Of course, the Wachowskis mostly borrowed/stole/derived those things from other sources:

Jean Boudrillard (who disliked how the Matrix films used his ideas)

Blade Runner (1982)

Heroic Trio (1993) (dubbed—blame the Weinsteins!—but a high-quality copy)

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Nowhere to Hide (1999) [Matrix Revolutions (2003) takes its final battle between Agent Smith and Neo from this film]

A lot of the art we call innovative works this way. As I wrote in this post:

To innovate literally means “to introduce something new.” But it also means to “make changes in anything established.” Which is the historical meaning of the word’s root: “to renew, alter.”

Innovation does not necessarily mean something new. It means doing something unfamiliar, often with old familiar things. The Matrix draws very heavily from Ghost in the Shell, often recreating images in that film:

Indeed, the Wachowskis originally pitched their film as a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell. But the Wachowskis still had to find ways to recreate those images in real space—a problem requiring often unique solutions. As the above video claims, their success was to synthesize the various things they liked—manga, Hong Kong martial arts films, Buddhism, Continental Theory—into something coherent.

Meanwhile, look what happened after The Matrix came out. As its novelty factor wore off, people grew increasingly tired of films that merely imitated it (including, it seems, The Matrix’s own sequels). Consider Underworld (2003)—just one of dozens of Matrix clones I could have chosen:

This all said, The Matrix is not what we’d call an experimental film. The Harry Potter novels are in their own way rather innovative—and influential—but J.K. Rowling isn’t an experimental author.

So the experimental isn’t tied exclusively to innovation. (Or, rather: innovation is not tied exclusively to the experimental.)

The Avant-Garde

Édouard Manet, "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe" ("The Luncheon on the Grass") (1863)

In 1863, Manet submitted the above painting to the Paris Salon for exhibition. It was rejected. Manet then took advantage of the Salon des Refusés, a venue better than no venue at all.

Which didn’t solve his problems. Manet’s work kept getting refused by the official Salon: it was too flat, too contemporary—and too erotic. (In 1867, he even paid for his own solo exhibition—the equivalent of today’s self-publishing.) But over time, he befriended other refusés (in particular, Edgar Degas, who—always the contrarian—was in self-imposed exile from the Salon). They, inspired by Manet’s solo efforts and by the Salon des Refusés, banded together in 1873 as the “Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers” in order to form their own exhibitions. (Members were supposed to denounce the Salon, but Manet kept submitting his work.)

In 1874, they had their first independent exhibition; other, more successful shows, followed. People started calling them “the Impressionists.” (Degas hated the term, insisting that he was actually a realist). By the mid-1880s, Manet and his colleagues were the leading celebrities of the Parisian art world: the avant-garde of painting.

The term “avant-garde” predates the Impressionists; it was first recorded in the 1825 Saint-Simonian essay “L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel” (“The artist, the scientist and the industrialist”), where it has a very different meaning. That essay called upon artists to serve as the advance guard of the utopian socialist revolution:

It is we artists who will serve as your vanguard; the power of the arts is indeed most immediate and the quickest. We possess arms of all kinds: when we want to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them upon marble or upon a canvas; we popularize them through poetry and through song; we employ by turns the lyre and the flute, the ode and the song, the story and the novel; the dramatic stage is spread out before us, and it is there that we exert a galvanizing and triumphant influence. We address ourselves to man’s imagination and to his sentiments. We therefore ought always to exert the most lively and decisive action.

(Henri de Saint-Simon was a major influence on Karl Marx. Some attribute this tract to him; others to his follower Olinde Rodrigues.)

As Matei Călinescu notes in Five Faces of Modernity (1987):

By the mid-nineteenth century, the metaphor of the avant-garde had been used by social utopists, reformers of various sorts, and radical journalists, but, to my knowledge, had scarcely been used by literary or artistic figures. (108)

Călinescu sees the term starting to shift toward its more modern usage in 1856, in the literary criticism of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. But even then the term,

[f]requently used in the political language or radicalism, […] tended to point toward that type of commitment one would have expected from an artist who conceived of his role as consisting mainly in party politics. That was perhaps one of the reasons why Baudelaire, in the early 1860s, disliked and disapproved of both the term and the concept. (109)

By the time of (and partially due to) Manet and his fellow Impressionists, “avant-garde” had come to mean a group of artists whose work is initially rejected by authority, but that eventually comes to be accepted by society. (Visit any local art fair today, and you’ll see the Impressionists’ long-lasting influence.)

But it doesn’t always work that way. Consider serial music, one of the most powerful experimental forms of 20th century composition. Derived from Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone technique (and atonal ideas well before that), serial composition dominated Western academies and conservatories from 1945 until some point in the 1970s (if not longer):

Serial music has numerous advocates (I rather like all of these works), but they tend to be academicians and others who love music theory—it never really caught on with the general populace, or had that much influence on popular music, or the culture at large. (Here’s the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s current season: Beethoven, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Schubert, Bach, …)

Does that mean that serialist music wasn’t experimental? Quite the contrary! But it wasn’t a successful avant-garde (if it was even avant-garde in the first place).

Minimalism was a more proper avant-garde movement. Its early practitioners—La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass—were acting in opposition to the authority of the academy, looking for an alternative to serialism (as well as to the aleatory techniques of John Cage et al). Excluded by music’s ruling class, they embraced different principles of composition (sustained tones, repetition with variation), and brought their work to alternative venues (loft parties, galleries, museums):

The Minimalists eventually achieved mainstream success—partly because, unlike the serialists, they courted mainstream audiences:

Their influence can be heard throughout modern popular music:

…to choose just a few possible examples.

How many self-professed avant-garde movements turned out to have little or even no effect on the rest of the culture? I’m not claiming that such movements were bad, mind you. But “avant-garde” is often a marketing term, inspired by the fantastic success that the Impressionists had a century ago. And sometimes marketing campaigns work…and sometimes they don’t… But the art can still be experimental even if the rest of the culture never “comes around” to adopting its techniques—or even liking it.

The Experimental

So what is experimental art? What defines it? What makes it experimental?

To answer those question—to propose answers to those question—I’d first like to invoke Roman Jakobson’s notion of the dominant, which I discussed more at length in this post. Jakobson defined the dominant as

the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components. It is the dominant which guarantees the integrity of the structure. (41)

The dominant, in other words, is that artistic element that the artist values over all others: John Cage and his colleagues took chance techniques as their dominant. The Oulipians work under arbitrary and often severe constraints. The Language poets resist narrative pressures by emphasizing parataxis. And so on. All other aspects then bow to the dominant component.

Experimental artists often claim that they are breaking with the past:

The Impressionists favored color over line, worked en plein air, and chose contemporary rather than classical subjects. The Minimalists refused serialist and chance techniques, preferring to look for some other way of working (one that wasn’t simply a return to the tonal harmony of the 19th century).

But historical precedents can be found even in experimental art:

Titian (or Giorgione), "Fiesta campestre" ("Pastoral Concert") (c1508)

That Manet! What a little copycat he was! Furthermore, as the popular (and possibly apocryphal) story puts it, Manet met Degas while they were both copying the same painting:

Diego Velázquez, "La Infanta Margarita" (1653)

(Regardless of whether that story is true, both Manet and Degas were both enthusiastic—and tremendously skilled—copyists.)

Philip Glass was influenced by Ravi Shankar. Steve Reich was influenced by Ghanan drumming and Balinese gamelan music. Terry Riley was influenced by Pandit Pran Nath and La Monte Young. La Monte Young (a truly great oddball) was influenced by the sounds of high tension power lines, and the wind whipping across the plains:

The very first sound that I recall hearing was the sound of the wind blowing through the chinks and all around the log cabin in Idaho where I was born. I have always considered this among my most important early experiences. It was very awesome and beautiful and mysterious. Since I could not see it and did not know what it was, I questioned my mother about it for long hours.

During my childhood there were certain sound experiences of constant frequency that have influenced my musical ideas and development: the sounds of insects; the sounds of telephone poles and motors; sounds produced by steam escaping, such as my mother’s tea-kettle and the sounds of whistles and signals from trains; and resonations set off by the natural characteristics of particular geographic areas such as canyons, valleys, lakes, and plains. Actually, the first sustained single tone at a constant pitch, without a beginning or end, that I heard as a child was the sound of telephone poles, the hum of the wires. This was a very important auditory influence upon the sparse sustained style of work of the genre of the Trio for Strings (1958), Composition 1960 #7 (B and F# “To be held for a long time”) and The Four Dreams of China (1962).

Well, even anarchists like Alec Empire enjoy engaging with older materials:

Continuity is everywhere, even in situations of discontinuity. La Monte Young made music based on noise and drones, but he brought those noises and drones inside lofts, as parts of titled and performed musical compositions. And he synthesized those noises and drones with ideas he’d learned from Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage. (Young was more open to serialist and chance techniques than the other Minimalists, which is part of why his music sounds so different than theirs.)

The experimental artist can want to quit with all previous convention, but he or she still must communicate by means of some convention. As Frank Kermode put it in The Sense of an Ending (1967):

[N]ovelty in the arts is either communication or noise. If it is noise then there is no more to say about it. If it is communication it is inescapably related to something older than itself. (102)


Schism is simply meaningless without reference to some prior condition; the absolutely New is simply unintelligible, even as novelty. (116)

Furthermore, experimental art often draws on the same materials that non-experimental art does. Here’s an example of Donald Barthelme, Batman comic books, Tim Burton, William Castle, German Expressionism, J.D. Salinger, and Mark Twain all drawing inspiration, to some extent or another, from the same Victor Hugo story (sometimes directly, and sometimes through other works that had themselves been inspired).

So much, then, for the experimental dream of art ex nihilo. But what about the notion of art sui generis? Synthesizing Jakobson and Kermode, here is my current conception of experimental art:

Experimental art is that which takes unfamiliarity as its dominant—even to the point of schism.

The experimental artist wants her artwork to be different from all the other artworks around her. She desires that her results be unusual, unfamiliar to the point of looking peculiar, perplexing. She may be drawing on conventions, she may be working inside one or more traditions. But her conventions and traditions are not dominant ones; they are, perhaps, older ones, or unpopular ones. Or she may be importing ideas and conventions from one medium into another, where they are not well known.

Or it may be that she has noticed an idea—a possibility—that has not been fully developed in other artworks, and therefore seeks to develop it. She exaggerates or expands that minor concept or idea (something that isn’t dominant in other works) until it overwhelms the more familiar aspects of her artwork, distorting and enstranging the entire thing. Hence Manet and Degas exaggerated the de-emphasis of line and more energetic brushstrokes that they observed in works by Velázquez, J. M. W. Turner, and Eugène Delacroix, developing that idea until they arrived at Impressionism.

Luckily for experimental artists, there exist audiences and critics who prize unfamiliarity. (Often they are other experimental artists.) In his wonderful essay “Is a Cognitive Approach to the Avant-garde Cinema Perverse?”, James Peterson identifies

a common feature of avant-garde film viewing—one that usually passes without comment: viewers initially have difficulty comprehending avant-garde films, but they learn to make sense of them. Students who take my course in the avant-garde cinema are at first completely confused by the films I show; by the end of the term, they can speak intelligently about the films they see. (110)

Audiences who enjoy such films would rather see the artist make something strange, even if the resulting work is “not as good” as a more familiar type of artwork. They enjoy being confronted with something that’s like a puzzle to figure out, a viewing experience that will initially confound and challenge them. (I of course disagree with Peterson’s use of the term avant-garde; I would substitute for it experimental.) (But no doubt others will take issue with my use of the term experimental…)

One thing that I like about the view of the experimental that Peterson describes, and that I’m developing here, is that it’s close to the word experimental‘s original meaning: “a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc.” (Both experiment and experience share a root with peril.)

Furthermore, this view of experimental art does not require that the art or artist do anything new per se; it requires only that the art and artist be out of step with the dominant techniques and styles of the moment, preferring the unfamiliar to the familiar. (This helps explain why outsider art, née Art Brut, is often valued by experimentalists.) And this definition is comfortable with artworks like The Matrix or Harry Potter, which it admits employ innovative and unfamiliar concepts and styles, but doesn’t go on to claim as experimental. The innovations in those works are relatively minor features in regard to the whole, and ultimately dominated by other, familiar aspects of the work—more recognizable forms and concepts. Harry Potter is at heart a fairly familiar kind of novel. J.K. Rowling’s innovations lie in hybridizing genre, and not with, say, grammar (a la Stein) or novel structure (a la Cortázar).

Finally, this concept of experimental art helps explain why such art often stops being experimental. As time goes on, the artwork loses its unfamiliarity. This is why students scratching film emulsion today in imitation of Stan Brakhage are not making experimental cinema: they’re working within a known tradition, and not seeking to maximize their works’ unfamiliarity. (To be fair, many people remain sadly unfamiliar with Brakhage’s work, so a scratch film in 2010 might still blow a lot of minds. One must allow for context.) The experienced experimental film fan, meanwhile, always seeking new challenges, will sniff disdainfully when confronted with such work—”It’s so imitative!”—and go look for something he hasn’t seen before. Hence the pervasive emphasis in experimental art circles on novelty (real or imagined).

Of course, as time goes on, we may continue to enjoy previously experimental artworks. Stan Brakhage’s scratched films opened up my mind to a new aspect of cinema, and showed me a kind of beauty I hadn’t before then suspected existed. I appreciate that, and respect his films for their historical import. And I think that they continue to look rather pretty—although that’s an example of my liking them for the ways in which they’re familiar: canonical, rather than experimental.

Similarly, John Cage’s 4’33” initially confounded me—”Surely he can’t be serious! That isn’t art!” But after performing it dozens if not hundreds of times myself, I now consider it an old friend.

(Of course, 4’33” always shows you something new—especially when you perform it outside the concert hall. That’s part of what makes it such a great experimental artwork.) (That’s also why people have been looking at nature for millennia.)

Elsewhere, some experimental artworks don’t outlive their experimentation. In that case, one is free to do with them as the Zen monks advise that we do, when confronted by koans. Or as Wittgenstein put it so famously, at the end of his Tractatus:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) (189)

Works Cited

  • Călinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.
  • Jakobson, Roman. “The Dominant.” Language in Literature. Trans. Krystyna Pomorska. Eds. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Boston: Belknap Press, 1990.
  • Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • Peterson, James. “Is a Cognitive Approach to the Avant-garde Cinema Perverse?” Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Ed. David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. C.K Ogden. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1922.

27 thoughts on “What Is Experimental Art?

    • Back in 2007, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, PA, had a “Pay-To-Play!” fundraiser to inaugurate “the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ.” You could pay $25/minute or $75 for five minutes to play this “King of Instruments”—”a versatile 6,938-pipe beast with wide tonal palette and ‘heft'” (that assessment according to the organ aficionados at the Wall Street Journal).

      A friend of mine said at the time that he was going to pay $75 to play 4’33” on the thing. It actually never happened, but that’s still my favorite performance.

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  11. I am writing a Meeting the Bar: Critique and Craft article for dVerse Poets Pub, an online community of poets, to inspire our poets to explore experimentation. The pub supports weekly opportunities for poets around the world to connect with one another, learn about craft and the cannon, and from each other. Meeting the Bar is designed to provide them with a challenge and I am writing a series over the next several months on the language poets. I would like to link to your article for further investigation. Also, I would like to quote your definition/synthesis. The article will go up this Thursday and the site usually receives several hundred views each day (they have about 200,000/year). The site is here: http://dversepoets.com/. If you would let me know by early Wednesday I would appreciate it. Thank you for your consideration and an excellent article.

  12. dang this is rich….i could spend the better part of a day checking out all the vids and processing the thoughts….pre-read anna’s piece for tomorrow and chased the link over to read….intriguing…will be back…

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  18. Interesting! Thanks for the article. I would have liked to know more about experimental or avant-garde art in contemporary pop culture (music, literature, any other art form)

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