David Tudor performs John Cage's 4'33" in 1952.

The Use and Abuse of the Term "Experimental" in Art and Performance


by Jon Erickson

What we call the modern age, whether we date it from the nineteenth century or the Renaissance, seems virtually coterminous with the word “experiment.” That is, the authority of tradition is called into question by the testing of concepts against their putative basis in the real world. While seemingly confined to the sphere of science, it spread to every other aspect of cultural life, and we define the modern by the continual shifts of our bases of understanding by the ethos of experimentation. What’s more, this ethos requires an atmosphere of freedom within which to manifest its practice and at the same time presumably functions as a way in which freedom is itself propagated or maintained through challenging the status quo.

In a scientific sense, “experiment” is tested against the conditions of physical reality until the consistency of cause-and-effect becomes relatively immutable, or eminently replicable. In an artistic sense “experiment” is tested against the human reality of audiences, a reality, as many social scientists understand, that is far less stable in its capacity for yielding stable results. Artistic results depend upon two factors, it would seem, for the audience: 1. understanding the experiment, and 2. appreciating the results of the experiment. Often, these two aspects are conflated, typically by the artist or critic, so that if the audience didn’t appreciate the experiment, they couldn’t have understood it, which may or may not be true. From the audience perspective, an experiment that is understood but not appreciated is a failed experiment. There is also the middle ground where the premise of an experiment might be appreciated, but not its realization. There is also the possibility that one might be able to appreciate something, to have it affect one, without necessarily understanding it, though this effect tends to be somewhat rare. Yet one might conclude that this effect is representative of the most important works. What is missing from the above comparison between scientific and artistic experimentation is the nature of the expected results, found in the vagueness of the term “appreciation.” In one case the result is a certain referential truth-value that can obtain in law-like form, in the other an affective value that incorporates a different sense of “truth” with regard to recognizable but variable human experience.

In artistic work, a defensive pre-emption of possible criticism can come along with a certain usage of the word “experimental,” as a way of indicating that typical norms of evaluation, and sometimes any existing norms of evaluation, cannot be used in interpreting or judging the work performed. Indeed the experimental work is sometimes touted as a fundamental challenge to normative evaluation itself.

For scientists, even social scientists, most experiments - that is, most testing of certain hypotheses - fail, and they are understood as failures. But the reworking of the hypothesis toward a successful series of testings of it depends upon those initial failures as modes of clarification. Even the most unsuccessful of artistic productions can contain within them some germ of value that I can carry away with me, that keeps me thinking about the performance context and its meaning. But this doesn’t mean I’m not still evaluating the experience as a whole as successful or not, or thinking of how that germ could have been grown into something more developed and powerful.

Reasons for failure are worth considering, as much as reasons for success. But the artist needs an evaluating audience for this: it is not something one can decide on one’s own – if so, one has created a solipsistic fantasy world in which the decision for what “works” and what doesn’t is completely arbitrary. And one has to admit that experiments can fail, and that “experimental” is not the complete suspension of the process of evaluation of ends, so that every experiment, no matter what, succeeds, regardless of its reception. 

In one sense every performance is an experiment. But typically speaking, a performance that has relatively clear meaning structures, however complex, that anticipates a particular range of responses, and that is possibly developed with respect to those responses, is not “experimental” if the artist involved claims that the work has failed or succeeded with regard to the audience. Intention clearly plays a part. Brecht, for instance, for his political purposes, took experiments with audience reception seriously: if they didn’t “get it,” he felt he had to make it clearer – this is not using “experiment” as a mode of superior knowledge that blames the audience for its lack of understanding. Presumably – and art history is full of such examples – performances can fail with audiences and yet succeed with critics, theorists and historians. Typically speaking, what succeeds in this sense is not the performance but the concept implied in the performance. The concept could even be lost on its audience and yet continue to exert a conceptual influence elsewhere.

I think, for example, of Cage’s “silent piece,” 4’33”. According to Cage’s own retrospective myth of its premiere in Woodstock, New York in 1952, the audience, made restless by David Tudor’s refusal to actually play the piano at which he was sitting, was finally able to open its ears to the ambient sound of the hall and the outside noises filtering in through the windows and understand that as the “music”. That this is what the audience actually experienced, as opposed to seeing it, for instance, as a Dadaistic send-up of concert decorum, signaled by Tudor’s visible behavior, is completely open to question. That the piece made an impression on the audience, I have little doubt, but the subsequent conceptual meaning given the piece wasn’t necessarily a consequence of the performance’s actual reception by that audience. It was a meaning given to it by Cage and accepted as such thereafter. In fact, the meaning given to this experience, even if imposed retrospectively, isn’t false in general, even if it might be false in terms of the original audience’s actual experience, because it is subsequently validated by further works of Cage in which he instructs the audience to listen to ambient sound, and it is the most powerful and important lesson I’ve ever gotten from Cage myself.

In thinking about experimental performance, despite the artist-centered nature of the idea, the question of audience nonetheless remains central in assessing its meaning. Can an experiment be successful for an artist but not for an audience? Can an experiment be “successful” for an audience but not for an artist? Is an experiment successful if it doesn’t affirm the artist’s expectations, but creates a very different kind of result? If that result is pleasing, is it a success? If it is displeasing is it a failure? Is an experiment a failure if it does affirm the artist’s expectations and teach her nothing new?

The experimenter who stands aloof of his artistic experiment is not really experimenting at all, since self-knowledge is not put at risk. It is cynical manipulation of the naïve. If an experiment is not designed to advance the self-reflection or thinking of the artist it is not an experiment at all; the term then becomes an excuse to avoid the responsibility for one’s acts. Foucault once made the point that all real thinking is dangerous, but it is not merely dangerous to others (the more glib practices of “subversion”) but dangerous to oneself: it could lead to greater doubt, even despair, or it could lead to a state of greater enlightenment, or through one, the other.

Jon Erickson teaches drama and performance in the English Department at the Ohio State University.