Experimental art and failure

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Had a discussion with some people last week about “experimental” music. I think everyone knows what this means, kind-of, sort-of, but lots of people don’t like it. Because I’m impressionable, whenever the term comes up I think of John Cage’s statement on the subject, from 1957: unfortunately I only ever remember the first part where he says he used to object to the term and forget that he immediately goes on to say he no longer does. He then goes on to talk about music being nothing but sounds and tells the story about the anechoic chamber again and I kind of blank on the rest of the talk. After that, all I’m left with is Cage’s initial objection, “that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works, just as sketches are made before paintings and rehearsals precede performances.”

Surely every success is the consequence of a series of failures, and any “experimental” art presented to us is in fact the result of a successful experiment, to some extent. Really, I don’t have a problem with the term because everyone knows what it means, kind-of, sort-of, and we gotta use words when we talk to each other. My problem is this: I keep hearing people saying that a Good Thing about experimental art is that the failures can be as interesting as the successes. I really don’t think this is true.

Firstly, there is the objection already mentioned, that the failed experiment is not presented as the finished work – the finished work is a successful experiment made as a consequence of the failed experiment. But when people cite failures as being potentially productive as successes… does this ever actually happen? There are fortuitous accidents, but that’s a different matter. The “useful failure” seems to be a case of the arts borrowing a concept from science that doesn’t really fit. The most glaring difference is that scientists want their experiments to be replicated by others; artists do not. Artists don’t present a new work with the proviso that it’s actually no good and provide detailed instructions on how it was made, in the hope that someone else will use this method to make a better piece.

Given that artists keep it to themselves, do they ever make an experiment that fails in a way that turns out to be interesting? Again, I’m not talking about fortuitous accidents, I mean failure. An artist makes an experiment that fails, but that failure itself leads them to some sort of creative breakthrough (“not doing it that way” doesn’t count). Can anyone think of examples where this has happened?