Experimental art (updated)

This is a  substantially updated version (in 2015) of a paper originally delivered as a keynote address at a plenary session in the main Conference of the National Institute for Contemporary Arts in the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales on 19 August 2011.

It was published in its original form under the title ‘Experimental art’ in Studies in Material Thinking 8 (May 2012), Paper 12.



The inscription ‘art’ is homonymic. The more important of the two words spelled in this way descriptively names a universal category of memetic innovation that is instantiated in every cultural domain and not only in the various institutional domains of the so-called ‘Creative Arts.’ Significant memetic innovation nowadays occurs frequently in the domains of science and technology, and less abundantly (but no less influentially) in other institutional domains such as banking, agriculture, law and politics.

The artworld uses a similarly spelled but different word ‘art’ to refer more economically to a class of artworld-endorsed objects characterised individually as works of art, many of which are entirely artless, no matter how skilfully made or praiseworthy in other respects they may be.

I elucidate memes as  purposefully efficacious actions, and account for the significance of memetic innovation in terms of a theory of cultural evolution that, despite a difference in one crucial respect, is structured in precisely the same way as a Darwinian account of biological evolution.

The expression ‘experimental art’ is taken to be tautological on the ground that new memes cannot be generated by purposeful action, and cannot but be discovered ‘experimentally,’ in the more significant of the two senses of this word. Because newly discovered memes cannot be purposefully generated in the way in which works of art, like all other culturally identifiable artifacts, can be purposefully generated experimental art is not one sort of art: it is the only sort of art.

Some implications of these fundamental points are briefly sketched: notably, the way in which the relevance for artists of the cultural domains of science and technology (in which experiments are purposefully performed) has been seriously misunderstood.

I draw on several essays about the nature of art, of cultural evolution and of history, that have already appeared in several papers elsewhere, either in print or online[1].

‘Art’ is a homonym

We have in common use two very different words, both spelled in the same way, as  ‘a-r-t.’ They are regularly conflated within the artworld, encouraging a self-serving confusion that has taken a grip on ordinary conversation. Perhaps no other pair of similarly spelled but different words is as troublesome. No lending or borrowing institution profits from a widespread temptation to open a savings account in a bank whereon the wild thyme grows in the way in which the artworld exploits the misapprehension that works of art are justifiably so called only on the ground that art is incarnated in them.

The most common use of one of these words is probably to name the class of works of art. This loosely assembled collection of objects and processes comprises particular items of various sorts that had traditionally been sub-classified as paintings, sculptures, poems, symphonies and so on. The modern range is much more accommodating. Art galleries are so-called because they are places where items that have been classified as works of art are collected and displayed. People speak (confusedly, as I argue) of visiting an art gallery to appreciate the art that is on display there.

Despite the elusiveness of its meaning, the more important of the two words spelled a-r-t is not this one. It is the word we use when we speak about the art of picture-painting (for example) as contrasted with the skill, or craft, of picture-painting. The same goes for the art of mathematics; the art of marriage counseling; the art of motor cycle maintenance, etc. The denotation of this more significant word is notoriously hard to fix, but it is certainly not a name that is appropriately given either to a class of perceptible objects, or to the particular items of this class. It is a word that optimistically invokes some teasingly elusive basis on which people take themselves to be relying on a categorical contrast with the purposeful skills of making that everyone routinely exercises in every institutionally structured domain of human concern. Whatever the putative art of motor cycle maintenance may be, it is not supposed to be a teachable and learnable mechanical skill of the sort that can be acquired be enrolling in a technical college course.

Art (as everyone knows, but cannot easily prove) is not something that can be purposefully generated by the mere fact of exercising even complex skills such as those that are exercised when making filo pastry or a herb garden. Nearly everyone acquires a huge repertoire of skills and can demonstrate this ability in a purposeful way, on demand. We do not expect to be taught how to make art in the way in which we expect to be taught how to make a work of art, or how to make a hire-purchase agreement, or how to make a serviceable bookshelf. The elusive entity that we want to characterise as art whenever (comparatively rarely, in practice) we happen  to stumble upon it is something that has taken us by surprise—and sometimes by delight—in every domain of cultural life, no matter how practical or impractical the sorts of objects and processes that we find there. We even, occasionally, stumble on art in a work of art just as the artist responsible for this work may or may not have stumbled upon art in the course of making the work in what can only have seemed—until the revelation—to be a familiarly purposeful way.

The artworld (with the art gallery as its figurative shopfront) is a cultural domain in which the  conflation of these two very different words was mainly an intellectual frolic of the Enlightenment. A fugue of dreamwork delivered up to us an ethereal, property-like, figment of the philosophical imagination called ‘aesthetic value’ with the imputed capability of welding the denotation of the word ‘art’ to that of the phrase ‘work of art’ so seamlessly that they might seem to be one and the same thing. ‘Aesthetic value’ (whatever-it-may-be) was successfully exported from the artworld into ordinary language, as a technically superior name for whatever had formerly been identified, in a less technical way, as ‘beauty’ or ‘expressiveness’ (or whichever virtuous property had been assumed to account for our otherwise inexplicably greater admiration for one painting or poem or dance than for another. Artists came to be credited with an uncanny ability to purposefully insert this ‘aesthetic value’ into any work of art that they set about making, by virtue of which these otherwise mundane artifacts would acquire their right to recognition as works of art .

In the strongest and least plausible version of this story the putatively purposefully contrived incarnation of ‘aesthetic value’ in any object or process is treated as the single necessary and sufficient condition by virtue of which—if it is satisfied—the thing becomes identifiable indubitably as a work of art. In short: all and only works of art are entities in which ‘aesthetic value’ is incarnated.

In a weaker and marginally more defensible version of the theory, ‘aesthetic value’ may be occasionally encountered in objects that do not qualify as works of art; but institutionally endorsed art critics going about their proper business will only pay attention to it when they are off duty, and at their peril.[2] Moreover, the question of what other condition, in that case, must be satisfied if a candidate object is to fully qualify as a work of art is left unresolved.

The preferred mode of appreciation that the artworld expected appraisers to bestow on works of art (and only on works of art) came to be seen not at all in the same terms as the forms of appreciation that are appropriately bestowed by their appraisers on things of other sorts that their critics are generally welcome to admire or detest for every imaginable sort of reason. In relation to works of art, and only in relation to works of art, an assessment of their  ‘aesthetic value’ became  the fundamental appreciative strategy. Aesthetics: problems in the philosophy of criticism[3] emerged as the exemplary essay and book title in the lush new field of scholarship that proliferated around the appraisal of old works of art and the production of new ones.

This shotgun marriage of the concept of art to the concept of the work of art was first challenged in a conspicuously public way by Marcel Duchamp, early in the 20th century. Even some fifty years later, when the so-called Institutional Theory of Art[4] supervened over the traditional ‘essentialist’ theories (that art is essentially catharsis, or that it is essentially imitation, or that it is essentially expression, and so on) the conflation of the two words persisted. The Institutional Theory of Art is correct and it might, when properly interpreted, be regarded as no more than an endorsement of common sense. That is to say: the theory is correct when it is taken—whether in a language-analytic way or in a post-modern or ‘structuralist’ way—to be a theory about the way in which we come to classify some things as works of art. Notwithstanding H. L. Mencken’s remark that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong we have, for once, an answer to a complex problem that is clear, simple and correct. Works of art are whatever the artworld, from time to time and for whatever reason or even for no reason, decides to recognise as works of art. Moreover, should a decision contested by laypersons be subjected to judicial challenge, artworld-accredited experts will be summoned before the court to settle the question.

Despite its misleading name the Institutional Theory of Art gets no grip at all on the question of what art is. It offers only a more or less technically intricate way of conceding what should be obvious: namely, that the classification of things as works of art, and the acceptance or the rejection of new candidates for endorsement, is at the discretion of the most powerful  currently accredited agents of the artworld such as the directors and curators of major galleries, no matter how this discretion may be exercised. In much the same way, sacred sites are whichever places an established religious or quasi-religious institution resolves to endorse as sacred, for whatever reason or, indeed, for no reason at all other than the firm conviction of opinion-leaders in the accrediting social institution.

The currently popular elucidation of the word ‘art,’ in terms of the ‘aesthetic value’ that is allegedly distinctively incarnated in works of art, is a vacuous way of accounting for the intuition that has always been deeply rooted in the ordinary-language distinction between art and craft. It is a distinction that can be much better understood not by conceiving of art in terms of ‘aesthetic value’ but in terms of the memetic innovation by virtue of which new skills and new crafts unexpectedly emerge. The point is only partly grasped by those who wave the wand of creativity optimistically across every institutional domain as if it (creativity) were a sort of skill with which some people are more copiously endowed than others.

Memetic innovation is a sub-category within the more general category of unexpected discoveries. Like discovery in general (although narrower in its scope) memetic innovation does not have a history despite the fact that its concrete instantiations cannot but occupy temporal locations. The category itself is what it always was, for Aurignacian wall-painters and for modern muralists alike.

The Institutional Theory based its case partly on the indefensibility of traditional essentialist theories about what art is. By the middle of the twentieth century few theorists were prepared to assert that all and only works of art are cathartic, or imitative, or expressive, or revelatory, or whatever. (In anticipation of an objection to my own account of art as memetic innovation, on the ground that it is itself an essentialist theory barely distinguishable from the Revelation Theory, I hasten to point out that what I offer is a theory about what art is. It is not a theory about what works of art are, that I take to be a settled question. If, in a particular case, there is a relationship between art and a work of art it is contingent and accidental, like the relationship between art and a display of motor cycle maintenance.

A comprehensive account of memetic innovation cannot be given in a few paragraphs and I have attempted this elsewhere. I shall try to briefly sketch the sense of, while remarking incidentally that artists do not need to know what art is in order to make works of art. If this had been a necessary precondition for making works of art, then the galleries of the world would be sparsely furnished, if not bare. It is a matter of fact, however, that artists are more inclined than most people to take an interest in the question. Their pale philosophical fire is unfortunately all too easily extinguished, either by the smothering blanket of ‘aesthetic theory’ or the rhetoric that booms through the artworld from the megaphones of national cultural ideologues and identity politicians.[5]



The art that shapes the evolution of cultural kinds in every cultural institution is a much older and more universal driver of change than any of the activities going forward in the artworld around the concept of the work of art. Memetic innovation has always been the initiator of change in the nature and direction of those purposefully performed and predictably efficacious actions that are available to social participants of every sort. Without memetic innovation the emergence of new cultural kinds could not occur and newly emergent cultural kinds would not subsequently acquire their historical shapes in a the regularly explicable evolutionary way that we can easily observe.

Somewhere along the  complex tracks of biological evolution a few accidentally favoured kinds of organisms acquired the behavioural capacities needed for imitable memetic innovations to supervene upon the substrate of biological variation that propels bodily and behavioural changes. Once memetic innovation requiring a transmissible capacity to imitate  the observably efficacious behaviours of similar organisms becomes available the historically explicable shaping of cultural kinds begins. Like biological kinds, cultural kinds (if they could have emerged at all) would  persist unchanged were it not for genetic variation on one case and memetic variation in the other.

I shall lay out a sketch of the Darwinian account of biological evolution,[6]  followed by its supervenient parallel in the process of cultural evolution that comes with the onset of the purposefully imitative behaviours of perceiving organisms.

It is a fairly uncontentious opinion that living organisms have evolved in distinguishable kinds, or ‘species’[7], each of which has an evolutionary history that is causally explicable. The emergence of each distinguishable kind, its persistence, its historical shaping and its final extinction are accounted for in the following way.

(a) The genes responsible for generating the items of a recognisable biological kind are replicated (Although Darwin himself was unaware of it, the splitting of paired spiral molecular strands is significantly implicated in this process); and

(b) the replication of ‘genes’ is inexact, so that the genetically replicated items of a given kind are not identical; and

(c) the structurally and functionally variant items of a kind are differentially well adapted to the changing material environments in which they find themselves; and

(d) those items that find themselves best adapted to their inevitably changing environments are most prolifically replicated.

The evolutionary pattern displayed by biological hinds is paralleled by the pattern of the evolution of cultural kinds such as the wedding ceremony, the agricultural tractor and the Impressionist painting. Unlike the biological kinds that are perpetuated by the inexact replication of genes, however, cultural kinds are perpetuated by the inexact imitation of memes.

Here is the matching story about cultural kinds.

(a) The memes responsible for generating the items of a recognisable cultural kind are imitated (mirror neurons are surely implicated here); and

(b) the imitation of memes is inexact, so that memetically imitated items of a given kind are not identical; and

(c) the variant items of a kind are differentially well adapted to the changing cultural environments in which they find themselves; and

(d) those items that find themselves best adapted to their inevitably changing material and cultural environments are the most prolifically imitated.

In explanatory stories about the evolution both of biological kinds and of cultural kinds—in short, in the elucidation of the histories of these kinds—the generative role of the meme (in the cultural context) corresponds to the generative role of the gene (in the biological context). The inexact imitation of memes with adaptive consequences is potent in the former case; the  inexact replication of genes with adaptive consequences in the latter case.

What are memes? Many meme theorists have followed the mistaken lead of Richard Dawkins in offering such things as catch-phrases or popular songs as paradigm examples of the meme. But if the evolutionary parallel between the shaping of biological kinds and the shaping of cultural kinds is to be seriously maintained, then an item of a cultural kind such as a catch-phrase or a popular song cannot possibly qualify as a meme. Only a demented biologist might be tempted to offer an item of a biological kind such as a kangaroos or a turnip as an example of a gene.

Memes cannot possibly be items of the cultural kind that they are instrumental in perpetuating, just as genes cannot be items of the biological kind that they are instrumental in perpetuating. Memes are regularly efficacious actions that can be purposefully performed by the members of some, but not all, biological kinds: notably, of course, by ourselves and no doubt (although it may not be easy to demonstrate) by all organisms of the kinds that we deem to be perceivers. A meme is a purposeful action, undertaken in the credible expectation that an item of a recognisable cultural kind will thereby be generated. An item of a cultural kind such as a poached egg is not a meme. A poached egg is an item of the poached egg cultural kind that is perpetuated by the orchestration within a purposefully acting individual of a great many memes that are already dispositionally available within the bodily repertoire. To poach an egg one must be able to orchestrate such dispositionally triggerable memes as lighting the gas, boiling water, cracking an egg, watching the clock … and so on.

The biological parallel to the generation of an item of a cultural kind such as a poached egg must be with the generation of an item of a biological kind—a hen, for example—that requires no purposeful action at all but only the complex bodily orchestrated behaviours of around 20,000 parental genes. Biological evolutionary explanations and cultural evolutionary explanations differ most significantly in our appeal to the causally driven behaviours of the bodily parts of organisms in in the former case, and to the purposeful actions of entire organisms in the latter case.

New memes (considered as purposeful actions with anticipated goals) must be discovered and cannot themselves be purposefully generated. Before developing this point, however, I should stress the point that if (as I propose) we are to identify art with the unexpected emergence of opportunistically successful and regularly imitable memes, then we have access not only to an understanding of why it is that cultural kinds have histories but also to a regular way of accounting, in terms of causal regularity and of unexpected contingency, for the de facto shaping of these histories in particular cases.

Two senses of the word ‘experiment’

When we speak about experimenting it is a moot point whether we should take ourselves to be using two words spelled in the same way (as we do in the case of the inscription a-r-t), or to be making use of a single word in different, but lucidly related, ways. I shall take the latter course.

The sense of the word ‘experiment’ on which I wish concentrate attention is probably not the one that is most commonly invoked. It is the sense of the word in which optimistically gesturing experimenters do not presently know, and cannot presently say, what outcome they expect to emerge as a consequence of their current behaviours. This is the sense of ‘experiment’ in which, as an eager child, I unwrapped my first chemistry set and began to perform experiments. There was an instruction book explaining some of the established memes of chemistry, but I was too impatient to read it. I simply added some blue crystals to a yellowish fluid extracted from a bottle with a warning label. Nothing much happened; but it might have done. No matter how improbably, I might have stumbled upon a regular way of generating something marvellous that—to pursue a fantasy—had hitherto been lurking unrecognised outside the established memetic repertoire of chemistry.

‘Just to see what happens…’ is the sense of the word ‘experiment’ with which we are able to conceive of an experimenter who is lurching forward through more or less random behaviours in a limbo of ignorance, but with some (usually unjustified) air of optimism. It is also the sense in which, in the course of doing something that the experimenters do know how to do (such as boiling flasks of urine), they unexpectedly discover how to do something that they did not know how to do and thereafter—if an unexpected but desirably efficacious outcome has emerged—are able to do ‘the same thing’ again, although now in a differently purposeful way.

I draw this malodorous illustration from Joseph Wright’s picture of a legendary moment of revelation, called The Alchemist in search of the Philosopher’s Stone Discovers Phosphorus (1771). Following this moment of epiphany not only the experimenter but observant bystanding alchemists everywhere came to know how to do purposefully something that they did not know how to do before. They still did not know how to make the gold that they were trying to make, of course; but they now know to make phosphorus (under whatever name may be given to this unexpected element). A new meme has entered the public domain.

The more methodically puritanical sense of the word ‘experiment,’ to which science has given huge respectability, is significantly different. This is the sense in which an experimenter purposefully deploys memes that are already familiar in the plausible expectation that stepping purposefully through the appropriate actions will most probably generate an item of the recognisable cultural kind describable as a conclusive falsification (or as a failure to falsify) some presently stable theory or hypothesis. The goal of the experiment is known and purposeful ways of achieving it are triggerably available.

In deference to those philosophers of science who have moved on from Karl Popper, and perhaps also from the more adventurous Paul Feyerabend, I shall say no more about this. There is ample room for dispute, but it should be obvious that, no matter how we theorise the scientific method, those scientists who are performing experiments by and large take themselves to be acting purposefully in the anticipation that the most likely consequences of their actions are presently statable. In the same way, when artists set out to make things of the sort that they anticipate will qualify, by virtue of the purposeful actions they are performing, as works of art. Works of art are items of a cultural that can be more or less skilfully generated, just as scientific findings are items of a cultural kind that can be more or less skilfully produced.

The expression ‘Experimental art’ is a tautology

Several of the threads teased out so far can now be drawn more coherently together. If we identify art with memetic innovation, while simultaneously using the word ‘experiment’ in the more radically optimistic of its two senses, the expression ‘experimental art’ must be tautologous. The unexpected discovery of new memes cannot but be experimental, coming as they do to a potential user of them as a discovery, a revelation, or—more grandly—an epiphany. Whether it is describable as purposeless or as purposeful, a behaviour undertaken with some other goal in mind than that which is manifestly achieved, may unexpectedly make available a new and regularly useful meme that will thereafter be imitably performable. It will become available not only for regular and imitable use by its discoverer but also by those other imitating performers for whom this is also a discovery.

The memetic repertoires of the members of a community of performers of purposeful actions could be expanded in no other way than by discovery. Although the Revelation Theory of Art may have had its head in the clouds when it was misconceived as an answer to the question about how we should recognise a work of art, its feet were always on the ground in relation to our understanding of what art is.

In ordinary conversation we do not usually distinguish sharply between these two radically different senses of the qualifier ‘experimental.’ Nor do we trouble to distinguish sharply between purposeful actions and those behaviours to which no goal whatsoever is attributable. This is why the remark that scientists are not purposefully making art sounds perfectly obvious, whereas the claim that artists are not purposefully making art sounds paradoxical. But it is not paradoxical. It is the awful truth. What the artist is purposefully making is a work of art. Unexpectedly finding viable new meme in the process, and being subsequently capable of exploiting this discovery, is a stoke of good fortune that is as available to a scientist as it is to an artist.

Some implications

It should be clear that artists (who are so-called just because they are the purposeful makers of works of art) are not required to engage with science and technology under any internal institutional constraint, or by virtue of any obligation owed to the artworld by its participants. Like many other people I was much attracted, some forty or fifty years ago, to the idea that serious artists had a duty to engage with science and technology on the ground that these are the cultural domains in which the emergent public understanding of new ways of acting purposefully in the world is occurring most dramatically. The potentially exploitable memetic innovations that are the drivers of cultural change were emerging more abundantly and more influentially in these domains than in any of the adjacent institutions of morality, political ideology, financial counselling and grocery retailing. Every adventurous artist had a duty to go there .

The fact is, however, that although artists have been ambivalently welcomed into the domains of science and technology as amateur and occasionally thought-provoking nuisances, the notion that they are capable in some way of offering guidance to their new colleagues as if they were super-scientists or super-technologists is preposterous.



In conclusion

A point that is worth worth repeating for emphasis is probably this. Valorously self-styled ‘experimental artists’ should understand that the expression ‘experimental art’ does not prescribe a distinctive sort of art. contrasting with other sorts of art. There is no other sort of art Moreover, the project of producing works of art that are ‘experimental’ in the alternative sense that they might fail to gain recognition by the artworld  as works of art is by now only marginally viable. When the attraction of the sciences was first powerfully felt by artists the fabrication of objects or processes with a strong scientific or technological flavour for submission to the artworld as candidates for endorsement as works of art, the qualifier ‘experimental’ (used in this way) may have been justifiable. Over the decades, however, it has become obvious that artistic excursions into what was once alien territory are no longer considered outrageous, even by the aesthetes. The artworld has capitulated and there is now almost nothing from which it can withhold its endorsement. It is ready to attribute ‘aesthetic value’ to any display of the behaviour of bacteria in any Petri dish that a bona fide artist is disposed to offer up for exhibition.

The problem facing artists who are eager to be recognised as experimental must therefore be radically reconsidered. They cannot purposefully make experimental art (whether or not it arguably scientific or technological) for the insurmountable reason that art cannot be purposefully made. Nor can they purposefully make experimental works of art because the artworld has long since abandoned the right of rejection it wielded so magisterially when Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson ran the operation.

What then is left?

Those for whom recognition as an artist is most pressing there is only the maintenance of a foothold within any branch of the entertainment industries that sufficiently well-established as a province of the expanding artworld. Web-designing or making video clips may qualify; playing rugby football under water and breeding greyhounds may not.

For those whose credentials as artists are already  impeccable, but who wish to be recognised as experimental artists, there is a faint residual possibility of toying with a prospect of expulsion from this world by seeking memetic innovation in some domain of institutional activity that is manifestly unrelated to the entertainment industries.

The adoption of an alertness to the possibility of encountering a publicly viable revelation in anything that is made or done by anyone, in any institutional domain, is not a gift with which artists are peculiarly endowed. Biological organisms that are incapable of unexpectedly acquiring publicly imitable skills  that they had not hitherto known to be available must thereby put in doubt their eligibility for recognition as human beings.


[1]          See, for example: ‘Art history?’ History and Theory 43 (February 2004): 1-17; ‘If Art has no history, what implications flow for the art museum?’ Rethinking History 9 (1, 2005):71-90; ‘For art, against aesthetics,’ in Ian North, Ed., Visual Animals: crossovers, evolution and new aesthetics. Contemporary Arts Centre of South Australia, Adelaide. 2007. 84-90; The awful truth about what art is. Artlink, Adelaide, 2008.

              ‘Muffled sounds: the eartrumpet of the artworld has been struck by lightning.’ Artlink 30 (2, 2010): 34-36.

[2]             I was once, as a newspaper art critic, severely chastised for reviewing a shop window full of pin-ball machines.

[3]             Monroe C. Beardsley’s Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958) is still an influential text. The criticism he analyses is, of course, art criticism.

[4]             I refer to classic formulations such as those of George Dickie and Arthur Danto. Continental European equivalents emerged in various ‘structuralist’ and other articulations of so-called ‘French theory’.

[5]             A recent change of name from the Experimental Art Foundation to the Australian Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide shows the insidious power of identity politics in the popular understanding. The name National Institute for Experimental Arts, adopted by the newer institution in Sydney, is less compromising. The annexation of art to national cultural identity projects is attractive to politicians, especially when public patronage is being solicited.

[6]             The story that elaborates what Daniel Dennett called the best idea that anybody ever had.

[7]             Biological kinds have complex taxonomies (e.g. kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species, according to Linnaeus), all of them compressed into ‘species’ in general accounts of evolutionary theory. We do not yet have any comparably useful taxonomy of cultural kinds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *