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If it is a t ruism that art, like everyth ing else, has its past, modern art until

recently has acted as if it were an exception. It was New, Brand New,


without antecedents. It wiped away the past in a marvelous gesture of
self-sufficiency. History was Bunk and influences were usually denied in
spite of evidence to the contrary. For the public, urged on by talk in
vanguard circles of the early twentieth century, contemporary art as a
whole became known as "experimental." Now we know better. Like
popular soaps, the same lather comes out in shades of blue, turquoise
and lilac, each dramatically novel ... Still, if the characterization of
modern art as "experimental" was incorrect, it remains intriguing to
speculate on what an experimental art might be. The idea has the
inescapable flavor of daredeviltry.
To Experiment: schoolboy memories of oddballs puttering in their
garages with twisted wires, clanking gadgets, sudden explosions .. .
Tom Swift, Ju les Verne and now the astronauts. Imag ine something
never before done; by a method never before used; whose outcome is
unforeseen. Modern art is not like th is, it is always Art.
This is the adventurer's side. Couple it with the professional view that
nowadays young artists are schooled historicallY' to an extraordinary

deg ree, and their knowledge of what is going on is staggering. Among


the cognoscenti, whose number is steadily growing, innovations are
met with nods of expectation as though they were foregone conclusions.
Predictions of things to come are not the business of prophets and
quacks; they approach computability on the basis of the abundance
of data made available at every minute to the communications systems.
But if something were to occur in which the historical references were
missing, even for a short time, then that situation would become
experimental. Certain lines of thought would be cut or shorted-out,
and normally sophisticated minds would find themselves aghast. Such
a position must be willed, worked at. It shares with the tradition of
militant modernity that one essential ingredient of newness which has
been confused with experimentation : extremism. For the experimenter,
being at the outer limits is an important condition for jarring into focus
attention upon urgent issues, but the experimenter's issues are
philosophical rather than esthetic. They speak to questions of Being
rather than to matters of Art. In contrast, extremist pai nting - Cubism,
for instance - need not be experimental at al l; it may be no more than
(to the public) an uncomfortably rapid evolution of a prior mode. The
leaps taken by the painter are simply too large for the public to follow
quickly.
The developmental artist knows what art is. At least he has faith in it as
a discipline whose horizons can be extended. The experimentalist has
no such faith. The one thing that keeps him from becoming a barber
or cattleman is his persistent curiosity about what art might be in
addition to what everyone else has made it.

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The experimental artist always denies art within the circle of art,
submitting his alternative actions for acceptance as the preferable form
of what he has rejected . Even if he occasionally refuses the
accreditation when it is given, he does so to prolong the experimental
atmosphere since the experiment could not be performed elsewhere
without losing its identity and the issues it proposes to .tackle. This
acceptance as art, no matter how late it comes, is in my view the goal.
The temporary ambiguity of experimental action is quite appropriate,
for in leaving art, nothing is real ly escaped from; as it is suppressed it

emerges in disguise. The task is to build up sufficient psycholog ical


pressure to release from the transform ation of this material the energy
of art without its earmarks. Shredding newspape r into a shop window
need not be merely making litter for puppies; it could become an
Environment in which the dogs might play roles. The thuddings of
raindrops in the dust could become fabulous sound-pa intings; ant hills
could become great architectu re in motion; the screechin g of a thousand
starlings blotched against the treetops could turn into an unbelieva ble
opera. The art terms " painting," " architectu re, "opera, etc., are used
advisedly to point up the ease by which displacem ent can occur between
one mode of reference and another. It is the process of metaphor making, approved as the way life is poetized, but deplored when, in the
domain of the arts, metaphor s are mixed. This is called confusion ;
but it is exactly what I recommend. Once this is understoo d, namely that
the objective is to raise the pitch of that inner tension to such a degree
that the conversio n of non-art to art will be electrifying, it sl:lould be
further understan dable why the experime nter must be ruthless in ripping
out the last shred of artistry in his every thought and enthusiasm. It is not
.
enough tq refuse contact with museums, concert halls, book shops and
galleries. Nor is it enough to put out of one's mind actual paintings,
poems, architectu re, musical pieces, dances and movies. It is compulso ry
to put aside from conscious thought all echoes of art mediums, art
subject matter, art's methods of formation.
II

II

Let us Imagine the suicide of an obscure painter. It is around 1950. He


lives in a railroad flat in New York and is painting large, all-black
canvases. He covers most of the walls w ith them and it is quite dark in
his place. Shortly thereafter, he changes to all-white pictures. But he does
a curious thing: he proceeds to seal off each of his rooms with four
paintings constructed to just fit their space, edgi ng the final one into
position as he moves to the next room. He starts in the bedroom and
ends in the kitchen (which lets out to the hallway). There he paints the
same four white panels, but doesn't leave. He builds a series of such
cubicles each within the other, each smaller. He is found dead sitting in
the innermos t one. His act is tragic, because the man could not forget art.
Let us imag ine the su icide of an obscure painter. It is around 1950. He
lives in a railroad flat in New York and is painting large, all-black
canvases . He covers most of the walls with them and it is quite dark in
his place. Shortly thereafter, he changes to all-white pictures. But he does
a curious thing: he proceeds to seal off each of his rooms with four
paintings construct ed to just fit their spa_ce, edg ing the final one into
pos ition as he moves to the next room. He starts in the bedroom and ends
in the kitchen (which lets out to the hallway). There he paints the same
four white panels, but doesn't leave. He builds a series of such cubicles
each within the other, each smaller. He is found dead sitting in the
innermos t one.
Actually, the painter is telling th is story to his friends as a project he has
had in mind. He sees how attentively they listen to him and he is
satisfied. This act is tragic, because the man cou ld not forget art.
Experimental art is never tragic. It is a prelude.
-Allan Kaprow

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