Why We Experiment?

During staff discussions at the Henry it’s sometimes noted that we carry out projects that are “experimental”.  Well, what is an experiment?  Why experiment?  I encountered the following thoughts on experimentation in an essay by John Corbett, a faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who publishes widely on music as both an academic and journalist.  Where Corbett speaks of “the hypothesis”, we can perhaps substitute “the artist’s intention”, and for “data” we can say “art”. 

“It is important to recall the basic assumption behind the idea of experimental method: namely, that the outcome of the experiment is always undetermined.  The hypothesis can never assume its results, but must await their appearance; experimental results then help prove or disprove the hypothesis (or in other cases when they expose design flaws in the experimental framework, they may help redesign the experiment), but they are (at least ideally) inert, open-ended,and potentially subversive of the desired outcome.  [my emphasis]  By definition, experimental data must be able to behave in a way not predicted by the hypothesis.  Thus, the experiment is conceived as an excellent setting for exploration and discovery, a perfect opportunity for an encounter with the new, the unforeseen, and the unfamiliar [emphasis mine].

That last sentence wouldn’t be out of place in some version of a Henry Art Gallery mission statement.  But if you reflect for a moment of what Corbett says, it’s obvious that operating experimentally isn’t as easy as falling off a log.  When we experiment, we set the bar high for artists, our visitors, and ourselves. 

Corbett’s essay (“Experimental Oriental”) appears in a collection of essays, Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music.  There’s a lot of interesting material in the book for anyone interested in so-called “world music”.

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