What is meant by experimental art? Is it the same as innovative, or unconventional, for instance? One feature it seems all must share is having not been tried before, or at the least, having not been tried by so many that the attempt could be called “well known.” Another feature might be experimental art dallies with sensibility or conventional expectations. What these might be are things like sense of time, space, or sense of order in terms of hierarchies such as importance, or significance. There may even be a scale of social convention which can be challenged, such as a range psychological proclivities, prevalence of or lack of violence, gratuitous nature of violence, be it emotional, or physical in some way. (This might be testing the current audience's tolerances.)
James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake famously begins with half a sentence, and ends with the first half of the starting sentence, ably demonstrating the repetitive cycle of the events in people's lives. However, there's nothing really challenging that tests any limits in the story itself, so this beginning/ending might be defined as innovative. He intentionally uses the language as spoken in his home in Ireland, where the story takes place, and in so doing uses a lot of Gaelic and dialectically-specific English which speakers of English often times find difficult to decipher, which could be termed unconventional. However unusual the book is, it doesn't meet what one might expect from experimental literature.
Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, again James Joyce with Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf are said to be the modernist literary experimenters, however (and this may be 21st Century cultural bias) they seem to be experimenting more with what publishers might allow through the gate, than with the sensibilities of readers. Woolf, for instance, boldly altered the characterization of females as the stupid subservient. Whereas Pound's achievement was with poetry, something much easier to toy with than larger prosaic works. Pound's Canto was criticized as being incoherent, or unable to “cohere” as it is fragmented. Pound countered that life experience is fragmented and the work reflects the reality in that way.
Joyce's Ulysses on the other hand (considered to be the most important modernist work) endeavored to depict the day of a person through that person's thoughts, rather than sequential telling of the day's events. This was truly experimental and indeed drew not only wide response, but a rather lively one. It can be safely said, Ulysses changed the concept of the novel itself. Joyce said of the work that he “...put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”
The Dadaist movement of the early 20th Century is most frequently hailed as the hallmark for
experimental art. Marcel Duchamp, said to have introduced concepts which inspired Dada, created what he called anti-art. This would involve, for instance, painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa to challenge conventional concepts of art itself. However, cubism would be considered the pre-World War II root of the movement. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso pursued cubism as a way to try to show motion, or advancing time, within two-dimensional visual art. Though short-lived as a painting method, cubism did affect how painters who followed viewed their craft in much the same way as Joyce caused novelists to rethink the conventions of their chosen medium.
During the middle of the 20th Century, a time called “post-modernism” you had a continuation of this experimentation in literature, notably William S. Burrough's The Naked Lunch. Law enforcement during the 1960s attempted to prosecute Burroughs for obscenity for this work, which brought about public interest in the concepts of freedom of the press and free speech. This initiated the cultural and moral revolution which would come in the late 60s (commonly called “The Sixties”.) Burroughs attempted to relate experiences with heroine addiction from the perspective of the addict in The Naked Lunch. This was done with descriptions of what could be later called psychedelia – psychedelic taken to mean “mind expanding.” He employed a technique used by Tristan Tzara, a Dadaist poet, called “cut up”, where lines were cut in strips from paper, then mixed and placed into a manuscript in what could be called a random order. Singer/songwriter David Bowie (working in the latter half of the 20th Century and early 21st) said he and fellow writer Brian Eno frequently employed this technique, as well.
The interesting distinction in this is between the concepts of innovation and experimentation. Much of the work considered to be revolutionary was that because it defied standards the keepers of the gate to success held as the key. Experimental work would do the same, however, its intent had nothing to do with commercial success or appealing to a broad audience. Experimental work has more to do with the work itself, or the elements and tools used to create the final work. The features seem to be attempts to see just what will this medium do? We see what it has done, and done well, but is that all there is to this? Sometimes the attempts failed. The play Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, opened and closed in one night – December 10, 1896. Yet, it has influenced how plays are written, cast, costumed and how sets are designed until this day.
Maybe the answer lies in how we define success. We know how the box office defines it. We know how the record label defines it, and we know how the popular press defines it. How do we define it – as the artists, as the avant-garde?