February 7th, 2011 / 10:24 am

Comparing Experimental Art Forms

Danielle Dutton, from an interview at BOMBLOG:

Anne K. Yoder: Culturally, are people more open to experimental approaches in other art forms?

Danielle Dutton: On a very basic level, my best guess is that writing asks something different of its reader than listening asks of the listener. Same goes for looking at a painting, even one that might perplex or upset us. To read, to connect words in a difficult syntax, like Stein’s, or make sense of seemingly simple sentences within a maddening paragraph, like Beckett’s, or piece together a narrative that doesn’t seem to add up in a familiar way, like Gladman’s or Woolf’s, the reader has to pay close attention, has to work. I’m not saying that experimental writing is all slog slog slog, that it isn’t rewarding or entertaining, because obviously I think a lot of it is, but that we’ve been trained to think that language itself should work in one way, should be clear, and linear, and should instantly reveal meaning, so when writing confounds those expectations it’s perhaps easy to feel cheated by it, or to chalk it up as wrong, bad, pretentious. I’ve had students who were very open to talking about cubist paintings, for example, but who became furious over Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. We’re taught to read, after all, and perhaps more importantly we’re taught to write (the subject-verb agreement, the five-paragraph essay, the rhyming stanza), whereas no one actually teaches us a particular way to hear or look, and rarely to compose or paint, which maybe, ultimately, means we’re more open when we listen and look. Maybe?


  1. BIll

      An interesting theory, but ultimately it’s apples and oranges.

      The premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a riot. For a long time, the general listening public has expected all experimental music to be some incomprehensible pointy-headed noise. I’ve been to (and put together, and played in) too many concerts where the performers on stage outnumbered the audience.


  2. deadgod

      I agree with Dutton, though one could quarrel with (conversationally) strong statements like “no one actually teaches us a particular way to hear or look”.

      (Our institutionalized language learning is built on the foundation of the experience it would codify. That imitative experience (of acquiring by being informally shown for direct, practical purposes) of initial language acquisition is mirrored by the inward impact of, for example, pop music and televisual imagery, which likewise tell tots what to listen and look for.)

      I think the major difference in challenging accustomed ways of interpretation between writing and other sensory customary usages would have to be (or to depend on) the linguistic mediation of – or that determines (?) – cognition.