The Experimental Artist

Allan Kaprow

Just Doing…

The playground for experimental art is ordinary life. But playing in this ordinary world does not mean including even more features of the commonplace than we are alredy used to finding in exhibitions, concerts, poems, dances, films and performances. Such appropriations are the traditional strategies that turn life into art. No matter how much life we confront in them, their standard contexts never allow us to forget art’s higher station. In contrast, the experimental artist who plays with the commonplace does so in the very midst of crossing the street or tying a shoelace. There is no excerpting and re-enacting them on a stage, no documenting them. Condition for experimentation: the art is the forgetting of art. […]

Experimentation also involves attention to the normally unnoticed. I scratch my ear when it itches. I notice the itch, notice my scratching, and notice when the itching stops, if it does. I attend to my raised arm and my fingers pulling at my ear (it’s the left one), while discussing politics. But mostly, I scratch itches without noticing.. I learned as a child not to scratch an itch in public, and now that I intentionally notice that I do so anyway, the whole action looms large. It’s a little strange, and my conversation about politics loses interest as itching and scratching shine brighter.

In other words, attention alters what is attended. Playing with everyday life often is just paying attention to what is conventionally hidden. […]

If the analytically inclined still want to know why to play at everyday life, an answer might go like this: Experimental art is the only kind of art that Anglo-America can call its own. This American culture has long rejected the fine arts as irrelevant and devoid of nonest labour. ‘Idle hands are the devil’s work’. Experimental art, as described here, is the one kind that can affirm and deny art at the same time. It is the one kind of art that can claim as value no value! It is in agreement with American philistinism and its throwaway materialism, while it is free to enact a sort of ‘native’ creativity in the play of ordinary life. The one caveat is that it must not be called art.

Talking With Allan Kaprow…

AK If you are asking yourself how someone who was once an artist can stop being an artist, it is something that can occur if the artist, originally a traditional artist, moves away from art gradually. However, no one walks this road and says, “Ah, this is fun”. To do so would make you an artist of life, an individual with no background, no long years of study, no experience, no notions of aesthetic philosophy. However, an artist cannot simply bid art farewell and become a life artist: it simply does not work. […]

Do you believe that it is possible to avoid the art context today? In the 20th [and 21st] century, even the most isolated of artists creates an artistic context in that everything he does is art!

AK Yes, the problem is the social group that preserves the cliché that says that everything an artist does is art. A glass of water is art if an artist pours it. If poured by a non-artist, it is non-art. Often, in a gallery or a museum, we will find an insignificant piece which is considered art because artists - the only ones actually interested – are discussing it. I have been lucky enough to move away from the art context and to move closer to reality, for example through my work in schools where I have been able to educate and play with children. This is a fortunate opportunity. It enables you to forget all aesthetic or historical issues.

All this reminds me of what people like Klee and the CoBrA group were doing. In your case, I believe the Happening was a sort of game that you created with the instruments of your art?

AK Certainly, but this applies inside our context, where we are all familiar with art history and can pick out the various elements. It cannot be seen in terms of non art or in terms of the rest of life: those artists who want to deal with socio-political issues are using an artistic language and are appealing to a public that understands it. This is not politics but art. We know that art, unfortunately, cannot change the price of eggs and therefore, it is impossible to tell whether art actually achieves any positive effect beyond the creation of problems in the art context. I am not saying artists should cease their endeavour to create art that is committed and useful, but it is something I personally give a wide berth to. […]

I imagine you find it impossible to conceive of art in terms of progress, that you see it more as an evolution?

AK A sort of evolution that affects conceptions rather than products. The products mentality is very close to traditional art; the artist creates sculptures, paintings, video, music, all of which are expressions of production. The idea was to replace the product with the continuous production process. Yesterday I visited a little town where the river Sesia, which has its source up in the mountains, passes. Every year it alters its course, destroying houses, building new mountains and wiping out various species of fish and bird. This ecological dynamic is the best analogy for what I do. There is no question of right or wrong: the river never interrupts its progress, but goes on and on. It is all part of nature. Scientific ecology does not always give the best results and can be risky: today’s solutions can be tomorrow’s problems. […]

Would you accept, if they have not already done so, an invitation to exhibit at the Guggenheim?

AK Yes. I would have the visitors come up in the elevator and then they could skate back down to the first floor. I have nothing against museums, but there would be a limit to what I could do there. It is a difficult context but I would not turn it down just because it is an art museum. I would just like to add that I’ve never been asked by the Guggenheim – perhaps because of my idea with the skates!

As an artist, do you feel responsible for the world?

AK No. But as a human being I do. My role as an artist is not important. […]

Fondazione Antonio Ratti, Advanced Course in Visual Arts, Allan Kaprow, 1997: extracts republished in /seconds by kind permission of Annie Ratti / Fondazione Antonio Ratti.