, ,

Since the Renaissance, and more so after the Enlightenment, the west has been proud of its ability to innovate, to break free of the shackles of the past. The capacity to break with tradition implied a strong cultural impetus to innovate, and to experiment.

Since questioning and experiment, and consequently technical development, appeared to go together it looked like a virtuous circle and for over two hundred years we’ve exalted innovation and experiment above tradition – not all tradition, just the ones that seem stuffy and unnecessary.

As with all glib reasoning this is almost plausible. But then it was Louis C.K who got me thinking otherwise. Anyone familiar with the comedian’s work knows he has a particular style but the idea of experiment surfaced in his Louie TV shows. The shows have no formal narrative structure; there were no jokes, nor do sequences build into punchlines. Some of the shows ended abruptly, rather badly you might say, as if underwritten, but the stories overlapped, came and went, the characters’ individual stories made sense in fragments, not as sections, and over the course of a series it gelled.

The cross-cutting form is by today’s standards very experimental; it demands attention. Sometimes it’s not satisfying. The curious thing is that this style and format is unusual in prose, and it would be damned as experimental, but on TV, it has an audience. It may be that Louis C.K.’s viewers are all literary critics and post- structuralists, but I doubt that, as there can’t be enough of them to support the show.

The show succeeds because TV is easy to absorb and there are enough gags, even indirect ones, or through character, to make it work. The notion that it’s experimental is acceptable in a restricted set of possibilities, for instance, in a genre. And it doesn’t mean the audience of Louie have clear views on the nature of narrative comedy and story design. What it indicates is that some place for the experimental and the avant-garde is a relic. If those terms have any meaning it probably reflects on the user, their experience, and their understanding.

Look at ratings and book sales figures and it’s true that there are more viewers than readers. All that viewing experience – it’s about four hours per day per capita – so that’s several years’ worth of expertise gained has made us sophisticated at interpreting pictures. That is not to say that mainstream TV and film is experimental, it mostly isn’t at all, but every day we see more stories through edited pictures than through books and that could mean we have a wider tolerance for narratives in pictures.

At the notorious premiere of The Rite of Spring, the one that descended into a riot, a spectator called out, Call a dentist! (In French, obviously). It raised a laugh and someone else in the restive theater called out, Call two dentists! Why dentists and why then? It was during the segment Cercles Mysterieux des Adolescents.

Not being a choreographer I can’t use the right terms, but during this part of the ballet there were a group of young girls, painted like dolls, moving in and out of an implied circle and making sudden movements and turning their heads up in acute angles. This distracted, almost distressed, behavior may have been a sign in Paris at the time of dental pain, hence the reason for the heckling.

Ridiculing something is the facile way to denigrate it. Cries of bizarre usually serve as that all purpose reprimand against impudence to the speaker’s sense of a torn social fabric. The audience for that premiere were rich but that does not bestow sophistication. Up to that point of the ballet they had been subjected to some savage rhythms – this at a time when the epithet ‘fauvist’ was an insult.

In a society of strict conventions the dancers’ action were probably considered lewd. Europeans have been able to perceive sex lurking in many things, even tomatoes once. The experimental part of the ballet turned their sense of social protocol upside down. The movements were not new, just proscribed in that society; but once the waltz was considered below what any moral woman would do. As for music, it has disturbing rhythms, and again, Europeans have always worried about the power of distinctive rhythms. For similar reasons Elvis Presley perturbed a wider public for his rhythmic moves, but Stravinsky was the original hound dog.

In retrospect the premiere is considered one of the great events in western culture because of the innovation. Yes but, we say now, because the experimental exists within a highly conventional set of rules. The dancing and the music were experimental to that audience due to the way they lived and their social mores.

Imagine someone whose diet consists of peanut butter sandwiches. One night they go out for a pizza and the remove all the topping and only eat the crust and sauce. The experimental element (to them) were the black olives and the basil leaves and the artichoke hearts on the pizza top.

In fiction what is now called experimental is very narrow and historically misses the antecedents. So-called experimental fiction may change perspective; it might emphasize one thing over another; it may have more piquancy than a peanut butter sandwich. It may not be successful in the sense of fulfilling conventional experience. It won’t be new, not really new.

When the modernists evolved their works they did so reacting against a body of work they found stultifying. Often they went back several hundred years to use some idea or a technique which they reintroduced. Within the times these innovations looked experimental. They weren’t, not really; it has been done before, or there is a parent for some style. More experience will remove the urge to call something experimental. But if a book seems too experimental, it’s probably time to see the dentist.

Guy Cranswick
1st September 2014