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The description on Art+Culture's Experimental Film page describes the role of the experimental filmmaker as one in which a continual struggle must be maintained to "challenge the audience's preconceptions and expectations."  But what if the audience's preconceptions and expectations are precisely that these very preconceptions and expectations are intended to be challenged?  What role -- or, rather, what method -- must the filmmaker assume in order to circumnavigate these presumptions?

This poses a difficult problem, and it certainly extends beyond experimental film: all modern artistic media face this conundrum, of what to do when the audience expects something unexpected, of what to do when the unexpected is entirely expected.  What is the artist challenging by, in a sense, towing the line and offering something seemingly opaque that the viewer -- or reader or listener -- must then "uncode?"  Is it enough for the experimental artist to presume a denial of expectations, even when this denial has come to be expected?

What is now more uncommon in art, and more unsettling as well, is a work that is entirely sincere and begs its viewer to accept its sincerity, its lack of cynicism or intentional opacity.  This is unsettling for two reasons: one, it defies what art viewers are used to: some kind of decoding, a presumption that what they are seeing is merely a superficial film above a more profound "message"; second, it demands that the viewers dismantle their wary approach to experimental art, that they approach the object -- as they would nearly anything made before 1914 -- as if it were a genuine expression of the artist's will, as opposed to a complex, riddle-ridden, often convoluted groping toward something larger and conceptually aloof from the physicality of the object itself.  How would viewers respond to something like this?  Most likely, they would presume that something else is up, that this "sincerity" is in fact another cloak, masking something more devious and unapproachable.  Bluntness -- which does not necessitate a lack of subtlety; indeed, many of the most powerful and subtle works of art of any period are quite "blunt" in their approach to their subject: Leonardo and John Cage both made no presumptions as to attempting to achieve anything other than what they set out to achieve, no matter its unintended implications or connotations -- is suspect: the modern viewer cannot view it without a skein of cynicism.  "Surely," the viewer thinks, "there must be something more, something subversive, about this."  And certainly there may be.  But it may also be right in front of the viewer's nose, and his or her learned aversion to the "superficial" -- that is, the impression of the object itself, as opposed to some implied conceptualization thereof -- may blind him or her to it.

Experimental art often takes the severe risk of perpetuating its own worst qualities and stereotypes: that obscurity is better than sincerety, that an ironic distance is better than direct confrontation.  This comes from a contemporary discomfort with confrontation: it seems unsubtle, as if it weren't working enough to make its point subversively -- and therefore more effectively -- clear.  But subversion doesn't work if the viewer doesn't know what he or she is looking at, but rather only knows that what he or she is looking at is, ostensibly, subversive.  Subversion no longer quite exists; it is a shadow of earlier days' grapples with the limitations on art.  Now that these limitations no longer exist, subversion is impossible.  And yet many still cling to it as an essential part of art.  This results in confused messages and myopic visions, in unfinished thoughts and satisfaction with the unsubstantively opaque.  And viewers, concerned that they may always be missing out on something, will always follow the ostensibly -- but impossibly -- "subversive," as if it were art's highest calling.  We are all easily fooled by art, artists and viewers alike.

“You articulate the same problem I had in thinking about the new Abstract America show at the Saatchi. What you say about experimental film applies: if the audience expects something experimental or abstract, does the work succeed? Or does it become a kind of figurative work, resembling an abstraction? Cheers for a great essay- Lauren”
Posted over 6 years ago
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