I posted this to a PoetryEtc mailing list discussion concerning the nature and whereabouts of the current avant garde:
There can be advances in the technical underpinnings of an art, as a better understanding of perspective may allow more realism in certain kinds of painting, or better metallurgy may lead to a louder and more balanced flute, but it is not a retreat to abandon perspective or to write music for a Renaissance flute. "Experiment" and "avant garde" are both misleading in that they imply direction and progress in the arts when no such things are possible, but an army's avant garde, at least, can fail, and, in opposing causes, there are multiple avant gardes. An avant garde at least acknowledges the partisan nature of its claims.
Experiment is more problematic, as it borrows from the language of science, implying an objective, systematic, asymptotic approach to something very like truth, or at least to what works best. There are several problems with this. First, objective truth and effectiveness have very little to do with art. Even when I argue that using traditional meters means I don't have to teach my readers how to hear the rhythms of my poems, I don't mean that therefore the poems were more effective--effective at what? conveying my emotional state? telling a story? making money? What is the purpose of art, that some particular form may better fulfill that purpose? It just means that I have less work to do at some levels and more at others and that I have chosen where I want to put my effort, and that I hope I have made a good choice for me in terms of letting the tradition do some of the work where I am weak so that I can use my strengths. To what end? Making poems that satisfy me and that, as far as I can tell, are a source of pleasure and an occasional kick in the ass for those who read or hear them. It's not such a grand thing.
I didn't make that choice by way of experiment. None of us do experiments. None of us makes a hypothesis that a particular affect can best be produced in an audience in manner A rather than in manner B, tries to think of all the contingent variables that may affect the production of that affect, designs a protocol which controls for each of those variables so that any result we see will be solely the consequence of using manner A or B, repeats that effort many times and applies statistical analysis to determine whether the differences we see are beyond expected chance variations, submits the work to peer review, waits for duplication of the results by other poets, refines the hypothesis or the protocol in light of the results from experiment and the work of other poets, tentatively accepts the hypothesis as either confirmed or rejected, and then goes on to examine the effect of manner C.
"What if I do it this way?" does not constitute an experiment. We play around. We find what we like to do. We find the areas where we feel we have talent. What we mean by experiment is more like tinkering.
There's nothing wrong with tinkering--it's absolutely necessary at every level in making art--but when we call it an experiment, even those of us who distrust the scientific enterprise (I'm not one) are too often seduced into thinking we're working on some more than personal frontier, that in some fashion we're helping the art to progress. I'm not saying that any particular person here [at PoetryEtc] has made that claim--but why else does "experimental poetry" always come up in discussions of the avant garde? Why are both terms nearly always used as honorifics if not because we tend to think of the new as in and of itself good?
Why haven't we learned that it ain't necessarily so?