This week the Tate Debate is looking at what it means to be an experimental artist, and whether innovation and experimentation is the preserve of younger, less-established artists. The history of late 19th century and 20th century Western art has been marked by young artists (groups or individuals), reacting to prevailing styles and subjects and experimenting to create radical new movements. But often those artists who were once creating new definitions of art in the end become the very establishment they were reacting against. The British artist Barry Flanagan (1941–2009), for example, is best known for his bronze sculptures of hares, seen in public spaces across the world. But a new show at Tate Britain presents his perhaps less-well-known early works.

Barry Flanagan, '4 casb 2 '67' 1967
Barry Flanagan
4 casb 2 '67 1967
Canvas and sand
object: 1829 x 381 x 381 mm
Purchased 1976© The estate of Barry Flanagan, courtesy Plubronze Ltd

Flanagan was one of Britain’s most inventive sculptors, studying at the influential St Martin’s School of Art sculpture department in London in the 1960s. Taught by artists such as Anthony Caro, Flanagan, along with other key British artists like Gilbert & George, and Bruce McLean, made work in reaction to high modernist sculpture, challenging the received notions about the language of sculpture, materials and forms. Flanagan worked with non-traditional materials: cloth, felt, clay, plaster and rope, and created works that pushed the boundary of sculpture, uniquely exploring idea, material and process. By the 1980s, Flanagan began to make bronzes of animals, most famously of hares. These works became more and more popular, gradually obscuring his more radical influence in the public imagination. Though he and his work remained concerned with literature and poetry, process and the relationship between artist and craftsman, somehow these ideas paled beside the popular image of the hare, and his early, revolutionary work became less remembered.

Barry Flanagan, 'leaping hare, embellished, 2/3 jan '80' 1980
Barry Flanagan
leaping hare, embellished, 2/3 jan '80 1980
Gilded gesso and paint on wood
object: 750 x 1000 x 240 mm
Purchased 2010© The estate of Barry Flanagan, courtesy Plubronze Ltd

So, are artists more experimental in their early career?

Do they begin to make work that is more palatable for public consumption as they age?

Or is it just that once they have blazed a trail, we become used to what was once revolutionary and can no longer see that work as radical?



I believe that one needs to feel safe or free to experiment. In youth, my family and teachers were very much against any artistic experimentation. Now that I'm older, I no longer care what they want or expect from me, my work is for my own personal expression and joy. Fortunately I've discovered a few kindred souls who are more accepting along the way.

Jay Fox-Davies

Perhaps artists are more experimental in their early years. If they find work which becomes acknowledged and in demand, in later years, it may become more difficult to experiment rather than be seduced by popularity and demand.

It shouldn't be forgotten however, that because of the increasing change in demographic, due to the increase in life expectancy, there are now more mature emerging artists. Their work can be just as experimental and exciting, with the added bonus of a richer seam of life experience from which to draw. Unfortunately, there is not the same support given to mature emerging artists as to young emerging artists, and so some of this exciting experimentation may never be seen by a large audience. Is this because the younger artist would appear to offer a greater long term financial payback for the support? It would be such a loss if art development was stunted because of this.


The greatest artists become *more* experimental as they get older - look at Turner...or at John Coltrane.

Amy Brant

Personally i think that artists are much more experimental in their early days. They have the time in the early stages of their career to establish themselves and to show what potential they have. However, i do think that experimenting comes with a slice of society at the time. If there is a big art movement of the time in art then artists will give the movement a go as time progresses to keep up to speed with everything. Going with the decade does not depend on the stage of their career it would depend on the ability of the artist.


Kirstie Beaven

Conversely, of course, you can argue that many artists don't reach their full peak till their later career - that their creativity and experimental work blossoms once they reach a certain stature.

Tate Liverpool's exhibition next year "Turner, Monet, Twombly", shows that each artist produced some of their most stunning and experimental works late in life. And an early career spent assimilating the skills of the time, can then provide a great grounding for overturning it all later.

Geoffrey Bonnycastle

I've lived and worked with an artist who has always been tradition based, but who is moving toward more experimentation because of her commercial success, not in spite of it. It seems to me that successful artists, emerging and established alike, must create a body of coherent work, experimenting within certain bounds, if they expect critical attention. Younger artists may be free to experiment more broadly, but only because they are still casting around for their distinctive "look". Breaking rules is important in any creative activity, but simply breaking rules for its own sake does not imply the production of better or more creatively important art.

Chris Lawrence

Interesting to see the kinds of replies on here.

From what I'm reading here, I would think that the majority of younger art students are naturally inclined towards experimental techniques, while it seems older art students are generally less caring of technique, while artists seem to be more frustrated and restricted to market demands.

Yet if we look at this debate in an abstract way, what is technique even for? Is art even objective at all? I would answer yes, to a degree, but only enough to translate the subjectivity of the image/subject. But as technique must be developed, it must be experimented with. Is it still art when the technique dominates and the work becomes objective? Where is the line between the subject and the object?

Isaac Branco

To be honest I think that the way universities are teaching is causing a bit more harm than good to Art. The majority of the teachers wants you to be "experimental" without actual teaching you how to use the mediums they give you. The formation is basicaly up to the student to acquire. Of course there is more experimental art(not necessarily good) being made while the artists are younger, it's the way they develop their skills. In my opinion teachers should first give you good proven skills and then students should try to break the concepts and not other way around. modern art is becoming too much about the Idea and nothing about the craftsmanship. not intending to sound too traditional but, what we need is a back to basics formula where you learn the tools of the trade before you experiment with it.


If the market demands that new art is way-out-there, smart, ironic, and funny, with no regard for craft or beauty, then young artists are more inclined to follow that piper. Therefore experienced artists who've stuck at it and put up with all the nonsense of the dealers and the art business, are more inclined to create art from within without pandering to the market, then older artists are more experimental. Putting all of this aside my experience is that artists who master the art of spin, art-speak, networking and shameless self-promotion tend to get the most exposure nowadays, but they did this by adhering to proven formulas in art marketing, instead of taking risks and being experimental.

José López

I think some artists find a "formula" and become lazy some others, are always improving theirselves.

Patti Miller

I really believe older artists are far more experimental and that it's not just a matter of accumulated experience either. I'm an inexperienced old artist myself and not being weighed down by too barnacles, feel that I can do and try and work at whatever I like BECAUSE I CAN! Try it sometime .... you'll never get to the end of it.

Kirstie Beaven

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment @Kim Lee Kho. Perhaps commercial/income pressures are necessarily a feature of later (or perhaps we should say middle!) life, which perpetuates this idea that older artists are less experimental.

Do you think this idea about starting later not being valued as much is specific to the visual arts? I think that we are not so wedded to the idea that a composer should write their finest work first, or that a writer who previously had a separate career cannot write a great book.

Marissa Kurtzhals

Students of the arts are immediately concerned with CHANGING the game before they fully comprehend how the game has ALREADY been played. It's important for young artists to practice aged techniques so they can learn how to build on what's already been done. The most impressive artist lay their foundation at a young age AND manage to keep a child-like playfulness in their work until the end of their career.

Kirstie Beaven

Interesting point. I'm fascinated with the idea that many young artists only find worth in art that sells well.

Do you think that this specific form of conservatism, a focus on what makes good (=saleable) art, comes from their university experiences, or before that? Is it arecent change in the attitudes of art students? I wonder if the paying of fees for university courses has changed students' feelings about needing to "make it pay"?

I also am interested in the equation of shocking, or at least spectacle, with experimental or new. The idea of the "shock of the new" is not a new one, and so therefore as you say it's just slotting into the current mode. If before university there has been little encouragement to think critically about the relationship between art and the art market though, perhaps it's not easy to find those critical skills while also making the work.

Bearing all this in mind, do you think it is actually harder today for young artists to be experimental?

Marissa Kurtzhals

Ha. Very interesting. I agree that everything has been done before, but artists who are able to creatively juxtapose history and their specific personalities are the ones who inspire us.

Rute Ventura

Perhaps if artists wouldn't have to deal with the art market their work would be forever experimental. But not all, or only, younger artists do experimental work. Maybe most of emerging artist do, its a matter of personality and vision. I believe that the trick is in what moves artists to make art and how good they are, how well do they know what they are doing, not only in the conceptual way but mostly in the technological way. No doubt that the freedom of creating experimental art work is related with the feeling of not being concerned if its going to sell.

Jan Tozer

I believe artists evolve and emerging artists are naturally experimental - How else would they break through the boundaries of the 'establishment' - sometimes the great artists discover a new style and perspective - science and mathematics and art evolve and this is because humanity is curious and evolves - so - I imagine young artists are naturally experimental- as they are - evolving and discovering new and different techniques with advanced painting materials and substances -

Kirstie Beaven

This is a good point @Jay - length of career is perhaps an interesting thing to think about in this context.

I wonder if, as you say, an artist having more life experience behind them actually allows them to be more experimental. I think there is often a confidence that comes later in life that lets you place less worth on what others think.

The idea that genius manifests itself in youth is prevalent though - it's is definitely not so easy to find a route as a more mature early-career artist.

Kim Lee Kho

Personally, I have never been more experimental than I am now, aged 48. I am one of the mature emerging artists Jay Fox-Davies refers to in his comment.

In my 20s I actually gave up art because I was so concerned about what other people thought, even though I was rebellious in some ways. I know I was not exceptional in either respect.

I now teach art to many middle-aged and older artists at various stages of development from beginner to professional, and they are hungry to try things. They've never cared *less* about what other people think. Where I see a loss of experimentation in mature artists is when a) they are trying to fulfill a commercial need because of their (or their family's) income expectations; or b) when they have done something they love for a long time but it's past its "best before" date, they don't love it anymore, but they don't know how to get out of their rut. I love working with students like that, because we are ALL young again when we make new discoveries, realize new possibilities.

Finally, again addressing something in Jay Fox-Davies comment: I don't begrudge young people their opportunities to get a start in life and career - I think we need to give them a leg up so they can begin their adult journey! By the same token I think we have to acknowledge more broadly that people will switch careers more than once in their lives on average, and anyone beginning in a new field needs a helping hand.

As well, it is clear to me in my teaching that there is something of a creative explosion going on among the middle-aged and older, particularly women, particularly once they have an empty nest or one is impending. Current brain research supports the growth of the portions of the brain related to our experience of things artistic (all forms) which would obviously include creation.

While it is increasingly clear how intrinsic this creative growth is to our human development, any of these artists, budding or not, will have difficulty feeling valued in the broader art world, never mind society, regardless of their level of artistic accomplishment, simply because they started later.

I for one wouldn't take it amiss if there were just a few art residencies and fellowships aimed at the mature emerging artist. Just like my wonderful artist niece I really have no other way of managing a residency in Sweden or France or the UK (I'm in Canada).

Thanks for the opportunity to speak to a topic that is so relevant to me right now.

John Feodorov

Hmm, as a university professor, I think there are many more conservative young artists these days because they believe the Art World is the only credible venue for their art. They are taught that the Art World is the only source of validation. So, they then tend to make art for the Art World, a world that is primarily market driven. So what appears "experimental" is only another strategy to make them appear unique to an audience that responds more to spectacle than substance. Think Lady Gaga.

philip cullinane

younger artists in order to make their mark, sometimes try to create work which they feel is more inventive than what has gone before but all too often they end up making weak reinventions or boring pastiches, it is difficult to do totally new Art, trust me I have been there, the 'Shock of the new' wasnt really a shock to those who know their Art!