The aesthetic philosophy expressed in John Dewey's Art as Experience is, on the whole, quite sympathetic to experiment and innovation in the arts, in fact in large part is absolutely dependent on it. Without experiment (without what in some ways could be called "progress" in the arts), art would ossify into dead monuments we are to extoll for their putative greatness but that would not provoke the kind of experiential engagement Dewey thinks is art's ultimate validation.
Furthermore, experimentation is itself responsible for the succession of artistic accomplishments we think of as "art history" (or literary history) in the first place:
. . .The dependence of significant technique upon the need for expressing certain distinctive modes of experience is testified to by the three stages that usually attend the appearance of a new technique. At first there is experimentation on the side of artists, with considerable exaggeration of the factor to which the new technique is adapted. This was true of the use of line to define recognition of the value of the round, as with Mantegna; it is true of the typical impressionists in respect to light-effects. On the side of the public there is general condemnation of the intent and subject-matter of these adventures in art. In the next stage, the fruits of the new procedure are absorbed; they are naturalized and effect certain modifications of the old tradition. This period establishes the new aims and hence the new technique as having "classic" validity, and is accompanied with a prestige that holds over into subsequent periods. Thirdly, there is a period when special features of the technique of the masters of the balanced period are adopted for imitation and made ends in themselves. . .In this third stage (which dogs creative work after the latter has general recognition), technique is borrowed without relation to the urgent experience that at first evoked it. The academic and eclectic result. (142)
Dewey also recognizes that artists who merely attempt to imitate the great accomplishments of the past, who don't go beyond the techniques previous artists discovered, are bound to fail:
. . .Greek sculpture will never be equalled in its own terms. . .That which Venetian painters achieved will stand unrivaled. The modern reproduction of the architecture of the Gothic cathedral always lacks the quality of the original. What happens in the movement of art is emergence of new materials of experience demanding expression, and therefore involving in their expression new forms and techniques. . . (143)
Recognizing the rather clinical connotations of the term "experimental" when applied to the arts, Dewey suggests an alternative:
If, instead of saying "experimental," one were to say "adventurous," one would probably win general assent--so great is the power of words. Because the artist is a lover of unalloyed experience, he shuns objects that are already saturated, and he is therefore always on the growing edge of things. By the nature of the case, he is as unsatisfied with what is established as is a geographic explorer or a scientific inquirer. The "classic" when it was produced bore the marks of adventure. This fact is ignored by classicists in their protest against romantics who undertake the development of new values, often without possessing means for their creation. That which is now classic is so because of completion of adventure, not because of its absence. The one who perceives and enjoys esthetically always has the sense of adventure in reading any classic that Keats had in reading Chapman's "Homer."
When I discuss "experimental fiction," either on this blog or in critical articles, I am essentially using "experimental" in Dewey's sense as "adventurous." I am always looking for adventurousness in the new fiction I choose to read (although I'm pretty sure my critical lens is sometimes too cloudy to see it when I'm making decisions about what to read, and I thus simply don't read some fiction I'd probably like), so I tend to ignore much of the most highly-acclaimed, most widely-reviewed fiction, which usually strikes me as more of the same, new iterations of work that "will never be equalled in its own terms" and therefore of little interest to me. Perhaps I could be accused of systematizing Dewey's emphasis on "new forms and techniques" too literally. If every work of fiction were "new" in these terms, there would be no "mainstream" and thus no doubt many fewer readers of fiction. I'm not sure I would find such a state of affairs all that lamentable, but there are surely many readers of "literary fiction" who would, and who would find my preference for the adventurous to be needlessly strict.
And it is certainly the case that some "experimental" fiction fails, manifests a desire to create "new values" but "without possessing means for their creation." In fact, most experimental fiction probably fails in this way, or at least doesn't demonstrate enough of the skill required to produce something so transformatively new as to initiate the cycle Dewey describes in the first passage quoted above. Still, I would rather have these failed "adventures in art," fiction that attempts to reach that "growing edge of things," than give in to a complacent reshuffling of the tried and the true, which, as Dewey points out, will never really be "true."