Throughout the long history of American experimental cinema, accessibility has been a core aesthetic, social and critical value. However, the entangling of difficulty and modernism in some of the most influential writing on contemporary art of the last century has proved an obstacle to its identification. This essay argues that a theoretical reconceptualization of accessibility has the potential to open up new directions for historical research, particularly in the area of film programming. That reconceptualization needs to proceed on two, very different but not incommensurable, fronts. First, some kind of formal-historical understanding of accessibility is needed if the empirical problem that plagues much of the critical writing on modernist difficulty is to be avoided; so that an artwork is only difficult until it is made accessible through familiarity with and appreciation of the ideas and values informing it. We also need, however, to see accessibility not only as something that describes some films or artworks better than others, but as a social value embedded into a whole set of discursive protocols and critical practices, which historically have been integral to the exhibition of experimental cinema.

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This essay has benefited greatly from feedback on earlier drafts from Erika Balsom, James Leo Cahill, David E. James, Genevieve Yue, and Mike Zryd.