joanne lee


the art of failure

I gave a talk entitled The Art of Failure at The Importance of Failure, Bettakultcha, Brudenell Social Club, on Leeds, 28 January 2014. Several of the presentations have been gathered into an e-book now available on Amazon: my contribution follows below.

The Art of Failure

When I was at art school in the late 80s/early 90’s, there was no sense that success (whether critical or pecuniary) would be in any way imminent. Like Samuel Beckett’s often quoted lines from Worstward Ho: ‘‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’’, I expected a long period of recurrent failure, before – perhaps – I might obtain a modicum of recognition in my art career. A friend studying in Manchester a few years earlier recalls the specific advice that after his degree he ought to get a studio and work in it for 10 years before even considering whether or not he was making progress…

I suspect such ideas would be met with a certain scepticism by current students brought up on talent shows and the idea of overnight discovery, but interestingly enough, it seems art schools are still enamoured with Beckett’s words. In ‘Nine Assumptions About Educating Artists’, Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts expresses her view that failure is an inevitable bedfellow of innovation: “We know that such experimental practices sometimes lead to failure. We understand that anxiety often results from failure, but we know that a refusal to conform to established rules is one of the keys to innovation. Samuel Beckett wrote: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’ Indeed, we encourage risk taking that could lead to failure and are often more interested in an ambitious failure than in more modest success.” (The paper appears in Art as a Thinking Process: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, Sternberg Press, 2013.)

A plethora of recent exhibitions and publications continue to tout failure as a BIG IDEA. Lisa Le Feuvre, currently Head of Sculpture Studies at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, has written a great deal on the matter; the title of one piece for Tate, Etc. magazine even goes so far as to suggest: ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed… Celebrate.’ In it she notes how, "Perfection is satisfying, but failure is engaging, driving into the unknown’ and recognises that, ‘if an artist were to make the perfect work, there would be no need to make another." Her belief in the creative and critical importance of failure is exemplified in the 2010 book length anthology she edited for the Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art/MIT Press series.

The subject has long exercised artists and writers. In Balzac’s story Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu, translated as The Unknown Masterpiece, the fictional painter Frenhofer has been working alone for 10 years on a portrait of an extremely beautiful woman. When he finally shows it to two younger admirers, they are embarrassed to see only an indistinct mass of brushstrokes from which emerges the partial image of her foot; devastated by their criticism, Frenhofer is driven mad and takes his own life. Picasso was so fascinated by the story he produced a series of illustrations for a 1921 edition, and even moved to an address mentioned in the story, where he apparently went on to paint his own masterpiece, Guernica.

There are of course very different conceptions of failure. As feminist art activists the Guerilla Girls were wont to point out, some sections of society tend not to succeed – because they don’t have equality of opportunity or reception. Such a list might include women, people of colour, those from poorer, working class backgrounds…

And indeed some artists question the whole notion of success. A series of John Baldessari’s early paintings poked fun at the idea of making works desirable for the market. One work titled TIPS FOR ARTISTS WHO WANT TO SELL recommends using lighter colours, and posits that (tongue firmly in cheek) certain subjects are particularly saleable; he suggests still lifes (free of morbid props like dead birds!) nudes, marine pictures, surrealism… before concluding with the statement: “it has been said that paintings with cows and hens in them collect dust --- while the same paintings with bulls and roosters sell.”

This was a position rather forgotten, I think, by some of the once-Young British Artists, where success was very often judged by commercial sales – something it seems Leeds’ son Damien Hirst is still chasing. Even if one can’t afford the one-off works, via the ‘Other Criteria’ multiples store one can buy a set of Hirst’s Six Beautiful Self Indulgent Spin Chairs for a cool £30K… And the site promises there's more on the way soon.

At this point, I find myself agreeing with psychotherapist Adam Philips who wrote: ‘It is particularly difficult to entertain alternatives in a culture so bewitched by the idea of success and by such a limited definition of what it entails.’ Success, it seems, largely means becoming famous, or earning shedloads of cash, but honestly I’d rather aim for a life well-lived.

The interdisciplinary artist Robby Herbst has made clear that art world success is in any case most likely to be fleeting. In an article 'The Aesthetics of Failure, An Introduction; Too Late', in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, he asks: "Why be interested in 'success'? The long view of history holds that in the end we all are mortal and everything fails." He goes on to assert: "The speculative art-market is fashion oriented. In this game there are shining Art Stars and everyone else. This equation should not be a surprise to anyone. Today’s artist winners are tomorrow’s losers, their styles dust in the wind."

But these days ‘success’ in the infinitely more modest sense of merely managing to earn a living, is also pretty elusive. As Sally Taylor of the organisation Cultural Capital Exchange indicates in a recent blog for the Guardian's Culture Professionals Network: “someone who comes out of university with a BA in history or philosophy will earn an average of only 2.3% a year more than if she or he had gone straight into the labour market, and in the case of creative arts and design, 1% worse off.” It’s not exactly a positive start to one’s career, is it?

Rather than bemoan this, the art theorist John Roberts considers that artists ought actively to counter current notions of success. He has said that, “one of the few critical functions that artists still possess is their access to modes of negation’, and that, ‘artists must of necessity make themselves masters of ‘failure'.” Amongst those doing so is Kate Gilmore, who repeatedly takes on a host of absurd activities at which she can surely only fail: in Double Dutch she skips on a thin surface which is soon perforated and collapsing thanks to her ridiculous stiletto-heeled shoes, and in Cake Walk (its title implying something done with ease) she attempts roller skating on a ramp made slippery with cake.

This critical function of failure was an idea taken up by curator Jan Verwoert in Yes, No, Other Options, a provocative text he produced for the 2008 festival Art Sheffield. In a world of service industries & performance indicators, he asks, what happens if we aren’t always willing or able to perform, if we resist? Whilst the contemporary world demands we strive for a rather narrow definition of success, then perhaps some of the uncertainties of contemporary art can open up the other options to which Verwoert alludes?

Sculptor and Royal Academician Phyllida Barlow has often spoken of the uncertainty of outcome she feels when making her work, articulating how she is “on the edge of knowing what it is and what it could be or might be.” She also recognises the very human propensity for things to mess up and go badly, and the possibility that this need not in fact be such a bad thing. In a 2013 interview for RA Magazine she asserted: “In art, as in life, things can go wrong, things break, mistakes get made. [...] I like the bumpy journey, the tricky mountain road rather than the fast motorway.'

Failure in art might then be indicated by a lack of commercial success, by waning fashion, damning criticism, and by work being dismissed as simply not art at all, but it can also be educative, creative, critical, political even… Mind you, as Gertrude Stein once said: "A real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself."