joanne lee



An opinion piece Why I believe students are too concerned with failure to experiment with art appeared in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, April 2 2004. It was commissioned to coincide with a conference paper ‘Failing to Fail’ I presented at Old/New: the 2004 Association of Art Historians’ Annual Conference, University of Nottingham.

Failure is a powerful and emotive term. When we talk about failure in current higher education, it is generally an issue to be solved. High failure rates on any course or module would naturally be a cause for concern. One must also be sensitive to the students coming to university having previously had very real, and often devastating experiences of educational failure. Whilst course documents may fete ‘risk-taking’, the reality is that risking failure is not an option for either staff or students. Students do not pay their fees or acquire burdensome debt in order to view failure positively.

I teach art students at both BA and MA levels, and have noticed a shift in attitudes to the idea of failure over recent years. Art (perhaps more than most other subjects) has always had something of a fascination with ‘failing’. The idea of the artist unrecognized (and thus artistically or commercially failed) in his or her own lifetime was a founding myth of a certain type of ‘romantic’ practice: Van Gogh is of course the exemplary figure in this discourse! The idea of glorious failure persisted in art schools well into the 1980’s.

I have to say that this is rarely now the case. Students, not unreasonably, want clear guidance as to what they need to do in order to achieve a ‘good’ mark. That their experiences at A Level have often been shaped by a kind of ‘training’ for exams or course work – the offering of specific information as to what must be included in order to guarantee ‘success’ – underpins an approach to learning which is quite different to the exploratory traditions of much fine art studio practice.

I frequently note two particular approaches in the students with whom I now work. Firstly, students feel that they must constantly ‘justify’ anything they do. Indicative of this is the fact that art students increasingly produce vast amounts of supporting material for assessment, whilst remaining emphatically uncomfortable with actually producing art works.

The second approach arises when students quickly perceive that there are preferred positions, readings and opinions (both for staff and in the broader sphere of contemporary art). They worry that transgression will result in getting the art ‘wrong’ or will incur the wrath of their tutor (for which read poor marks and potential failure). For some students certainties of interpretation are reassuring: they fear having to experience art without having it first pre-digested by criticism. The potential for rich and complex responses is seen as a significant difficulty rather than an aspiration. I am concerned that in recent years much fine art theory has pursued an agenda of lack concerned with how other artists, artworks, theorists or theories have failed. Students encounter this from the earliest days of their studies, and it creates a defensiveness which does not foster experimentation and exploration.

Susan Hiller, the Baltic Professor of Fine Art at the University of Newcastle has asserted that artists work with ‘unknowledge’ and it is an opinion that I share. If we truly wish to foster the confidence to work with this kind of uncertainty (very much a feature of the 21st century job market into which our graduates will emerge) we need to be less binary about the idea of success or failure. We ought to be more open to the actualities of making and experiencing things and able to acknowledge that complexity and even contradiction can be strengths.

In a recent book, the Cambridge scholar Peter de Bolla discusses the wonder he feels encountering certain artworks. He says that ‘wonder requires us to acknowledge what we do not know or may never know, to acknowledge the limits of knowledge. It is, then, a different species of knowledge, a way of knowing that does not lead to certainties or truths about the world or the way things are’. It is this lesson I would like fine art to teach. If students are confident in their uncertainty, it surely means they have not failed.