It's a shame that giving the critical anthology could so easily be mistaken for an insult, because it's actually fascinating reading. The collected essays reveal that failure—with all its paradoxes and complexities—is one of the most persistent and crucial ideas in contemporary art. As Samuel Beckett is quoted in the opening pages of Failure: “To be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail.” The critical recognition and articulation seem long overdue.
The book focuses mostly on recent art, but as anthology editor Lisa Le Feuvre points out in her introduction, the idea of failure as a generative drive for cultural production had its first stirrings with the beginning of the modernist era. The Parisian Salon des Refusés of 1863, which exhibited work that had been rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts, was a crucial turning point. At the time, acceptance by the Academy was seen as the ultimate validation of an artist's work. But in 1863, the Academicians rejected over 3000 paintings—including works by Whistler and Manet—and an “exhibition of the rejects” was organized. The relevance and significance of the ostensible failures were recognized immediately, and artists clamored to have their work removed from the staid, tasteful, official exhibition of “successes” so they could exhibit among the rejects. Modernity was born.
Failure, the essayists assert, became tied to modernity concurrent with artists' questioning of classical forms of representation, doubts about the pursuit of beauty and perfection, and with the rise of industrialization—models of business success and failure—and the the ultimate commodification and commercialization of art itself. Acting in pursuit of failure—recognizing its uncertainty and potential—became a mode of rebellion, of testing and questioning the nature of taste, success, beauty, art, idealism, progress, of society itself.
One of the works that comes up time and again in the essays—you might call it the apotheosis of the fail—is John Baldessari's Wrong, a black and white photograph in which a man stands directly in front of a palm tree so that, due to the technically 'wrong' composition, it looks as though the tree is sprouting out of his head. (It's even labeled “WRONG.”) The notion of aesthetic values—right and wrong in art—is disrupted and played with. The act of deliberately making a “wrong” work of art urges us to question—and even ridicule—our parameters of evaluation. “Art comes out of failure,” Baldessari is quoted as saying. “You have to try things out. You can't sit around, terrified of being incorrect, saying 'I won't do anything until I do a masterpiece.'”
Failure is a large, broad concept, and the essays run the gamut, examining the idea from a number of different perspectives. Certainly among my favorites were the words of artists themselves—excerpted from interviews or their own writing—in which they talk about their relationship to failure or describe their works which failed. Artist Chris Burden offers a hilarious description of his piece Pearl Harbor in which model airplanes didn't fly as planned and there was nothing for his invited audience to look at. “I was elated,” recalls Burden. “I'd been so wrong in my expectations.”
Burden is hardly alone in his fascination with failure. Think of the vast number of performance pieces in which the artist sets out to accomplish some impossible or Sisyphean task: Bas Jan Ader's series of falls in which the artist filmed himself falling over or dropping from a height or into canals and rivers, or Francis Alÿs pushing a block of ice through Mexico City for nine hours until there's nothing left to push. There is a sense of futility and despair in these recent works, but that sense is often concurrent with a sense of bemusement, puzzlement, play, discovery, even—as Burden says—elation in the heart of failure.
The interplay of failure and success, rejection and acceptance, has remained deeply ingrained. In 2010, artist Michael Landy abbreviated the whole process played out by the Academy of Arts exhibition of 1863, bringing a dumpster into a London gallery where artists and members of the public could—with Landy's approval and validation— dispose of works of art they were dissatisfied with.
The essays don't cumulatively assert a single idea about failure or attempt to trace a finite historical narrative or a threaded trend through recent art. There are, after all, so many different types of failure, and it's a subjective, changeable thing. There's failure of a personal kind—romantic, artistic, professional—which can be documented in art, but there are also larger failures: the failure of ideas, of language, representation, culture, politics. And is failure that's welcomed really failure at all? Could it not be deemed its own form of success? The book is more of a speculative and wide-ranging contemplation, engaging with works by many different artists from a number of critical approaches. However, a general understanding among the artists and critics about the nature of failure seems to emerge: Failure is a mode of refusing to adhere to expectations and a way of testing limits. And these are both central thrusts of the artistic impulse itself.
I found the notion best illustrated by a metaphorical story by philosopher Ernst von Glasersfeld quoted in the piece On the Nonsense of Sense and the Sense of Nonsense by Paul Watzlawick. A captain of a ship has come to a set of narrow and dangerous straits which he must navigate in the dark of a stormy night by memory alone because there is no navigational help like a lighthouse or beacon. Only two outcomes are possible: he succeeds or he fails. If he sails into the rocks, his last realization will be that the reality of the straits was not as he imagined and that his course did not correspond to actuality. But if he succeeds he knows that his course was accurate, and nothing more. He does not know for certain where the rocks were: he does not know if he might have chosen an easier or shorter course. In short, he does not know the reality.
As Beckett correctly points out, our artists fail as none others dare. In the modern world, art and failure are conjoined. The complexities, uncertainties and paradoxes of failure—its humor, pathos, its universality, its ties to rebellion, its incompleteness, its ability to test limits—lie right at the heart of contemporary cultural production. Failure is the one true universal. It opens up possibilities for questioning and knowing that success does not.
Maybe I'll go ahead and give the book as a gift. It may not be the most successful gift ever, but, well... maybe success is over-rated. Failure is an option.
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