Archive for the Art in America Category

Alas, good gentle souls who still read CAFA, my humble apologies for not posting in many, many months. Please be assured it is through no fault of yours. It is merely the result of my own changing life circumstances.

To report on said circumstances and the reasons why CAFA languishes, here’s what I’ve been up to over the past year or so:

  • After a six-month layoff from meaningful daytime employment, I have found work enough to sustain myself for the time-being, and it’s completely outside the art world (phew!); though, of course, adjusting to new employment, new expectations, a new work environment and culture, etc. means less time for things like blogging about artistic failure.
  • Baby CAFA — a.k.a., the light of my life — now 17-months of age, continues to grow and develop and slowly gain some independence for herself; yet, it will be some years until she can be expected to blog alongside me instead of her current habit of inserting madcap and unreadable keystrokes and spaces anytime she comes near a keyboard I happen to be working on. Again, not a great support for free and unfettered blogging.
  • That does not mean I’ve given up blogging (nor art) altogether — since October I have written regularly for the venerable Utne Reader at their online Arts portal.

[Please note: You can, in fact, keep tabs on what writing I still manage to do by checking out the one area of this blog that remains active: The Writer’s Archive for Michael Fallon.]

[Also note: If you want less-fettered access to me than you get from the Artistic Failure blog, you can always Facebook-friend me at my other, somewhat inactive identity, ArtHappyHour.]

[And final note: If you have ideas for art stories, want to take (respectful) issue with something I’ve written, have questions, or need to reach out, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. I’d love to know what you’re thinking!]

[Viva la Failure!]

Australian libertarian commentator Eric Fry, on his website The Daily Reckoning, recently compared the Fed’s recent bailout of reckless mortgage loan speculators to how American educators have taken to coddling burgeoning young art students.

“…Modern American-style capitalism is more like ‘arts and crafts’ time in one of Manhattan’s pricey nursery schools. Every coddled kiddy’s ‘artistic’ creation – no matter how inept or ghastly it may be – elicits praise from the nursery school instructors. Indeed, every grunt elicits praise…and every boo-boo finds a Band-aid.”

This is revealing in two ways. First, that the cushy manner of the American education system, and the entitlement culture it engenders, is becoming increasingly known around the world. Second, that this entitlement culture may not only be a factor in American art and education, but it may have become entrenched far and wide, in the money system, the federal government, and the supposedly “free” economic market.

While the first two definitions of “artistic failure”—as bad art work; as a failed artist—are valid and will come into play in discussions on this site, The Chronicle of Artistic Failure intends to apply a different primary definition to the term.

The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America will argue that  “artistic failure” is the severe and irrevocable decline of the practice of art in this country. Artistic failure is a national crisis that encompasses the struggles of myriad failing and failed artists across this country, as well as the failure of the entire structure that supports artists and arts viewing. Artistic failure is the cynical and distressing breakdown of an entire society’s former commitment to and involvement in the wider cultural endeavor that is art-making.

This site will use this working definition of artistic failure to spur its researches into the real working lives of artists, to provide context for what happens to individual artists throughout their career, to synthesize these details in a way that builds a larger argument for wider systemic support of the arts, and to compile a larger picture about how what we do today will likely affect the future of art.

The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America, then, is a record of my odyssey to understand the wider cultural import of our communal artistic failure, compiled for the hopeful purpose of spurring Americans to collectively rise up and fulfill our national creative promise. My intention for writing this chronicle is to make this country a better place for artists to make art. For these reasons, this project will be a combination of social criticism, journalistic muckraking, personal memoir, and a polemical call to arms. And while my writing may not actually achieve its lofty goals, at the very least, I hope, it will give clarity to the indignation and  exasperation felt by numerous arts people around the country, or perhaps it will give grist to someone, somewhere who can take tangible steps toward solving what ails artists and the arts here.

In the end, by focusing on artistic “failure,” I hope to contribute to its eventual success.

I should start this Chronicle by explaining what I mean by “artistic failure.”

It’s a tricky enough topic. When you Google the phrase, artistic failure tends to be applied most often to writing about individual artworks that don’t live up to expected potential. While the author could have simply referred to said work of art–Crime and Punishment, say, or the play Hamlet–as a mere “failure,” the work is instead deemed a deeper disaster, an “artistic failure,” as if there were something wrong at the very core of this work. The application of the damning modifier artistic reveals in these web musings and critiques a deeper frustration with anything that claims the exalted status of art and yet comes up short against the term.

This usage–of artistic as a damning modifier–suggests a conflicting attitude in America about art. On the one hand, because (most likely) of our recent history as a hegemonic force in world culture, Americans expect great things from art. We expect our artists to excel and lead the world, to help win the Cold War, to right social wrongs, to reflect what’s best about our country back on ourselves, to be stoically heroic exemplars of American “greatness”–all while making work that is interesting to look at and valuable to hold onto (preferably astronomically so).

At the same time that Americans have these (perhaps unrealistic) expectations about art, our national discourse about art and how to support it has been dominated–for the past twenty years, at least–by a brass-tax, efficiency-focused, business-oriented rationalistic realpolitik quite at odds with our national expectations for art. I’m referring to a host of defining incidents and events–the Mapplethorpe obscenity case, the furor over “Piss Christ,” the rise and fall and rise of the “NEA Four,” the removal of a Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” and the like–that knocked the status of artists down several notches. That is, whereas the previous generation of artists– Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Claes Oldenberg, Kenneth Noland, et al–had in mid-last century been national heroes and international stars that were placed on high pedastals and widely worshipped, now artists were somehow seen out of step with mainstream American values, if not downright pariahs.

As a result perhaps, today, while Americans still say they almost universally love art (and presumably continue to have high expectations for it), they also, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute, overwhelmingly say they dislike artists. That is, 96% of survey respondents revealed they were greatly inspired by various kinds of art and highly value art in their lives and communities, but only 27% of respondents believed that artists contribute to the good of society.

This is understandable. When Joe Paycheck and Molly Punchclock, who each day put in an honorable and hard shift of economy-sustaining work, see artists getting wealthy for doing something they deem, at best, a hobby–well, it’s gonna lead to some kind of frustration…

While I’ve written plenty of art criticism in my time, I don’t intend here, on The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America, to focus on works of art that I deem to be failures, artistic or otherwise. However, I will explore how this essential conflict–between the American national aspirations for art and the American skepticisms about art and artists–plays a key role in what I intend to address as “artistic failure in America.”

Stay tuned for more…