Archive for the Artistic failure in movies Category

Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present. It cannot regret the past; it is dangerous to prophesy the future. It can, and does, draw on the past in its use of existing heritages but it only does so to give point to a modern argument. In no sense is documentary a historical reconstruction and attempts to make it so are destined to failure. Rather it is contemporary fact and event expressed in relation to human associations.
–Paul Rotha (1935)

It’s a testament to the power of the new documentary by Amir Bar-Lev, “My Kid Could Paint That,”  that people (at least the ones that I’ve talked to) tend to see what that want to see in the film. The documentary, about the recent fifteen minutes of fame of a four-year-old abstract painter, is a strange kind of mirror, reflecting back at each of its viewers an individual reality of the viewer’s choosing. That is, some see it as an indictment of the fickle art world, which has the power to create fads and just as quickly to relegate them to the junk pile. Some see it as an exploration of the enduring power of creativity—particularly of the most pure and innocent (and cherubic) kind—even in the face of the cynical economics of creativity in this country. Still others see it as an American fable about average people trying to get ahead in a field of endeavor they scarcely understand, a sort of Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches genre turned on its head…

To me, this film, as well as two other recent documentaries—Esther Robinson’s “A Walk Into the Sea” and Matt Ogen’s  “Confessions of a Superhero”—reveal all of these contradictory realities, and, in the process, explore the complicated  and troubled relationship that Americans have with creativity, fame and fortune, and the ever-present will to stand out above the ordinary masses. Each film reveals something about the the absolute lengths that real people will go to just to get their name in the record books, their work up on screen or gallery wall, or their pictures splashed on a page of the  24-hour news cycle.

“My Kid Could Paint That” tells the story of the Olmstead family from Binghamton, New York. Mark and Laura are the middle-American parents—she a dental assistant, he a manager at a Frito Lay Plant—of two children, Zane and Marla. At age 2, in 2002, perhaps imitating her father, a hobbyist painter, Marla Olmstead began to paint. At age 3, a family friend suggested that they should let him hang Marla’s paintings in his coffee shop. In 2004, a local photorealist painter and gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, mounted a show of Marla’s work, prompting local journalist Elizabeth Cohen to write an article on the painting prodigy that eventually turned Marla—after the New York Times put a “match under a fuse” by picking up the story—into a national, even international, sensation.

To his credit, Bar-Lev keeps his camera level while exploring the competing forces and desires that end up acting on the family after being hit by the storm. Even as the balloon of hype and hoopla inevitably bursts, after a damning 60 Minute profile of the family suggests that an overbearing Mark has been prompting Marla’s creative output, Bar-Lev does not appear interesting in digging into the riddles that are plentiful in Marla’s story. Most of his film flat-footedly follows the agony of the family, and especially of the mother, as they deal with the charges of dishonesty and exploitation and wonder if they’re giving Marla a “normal” upbringing. “I want to take a polygraph,” Laura Olmstead says at one point in the film, “I don’t want to let anyone come in and dissect us again… What have I done to my children?”

Tellingly, throughout the film, Bar-Lev refuses glorify Marla, unlike the initial media stories, as a genius prodigy and natural creative force—preferring to show her most often in her natural state as a goofy and preoccupied four-year-old, pushing paint around like mud with her hands or chasing after butterflies in the yard. Bar-Lev seems to see his role as an unbiased and unjudging observer of one particularly noteworthy example of the country’s troubled love-affair with fame and its misunderstanding of the nature of creative output. 

The most interesting portrayal in “My Kid Could Paint That” is of the father, Mark Olmstead. And while Bar-Lev neither reveals Mark Olmstead as a gray eminence nor completely swallows the family’s explanations of Marla’s pure creative process (he voices his doubts to the family on film), there is enough questioning that we’re not really sure what to believe in the end. After all, the camera records the mother’s saying early on, “Mark always wanted to be in the spotlight.” Like many people, Olmstead is a former athlete who’s always been artistically adept and who seems disappointed by his lot in life. “I would have been better off if I had become an NFL quarterback. That’s what I wanted to do… But I’m proud as hell of my daughter, as far as her painting ability goes.”

Observing the toll that fame and fortune, or the desire to touch the candlelight flame of each, takes on people is of utmost interest to Bar-Lev, and it also appears to drive the makers of two other recent documentary films.

I’ve already written a bit about the first, “A Walk into the Sea,” and I plan to write more once the DVD is available (apparently in early July), so I won’t dwell on it hear. The second, “Confessions of a Superhero,” is beautifully filmed, but ultimately much more lightweight, than either of the other films. “When we were kids,” says a superhero character to introduce the film, “we all dreamt about what it would be like to be a superhero, to have superpowers like x-ray vision or superhuman strength… But we all grow up. And sometimes we turn out to be not that super. And maybe we’re just plain ordinary. [This film] is a look at what people will do to be famous. And what they’ll settle for when they’re not.”

“Superhero” traces the life trajectories of four people who spend their days dressed up in superhero costumes to take pictures, for “tips,” with tourists on Hollywood Boulevard. Interestingly, all of them want to be actors and have minor (very minor) screen credits. Also interestingly, they all seem to be standing just a bit on this side of the sanity smokestack. One in particular, Christopher Lloyd Dennis, who looks somewhat like Christopher Reeves and, of course, plays Superman, is described by the others as fairly nuts. “Yes, obsessed,” says a man who dresses at Batman, “he is very obsessed. That would be the one world for Superman.” He claims at one point that his apartment holds at least a “million dollars” worth of Superman memorabilia, and he claims (dubiously) several times on film that he is the son of the actress Sandy Dennis (who told him on her “death bed” that he should get into the “business”—thus, kicking of his entertainment “career.” “He’s suffocating in the world of Superman,” says a friend from the Boulevard who dresses as Wonder Woman.

But in fact, they all seem, in their own way, rather driven to distraction by the effort to keep stoking the flames of their dreams to make it in Hollywood. “I feel so much like a loser,” says a fourth character, who dresses up as the Hulk, “because I didn’t come out here to get in a costume and stand on Hollywood Boulevard for chump change. I’m out here seriously to make a name for myself.”

In the end, “Confessions of a Superhero” peters out simply because the characters develop no “arc” during the story. All four simply end the film as they started, as people who are burdened by a hopeless dream. Some get married, some divorced; one gets counseling, one lands a role in a cheesy kung fu spoof; one is arrested, another ends up on Jimmy Kimmel. But that’s it. Their dreams live on, pathetically never to be realized.

Documentary filmmakers have been delving deeper into the phenomenon of artistic failure of late. I have seen three such films (which I will describe in a future post) in the past three months myself. And this Toronto Star article, generated by the 15th annual Hot Docs festival, describes an additional four such movies:

Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a film about a Toronto-based heavy metal band that has long avoided superstardom, or any kind of stardom. The filmmaker, Sacha Gervasi, follows the bad on a disasterous European tour. (Did I hear you say Spinal Tap?)

The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger: One Man’s Search for the Half-Truth, by Toronto-based filmmaker Matt Gallagher, concerns an amateur auteur named Marshall Sfalcin. Sfalcin, who has created a series of Twilight Zone-like episodes for a local cable station, has long been attempting to film the life story of his grandfather, who was ahead of his time by creating a fast food burger, the titular ”grumpy burger,” for the defunct chain of Hi Ho Restaurants in the Detroit/Windsor area long before MacDonald’s arrived. The film document’s Sfalcin’s inability to complete his film.

Nik Sheehan’s Flicker, is a flim about Brion Gysin (1916-86), a Canadian artist and mystic and close friend of novelist William S. Burroughs. Gysin invented the flicker machine, a device with a bright light inside a rotating cylinder with patterned holes that is said to boost alpha wave-stimulated creativity and transcendence (because the lights supposedly correspond to alpha waves in the brain). The film records the failure of Gysin’s device to find its way to the mass market, leaving Gysin permanently embittered.

Alison Murray’s Carny is about a strange and oft-overlooked subset of the creative class–fairground workers. In particular, the film follows one carny worker, named “Bozo Dave,” as he deals with the highs and lows of his profession and his eventual decision to quit his job.

Following on the heels of the essay that I wrote five years ago and reposted a few days ago, I wrote my final word on Hollywood in January of 2004, after a long ten days spent back home.

Here you go:

Hollywood Art Critic, Part 2

January 31, 2004
Michael Fallon

IT’S BEEN SAID MANY TIMES BEFORE, but California is a bizarre place. And I don’t mean the constant calamities. (Sure, it might seem unnerving that there was an earthquake up near San Simeon just this morning as I write from a coffee shop in Malibu–but that’s background noise here.) I’m also not referring to the endless stream of eccentrics who make their home in California. (San Simeon, for example, is the locus of William Randolph Hearst’s infamous castle; Hearst was once spoofed by an outlandish and vastly overweight filmmaker in the movie “Citizen Kane;” the filmmaker later in life shilled for cheap California wines before dying of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1985. Strange enough stuff for most places, but rather quotidian for here.) Rather, mostly what makes California strange is its endless taste for make-believe.

If one had time, one could read Boorstin and Borges, Baudrillard and McLuhan and perhaps Sontag, and somehow come to understand the state’s Hollywood-borne penchant for fancy. For example, why does the state’s electorate continue to elect actors to play the role of the chief executive office? (We all know from our experience with the wrestler that this just doesn’t work in the end.) Or, in more mundane life, why do Californians eat “teardrop” tomatoes, rather than what we more prosaic Minnesotans call “grape tomatoes”? (They’re the same thing, just different names.) Or, why, at the end of the day at Disneyland, do machines spew out “snow” over Main Street after the fireworks show to conjure up the magic of a winter wonderland to an enraptured audience in 60-degree weather? (This stuff turns out to be some sort of detergent foam that, if you’re not careful, can sting the eyes.)

And speaking of winter, the fashion rage in Malibu this December seems to be knee-high mukluks. Since I’ve been sitting in the open courtyard of the Coffee Bean Café in a strip mall a block from the ocean, I have seen nine women, and one man, wearing this displaced garb–often with short skirts and midriff-revealing tops–as they wander from store to store (Malibu Lifestyles, Indiana Joan’s, Planet Blue) looking like extras from a Klondike gold rush movie. I came from the direction of Hollywood this morning via the Ventura Highway and Mulholland Drive, through the Malibu Valley and the scrubby Santa Monica Mountains, but this is definitely the deepest suspension of disbelief I have seen all day. Consider how impossible would be the diametrically opposed phenomenon: bikini-clad lifeguards on the beach at Lake Harriet in late December.

If you think California is so strange, you’re probably wondering, why are you even there? Well, I could talk to you about the true reason–preempting the winter blahs that have tended to afflict me every year since moving to Minnesota seven winters ago (yes, I count my time in winters) through contact with sun-warmed Pacific Ocean salt air–but that’s not terribly interesting. Instead, let’s talk about the reason I’m going to present to my accountant at tax time: I am here to research further the potential of becoming the Hollywood Art Critic that I dreamed of becoming in my column of August 29 of last year (see link below).

LET’S BEGIN AGAIN. On my third day of my recent trip to California, just a week before this past Christmas, I made my way to “The Brewery” just east of downtown Los Angeles. I had been hearing a lot of buzz lately about how this artists warehouse commune was the ground zero of L.A. art activity these days, and while it turned out the complex was not much more than what’s going on in Lowertown or in the NE arts corridor, the visit was revealing nonetheless.

At the Brewery I bumped into Mat Gleason, the editor and publisher of a ten-year-old underground arts zine called Coagula (see link below), a low-tech, slash-and-burn gossip rag that art regulars from coast to coast seem to hate even as they can’t help but read it. (To give you an idea of Coagula’s attitude, a book compilation of its first five years is called Most Art Sucks and is billed as the “only honest book about the world of contemporary art.”) Gleason himself was a fast talker who relished keeping tabs on who’s been stroking whom in the back rooms of the art world. Indeed, when I came on the scene he was busy complaining about the Coagula compilation book. It turns out Most Art Sucks didn’t sell particularly well–despite the fact that David Bowie wrote a glowing book review of the text for, and that a Bowie blurb was included on the book’s back cover.

“You would think a publicist might be able to get us some publicity based on this fact,” says Gleason. “But what do I know? She couldn’t get us a write-up anywhere.” This leads to a litany of further invective. For example, as it turns out, the aforementioned publicist now works for Viggo Mortensen’s nonprofit “charitable” organization that is charged with funding art. “Really it’s a scam,” says Gleason, “It exists for Mortensen to take a write-off and to filter money to his artist friends.”

Eventually I make my escape (but not before hearing more complaints–about Gleason’s landlord, about how cold the studios are, about some art by a dead artist he’s been saddled with and that no one wants to take away), intrigued that he brought up the issue of publicists. According to the New York Times, Hollywood these days is all but ruled by publicists. A recent article by entertainment columnist Frank Rich quotes journalist Peter Biskind saying: “The disconnect between appearance, as it is presented in the media, and the reality of what actually occurs behind the scenes is as great in Hollywood as it is in Washington, if not greater.” And in fact, as I discovered when I first began researching what kind of art a “Hollywood art critic” might end up covering, the lion’s share of the art buzz out here was more of the same-old same-old California penchant for unreality. That is to say, if you look for info on California artists what you get is a lot of guff about Hollywood stars who act the part.

To mention just a short list of Hollywoodians who have gotten press for their artistic pretensions of late–there’s Tony Bennett, whose sailboat scenes have been collected by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathi Lee Gifford, and Arsenio Hall. Beyonce Knowles was quoted as saying of her painting habit: “It takes me away, and it’s really peaceful.” Dwayne Hickman, star of the 1960s TV show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” says painting “is an expression of art that you can sit down and do anytime you want. I can’t go downstairs and act, but I can go downstairs and paint.” Couple Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson hang their own work on the walls of their sunny L.A. home. Michelle Pfeiffer wishes she “could paint like Renoir.” And Jane Seymour; Jennifer Anniston, Brad Pitt, John Waters, and the aforementioned Viggo Mortensen and David Bowie have been among those cited in the “trades” for their art habits.

I’d let this hoopla pass me by as just so much dabbling by people who have too much time on their hands if in turn the real California artists–the ones worth watching–were getting their due as well. But the simple fact is, the truth beyond the glitzy Hollywood portrait of the pursuit of art is the life of the artist here, as elsewhere, is bleak. Artists in California who do not happen to be Hollywood actors struggle to survive against the terrible ambivalence of society.

I know this first hand, as I spent the rest of my Brewery-excursion in the studio of 70-year-old artist George Herms, a local mainstay since the 1950s. Herms came up with the Beat Generation and has been collected by most of the major museums (including the Walker Art Center). At this point in his career, he should basking in success, coddled by art patrons, happily retired and secure in his finances. But in fact, I discover, Herms is struggling to survive at the Brewery, unable to pay his bills despite all he’s accomplished, and recently sued by the Brewery’s owners for back rent.

“I’m just an idiot,” Herms says, as the afternoon light fades in a studio that is filled with nearly fifty years worth of art and art materials, some of which he’s recently had to raffle off just to pay lawyer’s fees. “I get up and work everyday. I’m more into what I’ve just started than in taking what’s finished and turning it into the coin of the realm.”

If only this were a Hollywood story: The upstart pretender to the throne, looking like a fashion model in his mukluks, would lead a ghost army of nonprofit granters and art patrons from across the sea just as a light foamy snow begins to fall. All would arrive just in time to save the debt-ridden artist from near-certain calamity. Ah, wouldn’t that be something?

Here are some more of my (slightly more cogent) thoughts on what’s messed up about Hollywood, written nearly five years ago by a younger (slightly less jaded) version of myself.

(*Note: Just so you know, I grew up in the shadow of Tinseltown and am quite aware of what LaLaLand is all about.

**Note too: Just so you know, I’m a critic (on art, culture, etc.). I critique. It’s what I do… This doesn’t mean I hate Hollywood. Actually, I critique because I love. Things that I hate, I don’t write about…)

Hollywood Art Critic, Part 1

August 29, 2003
Michael Fallon

HOLLYWOOD LIKES A GOOD YARN—especially a tidy tale that’s been telegraphed in advance, hits all the right emotional points, and plays out exactly as expected.
Consider the recent hit summer flick Seabiscuit. Never mind that the truth of the story of this 1930s-era race horse—as told in Laura Hillenbrand’s book, on which the movie was based–was much more intriguing than the movie version. The producers/writers/consultants/test audiences couldn’t help but keep the story satisfyingly predictable for the glazed but touchingly unjaded eyes of moviegoers.

The very emotional climax of the film—the race with War Admiral–was a complete put-on. Oh, I don’t mean that the race didn’t happen, and that Seabiscuit didn’t win, but in reality War Admiral’s owner didn’t exactly shy away from the challenge, as the movie implied. Both War Admiral’s and Seabiscuit’s owners attempted to gain advantage by setting and canceling the meeting for over a year, and in fact Seabiscuit cancelled more races with War Admiral than the other way around.

Even more egregious a falsehood is Seabiscuit’s depiction as a tiny colt up against the majestic and massive War Admiral. Though the real War Admiral was the more stately and beautiful animal, Seabiscuit was actually the heavier horse. What was odd about Seabiscuit was his shape—he had short splayed legs, and a wide massive chest; but he certainly was no puny runt, and this was no David vs. Goliath race. And, absolute truth be told, Seabiscuit and War Admiral were actually close relatives. War Admiral’s sire, Man o’ War, was Seabiscuit’s grandsire—making War Admiral half-uncle to Seabiscuit. None of this was revealed in the simple underdog-makes-good sweep of the Hollywood plot.

Our culture today is pre-programmed to expect Hollywood-style narrative. There is little room for messy exposition or explanation. I have to believe this is what’s behind the gubernatorial candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger in my home state of California. Why else would a guy with no experience and few qualifications suddenly be a front runner in the race to govern the biggest state in the nation? It’s all for the sake of the story—Arnold, the humble immigrant with a dream. Arnold, the boy who overcame his father’s fascist past. Arnold, the party boy who made good (Married a Shriver! Rules the cutthroat world of Hollywood!). Even Gray Davis recognized the Tinseltown quality of the race., He said on August 15: “This election has turned into a Hollywood movie, and I assure you it will have a surprise ending.”

Simple stories seduce us—just ask your average Minnesotan who got sucked into the bad-boy-made-good narrative of the Jesse Ventura show. No need to remind you that the movie didn’t turn out as had been advertised, and our fair frozen state was left with a pretty bad taste in its collective mouth once his term ended. The real world often trumps the fantasy narrative.

“SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ART, Mr. Art Critic Man?” you ask. Well, I’ll tell ya. I’ve been wondering lately why art gets so little play in the national discourse despite the ever-growing number of people claiming to be artists. To cite some statistics, the most recent population survey revealed that in the U.S. in 2001 there were 2,108,000 people who claimed as their primary career one of the 11 artist occupational categories established by the National Endowment for the Arts. This equaled 9.8 percent of the labor force—nearly one out of every ten worker in this country. In comparison, engineers and surveyors accounted for 2,145,000 U.S. workers, and scientists/mathematicians/computer scientists accounted for 2,685,000. If you add in the extra 315,000 workers who were employed in secondary jobs as artists, and the 88,000 artists who were unemployed, we end up with a whopping 2,511,000 million American artists cluttering the labor force!

Yet despite the numbers, artists have relatively little national cachet. Ask anyone off the street to name a favorite living artist and you’ll no doubt get a blank look. Ask anyone to name the latest contestant to be eliminated on The Bachelor, meanwhile, or, more to the point, to converse about the differences between the porn peddler and the ex-porn star who are running for California’s governor, and you’ll be in business.

More and more I think this loss of prestige in the fine arts—even as the practice of them has grown exponentially–has to do with the Hollywoodification of our culture. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at art over the years, grappling with the complicated issues and trying to describe them to an audience, and I, and the sixteen people who read my writing, get satisfaction out of this. But the rest of the world, I’ve come to realize, just doesn’t care. Art doesn’t make a sexy enough story. Sure, there are exceptions–Picasso, Warhol, Pollock, Kahlo–but not every artist lives a made-for-Hollywood life, despite what Hollywood would have you believe. Artmaking is a rather mundane and tedious (read: unsexy) practice on the whole.

What’s an art-lover to do then?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit tired of butting my head up against the wall of Hollywood. If you can’t convince ’em otherwise, I figure, you might as well pander to ’em. So, below is my working draft for all of my future artist profiles. I can only hope this offering will help make art more palatable in this age.

Profile of Artist X :Artist X is standing on the verge of a great (choose one) dilemma/chasm/turning point/hitch on the road to fame. It is _______ (list time of day) in the (choose one) noisy/stultifyingly hot/rather placid/dirty confines of ________ (list place). Artist X is (choose one) pensive/nervous/eager/ambivalent about the tasks that face him/her as we watch the (choose one) people/cars/wildlife/clouds pass by.
But this isn’t the first (choose one) obstacle/opportunity of this sort the ________(list age)-year-old artist has faced. In fact, Artist X is used to the (choose one) ambivalence/hostility/snide mockery/jeering of society at large. “I can’t count how often I was (choose one) misunderstood/mistreated/ underestimated/dismissed as I was learning to (choose one) sculpt/take photos/paint in the Telemark style of Norwegian rosemaling/be a performance artist,” he/she says, as we hear the distant and (choose one) plaintive/harsh and edgy/warbly/sonorous strains of (choose one) Eminem/Tori Amos/Jewel/Johnny Cash from someone’s (choose one) car radio/boom box/open window/bar mitzvah.
“There was only one person who ever believed in me, despite that I suffered from (choose one) dyslexia/a profound lack of self-confidence/ a horrible physical disfigurement/ rickets,” Artist X continued, looking once at a photo of his/her (choose one) cross-dressing roommate/dog/imaginary friend/great aunt Esther before (choose one) releasing it in the wind/tossing it into the river/setting fire to it/placing it on a ritual altar. “He/she always told me that my work would eventually reach (choose one) the Whitney Biennial/a Paris gallery/the White House front lawn/the Edina Galleria…. And now I have a chance to prove that he/she was right.” &c…
Am I ready for Hollywood or what?


Still photo of Andy Warhol
Film still courtesy of The Danny Williams Estate © 2006-8

Still photo of Danny Williams
Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum. © 2006-8 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Andy Warhol

Minnesota-born filmmaker (and Friend of Failure) Esther Robinson’s film “A Walk into the Sea” is, if you haven’t had a chance to see it, a wonderful, multi-faceted, and revealing documentary. Taking as its subject the filmmaker’s uncle, Danny Williams (who disappeared in Massachusetts in 1966 after spending time at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York), the film is about lot of things.

For purposes of this blog, I’ll point out that Robinson’s research and interviews of various luminaries from the Warhol days reveal much of the dynamics of an artists’ community (in this case the Factory) and the ways in which a cutthroat community’s machinations and intrigues play upon the fragile egos and sensitive spirits of young artists (like Danny Williams). The trouble seems to have emerged when Williams, a young Harvard grad who wanted to be a filmmaker and who was for a time a favored lover of Warhol’s (and thus able to use Warhol’s equipment to make his own films), fell out of favor with the artist and spiraled into drugs, depression, and abuse at the hands of other Factory denizen.

As A.O. Scott points out in his recent NYT review of the film, the idea of Warhol as a “corrupter and destroyer of innocence” is not new in film. It was a theme in the recent film “Factory Girl,” which starred Sienna Miller as Edie Sedgwick, a young, well-born New Englander who appeared in some of Warhol’s films and died under mysterious circumstances. “Robinson’s film,” writes Scott, “does a pretty good job of reconstructing the creative and psychological whirlwind around Warhol.”

While there’s no real revelation about what could have happened to Williams, the film makes it clear the truth of the idea that some people–sensitive artists and vulnerable young people–are ill-equipped to handle the high pressure, backbiting and intrigue, and dangerous competition of an artist community. Andy Warhol’s Factory was known for many things—its sexually lenient environment, fake drag weddings, porn theater rentals, plays, free love, and rampant drug abuse—but to this list we now must add a toxic and murderous internecine artist rat race.

Before I reveal more about how The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America defines the term “artistic failure,” here are two interesting quotations on the matter. The first is very recent, and discusses the built-in tendency of modernist art to “fail.” The second is from the 2005 movie Stay.

From the September, 2007, edition of the Brooklyn Rail, in an interview of Jay Bernstein, Chair and University Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research:

Rail: There’s a point where you speak of art’s necessity to undertake impossible acts.

Bernstein: Modern art is the only kind of art that needs to, and does flag, its own constitutive failure. Every work of modernist art necessarily fails. When I say this I mean not by failing in artistic terms, but in failing at the one thing that art really wants to do: to be part of the world, to be real and not semblance. Art only exists in its distance from everyday life, and yet no art wants that distance. The fundamental impulse, I believe, of every artist is that art should be worldly—not an autonomous area, not stuck in museums, but part of how we make sense of ourselves in the world. The perverse ambition of minimalism to make mere things—which of course art as art cannot do—was a deep and authentic impulse. Even the most successful modernist art, in that very success, necessarily fails. The best of modern art has refined ways of acknowledging this failure. Because we hate the idea of failure and love the idea of success and achievement, it’s not easy to say that art lives off of its incapacity, lives off of its constant failing. But I think that’s right.

From the movie Stay, a character named Henry Letham (played by Ryan Gosling) quotes the imaginary artist Tristan Reveur:

“Bad art is more tragically beautiful than good art, because it documents human failure.”