Archive for the CAFA QOD Category

“…Tell your wife you love her. This is what it’s all about. Otherwise, you’ll be painting and looking at pictures like this. Your days are numbered, clowns. This is the end of the line. The end of beauty. The end of hope. What is art anyway? Decorations for museums.”

–Chuck Connelly, in the extra features on the DVD for The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, A Film by Jeff Stimmel

I realized about halfway through Jeff Stimmel’s 2008 documentary about Chuck Connelly that I had met this person before, several times. I’d heard his rants before, I’d seen his behavior, I’d witnessed in person how he lived. Through my years as a writer on art, I interviewed and wrote about a number of aging artists — perhaps 6 or 7 in sum — who were very similar to the way Connelly portrays himself in the film. They were so much alike, in fact, that it seems there must be a personality type: The Delusional Shut-in Artist, perhaps, or maybe the Quixotic Quack Painter.

Here are some of the character features of these men (all the ones I’ve met are men):

They are painters, most often.
They have a heroic vision of themselves (as a Great Artist, a warrior fighting against the cultural tides, a man on a holy quest for beauty, truth, etc).
They are so focused on their art — their quest — that not much else matters to them.
As a rule, they don’t care much about their appearance, and they often let themselves go.
They live in a kind of contained squalor, most often surrounded by the messy trappings of their art practice and the accumulated junk piles of the congenital shut-in.
They tend to believe that they’ve been cheated, somehow, out of the rewards (fame, wealth, attention) they feel is rightfully theirs.
They are misogynistic, abusive to their loved ones, and generally fail at interpersonal relationships.
Evenso, they can be very charismatic, attracting a succession of short-term acolytes, supporters, and co-dependents who eventually end up fleeing in disgust from being used.
They tend toward substance abuse.
They are verbally brilliant, though they think and speak in non-linear, associative ways.
They exhibit flashes of brilliance and great command of their own self-directed learning, but they tend to be, at best, emotionally adolescent.

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.

–Ernst Fischer

The promise of America is that nobody is born to lose, but who has never wondered, “Am I wasting my life?” We imagine escaping the mad scramble yet kick ourselves for lacking drive. Low ambition offends Americans even more than low achievement…. Failure conjures such vivid pictures of lost souls that it is hard to imagine a time, before the Civil War, when the word meant “breaking in business” — going broke. How did it become a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red? Why do we manage identity the way we run our businesses - by investment, risk, profit, and loss?
Scott A. Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2006)

In American culture, the market is worshiped increasingly as an ideology rather than being seen for what it is—a natural product of human social evolution and a set of valuable tools through which we may shape a healthful and equitable society. It is under the spell of this ideology—this new religion—the we have fallen into complacency. Personal profit is no longer the means to an end but has become the end in itself. America’s traditional immigrant values of resourcefulness, thrift, prudence, and an abiding concern for family and community have been hijacked by a commercially driven, all-consuming self-interest that is rapidly making us sick.
– Peter C. Whybrow, M.D., American Mania: When More Is Not Enough (2005)


(Regarding what fed the Internet bubble that burst in the early 2000s): “You had a lot of novice investors who got into the market looking for easy money, without any regard to the fundamentals. These stocks were running on fumes.”
– Bernie Madoff, Washington Post, Jan 2, 2001.

The management team of The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America has been undertaking a bit of soul-searching over the past two-and-a-half months, trying to decide if/how to carry on the work of chronicling all that dooms art to failure in this country (and world) of ours.

Considering that we’ve been at this task, on top of day jobs and other extracurricular writing projects, for seventeen months (i.e., ever since September, 2007), and considering how much worse things have gotten—in the economy and in the arts—since the time that we began this chronicle, we now find ourselves at several crossroads. First, while it’s been fascinating to look at all angles and facets of artistic failure, and while our audience has grown steadily (now averaging 1,500-2,000 visitors a month), we now realize, pretty clearly, that nothing we write, nothing we selflessly point out to artists, curators, critics, or the audience for art, is going to change the conditions that make art such a difficult pursuit in our culture. Second, in the process of dwelling on all the bad cards that’ve been dealt to the creative, the artistic, and the art-sympathetic, we ourselves have been growing increasingly more cynical and glum about the prospects for a more arts-friendly world. And finally, owing mostly to the first two points, we find ourselves simply burning out on failure, and, more importantly, we’re burning out on, and no longer particularly enjoying, art.

That’s not to say we are giving up this endeavor—at least not yet. It’s just that, at this point in history, with so much going wrong and so many artists and regular people anxious, overwhelmed, or cast at sea, we want to take a different tack with failure. We want to ruminate, occasionally at least, on more lofty things. So, having searched our souls, we here at CAFA are shifting our focus away from (except in the most crucial cases) a simple, dry chronicle of failure that dwells, depressingly, on all the things that are going wrong, and we are moving toward (hopefully) more poetic, literary, theoretical ruminations on what it is in the human condition and character that dooms so many of our most well-meaning endeavors to fail. What is in our make-up—spiritual, psychological, genetic—that leads us to (poignantly, doggedly) continue practicing something (like art) even though we know it is futile? And what does the abiding need for art say about the exquisiteness and beauty that lies at the core of humanness? This means instead of continuing to aggregate the latest bad economic news in the arts or to list the policy changes around the country that have a negative bearing on art, we will strive to tell the human story of (the doomed-to-fail endeavor of) art-making.

And so to start, we quote below a poem somewhat about this human predisposition to failure, heard last night in Minneapolis at a reading by Dobby Gibson. It is from his new book of poems, Skirmish, published by the small independent Graywolf Press.

Why I’m Afraid of Heaven

by Dobby Gibson

If you stood on Venus,
where the atmospheric haze
is so thick that it bends light,
it theoretically would be possible
to stare at the back of your own head.
Which would mean you’d never
again have the pleasure
of helping a beautiful woman
fasten the clasp on her necklace.
On Jupiter, a beautiful woman
might weight 400 pounds,
but so would you,
and you’d be far more worried
about suffocating to death
on planetary gas.
We’ve all desired what we can’t find here.
We’ve all left our gum beneath the seat.
In a bright department store,
a plastic egg gives birth to pantyhose.
In a dark dorm room,
a lonely freshman finally gets his wish.
The dog tries, and fails, to run across the ice.
After spending a lifetime
conscious of being alive,
why would anyone
want to spend an eternity
conscious of being dead?
In this bar, one of the world’s last remaining pay phones
hangs heavy in the corner.
Most days it waits in silence.
Once in a while, it just rings and rings.

So much going on around me. So hard to keep my mind and attention focused on failing artists.

Yesterday, I saw part of a skirmish between 100-odd unkempt and bandannaed young urban rebels and the police.

I watched, across the river from the riots, thousands of people sitting on the grass, listening to musical acts they barely seemed to care about, playing frisbee and surreptiously smoking dope.

I got a message with photos from my wife who had been given a last-minute ticket to check out the national Republican Party that was visiting my home town; she said the event mostly was pretty dull.

This all brings to mind the following Quote of the Day (CAFA QOD):

“This place has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.”
–Don Draper, “Mad Men”

“The lives of artists are as a rule unsatisfactory—not to say tragic—because of their inferiority on the human and personal side—there is hardly any exception to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.”

—Carl Gustav Jung

“Make a child a painting and he’ll be happy for a day. Teach a child to paint and he’ll be miserable for a lifetime.”
-Christopher Willard