Archive for the Definition of Artistic Failure Category

NOTE: This is not a book review. This is just a head’s up to all you hungry CAFAians out there.

I just picked up a (relatively) new book by the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press about artistic failure. Called Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices, it’s a low-budget, special-interest sort of publication (supposedly published two years ago–though there’s no date on the copyright page) that appears to contain a good amount of the dense, almost unreadable academic-style writing you often find in curator-driven vanity monographs that art centers often “publish.” I say this without having really dug into the book yet (though I intend to soon), and admit that what I have read thus far has been pretty compelling. The editors seem overall to take a whippet-smart approach to examining the very hot issue of failure in art (and politics and society, yadda yadda) (though they also seem to be, at least from the note I received from them about an earlier version of this post, somewhat testy, and for little reason).

I may (or may not) post more about this text in the near-future, but for now here’s a sampling (from the book’s intro), which could have fit in well with some of what’s been written thus far on the very webblog you’re reading now:

Just as any human enterprise is defined by what it excludes, it is a culture’s failure–quickly forgotten, repressed, buried away–which have the most to say about that culture’s beliefs and values. Our project is conceived of as part of the archeology of thos lost failures, a way of bringing to light our own culture’s aberrations…. The work in this book takes different approaches to failure. Some writers investigate failure’s root causes (both specifically and generally), in an attempt to understand why things fail. Others use the idea of failure as a way to reinterpret our relationship to history and progress, while still others question the rhetoric of failure and success altogether.

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.

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.”

The second-most common definition of “artistic failure” is one applied to an individual artist who has reached an inevitable career-stage of decline, dessication, despair, and destitution. The more common term for this sort of figure is “failed artist,” as in, an artist whose career has run its course and cannot be revived. (Sometimes these artists keep working, despite all odds, and produce work in poverty-striken obscurity; more often, these artists give up the struggle and move on to other life work.)

But there is no universally accepted term for the artist who deemed a failure. Neither term above is as well known as “starving artist,” which has much of the same implication of the first two but no hint of the finality (a “starving” artist, while failing, has not yet “starved,” and still may have a chance to someday eat; that may be the onl carrot, so to speak, that keeps the artist going). For a time, in a dozen or so articles, essays, and profiles I wrote on artists in decline, I preferred the term “doomed artist” (for examples of such stories, g0 here, here, and here). This is mostly because “failed artist” seemed such an absolute judgment and because, at the time, I was more sympathetic toward artists than I am now and wanted to shift some of the blame for their failure away from themselves and on to the fates, society at large, or other forces.

In a quick graduate stint in arts management that I did two years ago, I studied what happens to artists as their career progresses (surveying more than 1,300 artists nation-wide–I will write more on this later). To avoid offending any of our survey subjects from the onset, we applied the carefully-chosen term “aging artists” to them. This is also a term that has been used by Columbia University in their studies of the welfare of artists–it’s a neutral term that at once protects these studies from bias related to scaring potential subjects away (who don’t want to be labeled “failed” or “doomed”), but this term also takes the meat right out of the argument. The Bush Foundation of Minnesota, meanwhile, has taken this sanitization one step further. It uses the term “Enduring Visions” to describe its new program of grants for older artists who may be neglected or forgotten by the wider culture.

Whatever definition you choose, the topic of the “failed artist,” has been growing in popularity in recent years. When Googled, the phrase gets a hit-count of more than 2.6 million. This makes sense: With more and more people studying art in college and taking it on as a profession (there was a 300 percent increase in self-identified artists between 1971 and 2000, culminating in there being 1.9 million artists in the 2000 census), there is more concern about failure than ever before among artists. It just follows–having more artists means more of them will worry about not succeeding.

Artists who have never made a dent in the art world are fixated on the idea of “artistic failure.” In 2001, Jonathan Kranz made a commentary on National Public Radio about being a “failed artist,” and being happy about the fact, as it meant, among other things, he didn’t have to worry about worry for the rest of his life where his food was coming from. This blog, meanwhile, talks about the writer’s personal experiences in artistic failure, and this blog takes umbrage at the fact that artists who fail are treated differently from other professionals who give up their practice (i.e., they are dubbed “failed artists”; or as the blogger writes: I have never heard anyone say, “He is a failed accountant.” When someone moves on from being an accountant, no one says anything negative. It is accepted that this person moved onto another career….As with any other profession, those in the arts grow and make various career choices depending on the opportunities available.)

Still, it’s not only the artists-who-never-were who think about artistic failure. Even very successful artists fixate on the idea. I have written several times about Alec Soth, arguably the most successful artist in Minnesota in recent years–once, right before he became an art star by appearing in the 2004 Whitney Biennial (note: this is probably my favorite arts journalism piece that I ever wrote; very worth a read, if I do say so myself), and once just after. The before and after versions of Soth were as different as red and blue. The before-Biennial Soth was carefree and funny, a serious worker who brought a mirthful perspective to his tasks (essentially coaxing complete strangers to let him photograph them). The after-Biennial Soth, harried and now concerned about each risky venture he was undertaking as part of his artistic practice, was ultimately worried about how long this string of success would last. Or, as I quoted him at the end of the post-Biennial story: “I know I got lucky. Just the fact that anyone knows who I am now is fascinating to me. That anyone in the photography world in New York has heard of me is a new concept…. It’s a great feeling. But I wonder if it’s going to last.”

The topic of the “failed artist” is an important one in the art world today, as the artistic economy is increasingly tenuous, as individual artistic failure mounts (even among once-successful artists), and as concern about eventual failure becomes a major facet of artistic life.

The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America will refer to these facts of the artistic life, of course, and will remain fully aware of these definitions of “artistic failure,” often describing artists and other situations that fit the definition. At the same time, the Chronicle will forge a new meaning of the   term “artistic failure,” one that means something completely different.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this long defining saga…

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…