Archive for the Jumping on the artistic failure bandwagon 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.

Today’s edition of the Bullet Points of Failure (B.P.O.F.) gives up following, for now, all the local artistic hand-wringing that has of late been something of a preoccupation. Instead, today I strive to expand both inward and outward by bullet-pointing a few personal issues, as well as a few national ones.

  • On my other (yin) blog–about happiness and sunshine and art and drinks all around–I wrote a piece nearly a month ago (yikes! I’ve got to update that blog!) about the Nature of Happiness (and its Connection to Art). My motivation was responding to the artists who had been complaining about changes to a local artists exhibition program. I quoted former NEA chair Bill Ivey who suggested that art is best when not deemed a career-building enterprise, but instead is seen as “a way to pursue self-realization without forcing us to deny the materialist and competitive drives that pass for human nature in the West…” (See www.arthappyhour.com for more of Ivey’s thoughts).
  • Perhaps inspired by these two points, an alert reader, Louis Allgeyer, wrote the note below (which alerted me of a recently published Peter Schjeldahl review, which I hadn’t seen, that touches–much more eloquently–on notions put forward in my recent writing):

    admin/M.F.

    Down towards the end of your nature of happiness piece you sort of ponder,where is it all going art-wise, which I think many do. Esp artists themselves, so that they can jump on the-next-big-thing (just like a stock
    broker). Esp artists who are tired of their usual self-gratification that isn’t gratifying and isn’t art.

    I hope you read the article “feeling blue,” by the other great midwestern art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, in the august 4th New Yorker magazine ( a swimmers head on the cover). He also seems to be having similar ponderings and seems to think he may see ( in a much bigger picture than the little show he is reviewing ) a “fashion auditioning as a sea change.” He goes on to predict what the next-big-thing might be, if history is any guide and if, “our particular civilization is (not)spent.”

    Naturally I like it because my stuff falls right in line so I am gratified.

    Anyhoo, I think it is an important bit journalism.

    Louis Allgeyer

  • Finally, Schjeldahl’s review–of “After Nature,” currently up at the New Museum in New York--is itself well worth bullet-pointing. He says the show “proposes a saturnine new direction in art…. Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.)”

    And he continues: “the futility of artistic technique in the face of world conditions may constitute a subject for art as substantial as any other, and rather more compelling than today’s stacked-deck models of success… Existentialist standards of authenticity may be back in force, however fleetingly. How much can we bear of art that, like Sebald’s writing, glories in bottomless malaise? I expect we’ll find out.

    You suspect that a big change is coming when sensitive young people project (and, because they’re young, enjoy) feelings of being old. This has often signalled a backward crouch preceding a forward leap. I think of Picasso’s world-weary blue period, T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” and “Prufrock,” and the budding Abstract Expressionists’ wallows in Jungian mythology. The syndrome announces the exhaustion of a received cultural situation, whose traditions are slack and whose future is opaque. It typically entails nostalgia for real or fancied past ages that dealt—successfully, in retrospect—with similar crises.

    Viva la artistic failure!

I’m just back from a whirlwind trip to Pittsburgh to check out the 2008 Carnegie International, and I’ve also been scrambling to get a few projects done this week, so I’ve been unable to post to CAFA for the past week. To make up for this recent blog-lull (blull?), below are a few quick Bullet Points of Failure for June–this miserable month of miserably (so far) gloomy weather.

  • Last night, at a dreary-wet, underattended Art Happy Hour (my side-project designed to counterbalance the constant depressive pull of failure from this site), I got to speaking with a local artist named Jim. He’d just come back to live in Minneapolis, where he is from, after spending five years teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is, it seems, a regular reader of CAFA (the first I’ve ever met, actually), so we got to talking about failure and local art, and he said something brilliantly perceptive: “Here’s what I think about Minneapolis now that I’ve been away and come back: I’ve never been in a place filled with so many brilliant, capable, and creative people who are going nowhere.”
  • I didn’t realize this at the time, but back in November, 2007–about the time I was starting up this blog on artistic failure–a Carnegie Mellon University art professor started The Museum of Modern Failure, as a project for a class called “Art in Context.” The idea was to celebrate people’s personal failures, and the “museum” was a black wall on which people post a wide range of “failures”: whether technological (the Hindenburg, the Titanic), unpopular inventions (Segway, Firestone tires, Comanche helicopters, the DeLorean), cultural flops (Milli Vanilli, Ebonics, the mullet), or so on. The concept was suggested by student Rachael Brown, a 22-year-old creative-writing major. She noticed that the store that would come to house the museum, located at 2628 E. Carson St., had a “history of failure… The most recent failure was Bookends, a used computer store operated by the adjacent Goodwill, where old Epsons and educational CD-ROMs had failed to keep the business afloat. ‘I just find it really humorous that blunders aren’t what we celebrate in museums, just big successes,’ Brown explain[ed].” In a perfect coda to the project, the temporary museum close just shortly after it opened, in December of last year.
  • My review of the Carnegie International, as well as a long Q&A-style interview with its curator Douglas Fogle, went live on another new side-project of mine–a blog of visual arts writing on the Rakemag.com site called The Thousandth Word. I didn’t realize it until later, but my take on this big blockbuster international survey exhibition reflected something about the clouds of failure that hang over these times:
  • The best work in the 2008 Carnegie International reflects intimate, eccentric, often uncertain moments even as it hints at deeper and vast problems in the society. This is art of the resigned, pitiful shoulder-shrug variety, not of the noisy (and perhaps useless) hammer-thud variety–such as what was on display in such blustery recent shows as, say, the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Many of the personal and intimate gestures of these artists are designed, in fact, to spill out over from the private mind into a public realm, perhaps like pond ripples or a zen butterfly’s wings flapping or other suitable metaphor.

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An article called “Failure Makes a Comeback,” which recently appeared in the Western Washington University student newspaper, describes an exhibition of work, at the Viking Union Gallery, by seniors at the school who have all but resigned themselves to lives of artistic failure.

The show’s title–”F’ It”–is perhaps revealing of a prevailing attitude among young artists today.  The story explains that the show, organized by Western students Heidi Norgaard and Abby Wilson, is dedicated to “abandoned, damaged, or altogether failed artwork submissions” from the school’s students.

“We wanted to do a show where an artist put their heart and soul into [a piece of artwork], and it just didn’t turn out how they planned,” Wilson said. “They just had to say fuck it”…

To emphasize this approach, the coordinators requested a written description of what went wrong with the piece with each submission. They said the effect of seeing a failed piece of art next to the story of its demise adds depth to the exhibit.

The idea was inspired by a fiber-art major, who had started countless art projects that began as exciting concepts but ended up as big disappointments. “But that’s the process you have to go through,” she said. “Ninety percent of the projects artists make are really crappy. The other 10 percent are what you see in galleries… I’m tired of being mad about having shitty art, and I decided to start being happy about the mistakes I make.”

“People put too much emphasis on grades and getting things right the first time,” Norgaard said. “If every college was open to failure, we could learn a lot more.”

I have no way of knowing yet how accurate was Holland Cotter’s NYT review of the just-opened Whitney Biennial, but, based on his descriptions of the show and what I know of it myself, this assessment sounds about right:

…this year we have a Whitney show that takes lowered expectations — lessness, slowness, ephemerality, failure [emphasis mine] (in the words of its young curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin) — as its theme.

A biennial for a recession-bound time? That’s one impression it gives. With more than 80 artists, this is the smallest edition of the show in a while, and it feels that way, sparsely populated, even as it fills three floors and more of the museum…

Past biennials have had a festive, party-time air. The 2004 show was all bright, pop fizz; the one two years ago exuded a sexy, punk perfume. The 2008 edition is, by contrast, an unglamorous, even prosaic affair. The installation is plain and focused, with many artists given niches of their own. The catalog is modest in design, with a long, idea-filled essay by Ms. Momin, hard-working, but with hardly a stylistic grace note in sight. A lot of the art is like this too: uncharismatic surfaces, complicated back stories…

…the overall tenor of the show is low-key, with work that seems to be in a transitional, questioning mode, art as conversation rather than as statement, testing this, trying that. Assemblage and collage are popular. Collaboration is common. So are down-market materials — plastic, plywood, plexiglass — and all kinds of found and recycled ingredients, otherwise known as trash.

As a side-note, I have visited the past two Whitney Biennials, and I have reviewed them—usually focusing on the Minnesota angle for a little Minnesota-based web-publication. I find Cotter’s quick take above on the past two Biennials to be pretty spot-on, though I’d probably be a little harsher in my assessment of the 2006 show (and, indeed, I was). So, I have no reason to doubt him about the 2008 version.

I also then must say, “kudos, Whitney!” for recognizing—like CAFA—that failure is the order of the day in art.

As a final note, I do plan, once I can break free long enough to do so, to visit this failure-focused Biennial. In a perfect world, in which I have enough time away from my day job and enough left-over energy, I’d write more regular reviews of local and national art for a hungry local audience. (I say this fully realizing that all the local art criticism venues are rapidly dying off.) Still, I’m hopeful that I can, later this spring/summer, visit the seemingly less dire, more circumspect, more internationally derived Carnegie International, which opens in May, and write a comparative survey of these two major art events.

And heck, if I can’t get the review published somewhere good, then you can be sure it’ll end up just another feature of Failure. Stay tuned!