Archive for the The (art failure) complicity of the universitariat Category

Just over three years ago, CAFA was contacted out of the blue by the West Coast artist and art teacher Jeanne Finley of the California College of the Arts. Finley had come across this Chronicle while preparing a syllabus on an art seminar she was organizing around the theme of Failure. She expressed interest in organizing some sort of collaboration between her class and this site, and we readily agreed.

The resulting final projects by her Failure students were mounted on CAFA, each in turn, at the end of the semester in May, 2009.

Although CAFA has mostly been inactive over the past few years, as various society, cultural, and familial pressures limit the ability and inclination of the site’s admin to post new stuff, we are proud to announce that, starting on Monday (December 19) and continuing with one new post each day (in a kind of Failure version of the 12 Days of Xmas), we’ll once again be presenting final projects from Jeanne Finley’s revisited seminar on Failure.

So stay tuned, Failurephiles — and please be sure to spread some love to an artist in this desperate holiday season.

An article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, published in the wake of Brandeis University’s sell-off of the Rose Art Museum, details the effect the bad economy is having on campus support of art programs.

Without Change, Campus Arts Programs Could Risk Their Survival


By Brad Wolverton

Buried in the recent news about big endowment losses and the steps colleges are taking to weather the economic crisis is an emerging pattern: Culture, it would seem, is expendable.

First came Brandeis University’s decision to close its art museum and sell off more than 6,000 works in its collection. Then Miami University, in Ohio, and Texas Tech moved to sell or shutter their radio stations. Now Utah State University may stop its academic press.

Even Bowdoin College, a longtime supporter of the arts, which completed a $20-million renovation of its art museum in 2007, recently said it may dump its big-band jazz ensemble.

Some of that may just be skimming the fat. But faced with increasing costs and shrinking government support, more institutions may do what was once unthinkable: cut entire academic programs.

That prospect hung over a group of college presidents gathered here last week for the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Mary Pat Seurkamp, president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, summed up the mood this way: “Some people are saying, ‘We know our mission and we love the liberal arts. But you don’t have to have all of them.’”

The recession is intensifying administrators’ scrutiny of underperforming majors, leading to tough questions: Are those majors helping to drive enrollment and revenue? Do they have a vocal or wealthy constituency? If not, maybe they should go.

“It’s a bad stew,” says Harriet Zuckerman, a senior vice president at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one of the biggest supporters of the arts and humanities on campuses. “These are episodic symptoms of what is likely to become a more serious problem.”

As the economic downturn has deepened, colleges have demonstrated a swiftness for shedding programs whose goals have not been aligned with core missions.

Art experts say that may help explain the fall of the Rose Art Museum, at Brandeis….

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.

An alert Friend of Failure sent the text to J.K. Rowling’s recent Harvard commencement address, wherein she credits failure for her eventual success.

…Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

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.”

Why is art failing in this country, in this world?

According to author and Harvard psycology professor Steve Pinker in his essay A Biological Understanding of Human Nature, the art world, as it has developed in the modern and post-modern era, is not fulfilling a societal obligation, and that is at the roots of its failure.

In the twentieth century, modernism and postmodernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that our predilections for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any schmo could afford a Mozart CD or go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. So art became baffling and uninterpretable—unless you had some acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don’t think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. …many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend.

Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the permutations and combinations of human conflict—and these are the very themes that fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and social psychology try to illuminate. The sciences of the mind can reinforce the idea that there is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.