The Cult of Creative Failure
A hurricane of entitlement flooded America long before the Trump era, perverting creative training and arts funding earlier than this stormy political season. American entitlement is so perverse that folks not only feel entitled to abundance, but to waste their abundance—from the misguided logic of buying more than they need to throwing away perfectly fine objects because not wanting them anymore is reason enough to chuck. But waste undermines artistic character because it erodes our ability to commit to a project long after the failure of creative desire. As commitment has become boring, we now desire failure as the ultimate sign of creative experimentation. In this Orwellian moment of war is peace, failure is success.
The cult of creative failure began with the rise of art school culture and its increasing disconnect from the American working poor. Much as it happened with the rise of U.S. corporate culture and the conception of corporations as having more rights than working class communities, as the number of art schools and MFA programs grew, they became theoretical cloisters so that the center of gravity passed from a low-income community’s rights to the rights of the creative process.
Over time, institutional goals began to override civic goals, so it became more important for art students to learn through rushed trial and error for the sake of complying with the artificial deadlines of weekly group critiques, a rush that sacrificed the slower processes required by the pursuit of long-term, successful, sited cultural outcomes. Art school value overrode village value. Thus, spring and fall semester calendars now dominate real-time calendars, over the slow passage of time in formerly colonized and currently oppressed, hard to penetrate communities where complex lives— not abstract notions of audience, need real time rather than Facebook timelines—because trust-building requires time.
I wonder what John Dewey, the great American educator and social activist who believed in the transformative power of aesthetic experiences crafted for the masses, would opine? His notion of manifesting aesthetic experience was based on slowly acquiring mastery. The acquisition of skills and their exercise in society needs time, as opposed to the mind of entitlement, which worships speed and demands fast results. Later, when Joseph Beuys stated that everyone is an artist, he, too, based his deceptively simplistic but complex, humble statement on the need to slow down the creative process. The entitled are not patient. But in order for everyone, artists and civilians, to explore their creative potential, they must patiently spend time with the dead and the wild.
In spite of the advent of socially engaged art practice, American art school culture remains mostly unrevised. It blindly continues to prepare young makers for an increasingly ecologically unsustainable, product-driven economy where social practice is merely the latest buzzword elective, turning civilians into a course work’s disposable material.
This is complicated by the fact that a new generation of Internet savvy but socially awkward young artists are unfamiliar and even afraid of our mainstream American public, so they underestimate or wholly dismiss it. This is a politically dangerous flaw in our post-industrial liberal class, disconnected from farms and factories. It consumes from afar without truly knowing the entire spectrum of the issues around production, from sourcing to labor. It quietly harbors a set of educated urban class prejudices, which explains part of the current mainstream backlash against the snobbism of cosmopolitan liberalism, partially triggering our wrecking ball political environment.
In addition, we have to contextualize all of the above within an increasingly unsustainable MFA industry in which admission standards have been lowered to keep tuition-driven programs afloat. An overly simplified system of pass or fail evaluation has eliminated the gray area where most true evaluations actually take place; while those still using grades face average-grade inflation and failing-grade denial, seldom denying a degree to someone who has the credit score to get a student loan. The micromanagement and thus infantilization of generations of graduate students is at an all-time high, making them the most institutionalized and thus disconnected artists America has ever produced.
The combination of these insular, academic, and technological environments has armored and enabled the narcissism of young foundation officials, administrators, curators, and their selected artists, who have been taught to believe that they can fail when handling the well-being—and sometimes the actual future—of communities on the edge. If those artists also reside in large urban centers like New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles where they only exhibit and converse with other artists, forever preaching to the converted, their socially disconnected school lessons remain unchallenged. And if those artists are white and their playground communities are not, then we have the further complication of pseudo-socially engaged art projects acting as agents of contemporary colonialism.
Entitlement to creative failure is part of America’s exceptionalist fantasy about its undeniable right to abundance and waste, even when this includes people. But the world’s poor cannot afford to fail. Far beyond the art world, in the real world, failure is the privilege of the rich. That is why we have a president in the White House who has made a successful career out of regularly filing for bankruptcy. Material and moral bankruptcy of creative and prosaic projects is the privilege of a capitalist aristocracy. But when artists are entrusted with the well-being of communities, ethically speaking, they cannot afford to fail them. Real failure is not a project option.
Arts administrators must take risks and give opportunities to a new generation of artists who have experienced social media but not society. But there is a critical experiential difference between mediated virtual reality and unmediated physical reality. Therefore, American art administrators must remain vigilant of the young artists they fund precisely because they may be applying for their first road projects within a diverse, impoverished society with an increasingly fragile democracy.
A people’s trust and dreams are not a material. If wasting materiality is destructive to the natural ecology, wasting human capital destroys the ecology of human culture. It dehumanizes art practice, framing it within the Platonic fantasy of pure capitalism, where profit-making exists for its own sake, no matter the human expense; where art-making exists for its own sake, no matter the individual and collective betrayal of trust. As ecologist Wes Jackson has said of nature, human psychic capital is not a recyclable material; once mishandled, it may be lost forever.
Let’s put failure back where it belongs. The concept of failure was much worshipped in post-modernist art programs as important and even vital to the material and critical success of an experimental creative process: from pushing tools, materials, and surfaces to the limit; to the stripping or saturation of a work that was willing to risk disintegration for perfection. When it comes to the traditional mediums of drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, and sculpture, the notion of failure can be the price for exploring creative potential, a risk on the path to excellence.
In a 20th century world that was not fully aware of the damaging effects of blindsided innovation, total material failure inside a studio was acceptable in terms of exploring a creative process inside a box that was construed as hermetic, seemingly endangering no one other than the passionate artist. But in a more conscious 21st century world that thinks green, we know that the artist’s studio is interconnected with everything, that the box produces tons of material. Historically, art schools were notorious polluters. Nevertheless, when we return failure to a well-ventilated art studio equipped with masks, gloves, non-toxic art materials, and containers for all recyclables, to updated studios populated by ethical artists who work traditionally, the metaphor of risking failure is returned to its rightful place.
However, when it comes to art as social practice, creative failure ceases to be contained within an art school classroom, artist studio, or city dump. We are no longer dealing with raw materials inside a box. To fail creatively when the project involves social engagement is to fail vulnerable people for whom our project may make the difference between the urgent sustainability of a community or its eventual demise. Of course, as in all creative processes, private and public, ignorant and innocent mistakes are acceptable as long as, in the case of social practice, they are accompanied by a profusion of humble, private, and public apologies. A project may have limitations and flaws for lack of sufficient funds, for lack of adequate help, because of negative individuals, or because of conservative institutions that feel threatened by it, so it may not succeed fully, but it cannot afford to fail everyone.
Stepping outside the golden cage of art school culture cuts the umbilical cord that feeds artists with abstract notions of audience and returns them to the messier commons where they are finally confronted with how institutionalized their creative lives have been. Not being able to fail is a well-known notion to the world’s poor. The poor only get one chance. Failure to cross an ocean or desert can mean dehydration or drowning. Failure can mean deportation. This is where the liberalism of art world inhabitants is truly tested.
In other words, lived art practice exists beyond the speed zone of weekly art school critiques, simplified one-page artist statements, one-paragraph gallery reviews, and neat art fair cubicles. Success resides in collectively experiencing the elusive psychic content of human existence; failure resides in squandering that. Creative attainment resides in humility.
I once consulted for a foundation administrator about the ethics of socially engaged art projects. To my surprise, the young white administrator was shocked when I stated my belief that such projects cannot play with failure. Without any self-criticality concerning issues of class and white entitlement, the administrator angrily defended “the artist’s inalienable right to fail” and from that moment on, began a vindictive campaign to deny me every fellowship this individual has any say in. As a gay artist of color, I refuse to be a victim, so sabotage has not deterred my commitment to criticality.
Our criticality is drowning in anger, in the fury of the left and the wrath of the right. We are experiencing the violent end of empire, with bankrupt cities and provinces like Detroit and Puerto Rico and ongoing war-making in the Middle East and North Korea draining our leftover resources and increasing our debt. We are human history’s biggest students of democracy, with a titanic, historic student loan. It is a classic painful end of empire—by the book. So yes, it is scary for young artists out there. But while we are surrounded by the failure of unsustainable American myths like bottomless abundance based on ecological destruction, and the endless frontier based on Native American destruction, un-institutionalized American artists should dare to embody the liminal boundary to such toxic deadly mirages.
Socially engaged art projects should be the reality check sites where our great American moral bankruptcy stops. The unacceptability of socially engaged art project failure should be where art studio practice reencounters society, where American artists finally encounter the experience of the rest of the world.