Listening to a radio discussion about failure in the arts, I asked myself why I’ve always had reservations about the idea – or rather about how it’s talked about in this industry. One problem was evident in this conversation, despite Tom Shakespeare‘s careful moderation. Michael Billington spoke about failure in art (for instance when a playwright tried to achieve something beyond their reach). Leila Jankovich spoke about failure in the arts – that amorphous world of policy, management and creativity that produces public culture. (She’s running a valuable research project on this, to which I contributed an interview last year.) They’re both vital questions but they’re not at all the same.
The heart of the problem is the common conflation of ‘art’ (a creative act of meaning-making) with ‘the arts’. As Jonathan Meades says:
‘The gulf between the arts, plural, and art is chasmic; the one is an unwieldy bureaucracy, the latter is creative endeavour.’Jonathan Meades, TLS, 20 October 2017
In the discussion, Leila Jankovich said that she went into academia because her evaluation clients refused to engage with the problems she raised. I recognise that experience, but it relates not to art, but to the complicated interests of the arts industry, and there are parallels in every field, evident in disasters such as the loss of the Challenger space shuttle or the Chernobyl nuclear accident (along with countless less tragic failures in public and private sectors). The human and systemic processes that produce these failures are literally vital, but they are different from artistic failure, which rarely has important consequences except for the artist(s) concerned.
As I listened to the programme, I thought about my own work, as a community artist, a researcher and a consultant. A few projects have been absolute failures, in the sense that they didn’t happen, even after a lot of effort. But the rest can’t be classified in that way. There are things about them that I’m happy about, even proud of, and other aspects that were disappointing. I’ve often made mistakes, and tried to learn from them. The learning has not always had good results, if it has made me too cautious, and I’ve had to learn from the learning. But I can’t see why I would label any of my work a success or a failure. (Others can and do, but that’s their affair.) Art – life – does not benefit from being reduced to such binary terms. Most of my work is good enough – I’ve always argued for the literal meaning of that phrase – in the sense that it is a step forward, not always big or direct, but forward nonetheless. It allows me to do the next thing that seems worthwhile. I sometimes wonder if I should be more ambitious, but what standard would I measure that against? More failures – perhaps, but my character seems to prefer making more work that is good enough, and making a small contribution on the right sight of the scales.
My principle reservation about the language of success and failure in the arts (not art) is that it is rooted in a capitalist economy of culture. You can sense it in the widespread use of terms like product, delivery and marketing. It thinks that art either sells or flops. The target – another revealing word – may be an audience, a customer, a participant or a funder, but success is seen as satisfying a demand. And that leads to the inflated rhetoric of boosterism – every theatre is ‘world-class’, every artist is ‘award-winning’. I don’t believe it. Most art is good enough, and that is an honourable thing to achieve. I prefer a more humanistic idea of art, in which our creative activity is akin to, and rooted in, our fulfilment as human beings. And that, thankfully, will always be a free, contested and ultimately personal matter.
PS I took the photo at the top of this post in the Cultural Palace of Targu-Mures, which opened in 1912 within the Austro-Hungarian Empire; ten years later it had been transferred to Romania and the mythical extravagance of its decor acquired new meaning in a different culture. Success or failure? I’ve no idea.
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