Failure In The Arts
American culture doesn’t take well to the idea of “failure.” Failure creates difficulty and our penchant is for quick successful solutions to any problem. As a result we expect – no we demand – in all areas of human endeavor, including art, an ease of achievement that is antithetical to the discovery of anything new. Failure is there for the American to avoid at all costs and if encountered it is to be overcome and safely disposed of, out of sight and out of mind. Failure is certainly not something Americans widely regard as something to embrace as the invisible partner of our creative lives.
An interesting scientific failure took place in 1964 when two Bell Labs astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, constructed a radio telescope in suburban New Jersey in order to undertake a detailed survey of radiation in our Milky Way galaxy. This task demanded that their equipment be of unprecedented sensitivity, yet whenever they pointed their antenna at the sky all they got back was an annoying hiss – an unexpectedly loud static that drastically interfered with their ability to make their planned observations. All subsequent attempts to troubleshoot the instrument and filter out the static failed – their radio telescope and their intended project remained an utter failure! Why had this happened? Their equipment hadn’t failed – it was their expected result that had failed – why? Because they had stumbled into the unexpected, they had gotten lost and unwittingly discovered something. In a conversation with Robert Dicke, another scientist interested in the then new theory of the Big Bang who was planning to build his own telescope to listen for evidence of it, Penzias and Dicke immediately recognized the hiss for what it was: the cosmic background radiation left over from the beginning of the universe. Their failure was that they had been persistently asking the wrong question of their equipment – instead it had found the answer to an entirely new and heretofore unforeseen question. Their unexpected discovery had been obscured by their insistence upon finding what they were looking for. As a reward for their failure to find it and for inadvertently stumbling into something else, Penzias and Dicke received the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.
However this pinnacle of international recognition is not always a welcome prospect, for example in 1964, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Horrified at the prospect of being rehabilitated into the conventional establishment he refused it stating: “The bourgeoisie wanted to cover up my ‘past errors’ so they gave me the Nobel Prize – they pardoned me – it was monstrous!” Sartre was insistent that we think critically about everything conventional that is given to us in education – to examine and question all accepted “common sense” values. He realized however that this was no easy matter for most people
Why is this refusal to let go of the conventional and the expected so common a feature of our endeavors? I think it emanates from our schooling. Students commonly perceive their “education” to be something of a puzzle that can be considered “solved” when every piece has been put into its pre-ordained place. However any education or undertaking worthy of its name, will recognize that when the puzzle is finally assembled, there will always be a few troublesome pieces left over (or a piece or two missing) that force us to re-think the solidity of the edifice that we have so painstakingly erected.
Failure creates difficulty and in America, there is a widespread notion that anything difficult is “elitist” and that a populist democracy demands simplicity. This is a particularly pernicious notion for any country or culture to foster and tolerate. At the political level, it means that issues and problems have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator and at the university level, it results in an anti-intellectual attitude that makes a mockery of the very idea of education. One reason for the resistance to “difficulty,” now commonly found in the academy, is that difficulty in the practices of art and literature have arisen out of the “alien” disciplines of philosophy and psychoanalysis. To further complicate this situation, American education has, over the last three decades, become severely compartmentalized. Accordingly, philosophical theory was rarely welcomed outside of the philosophy department, the sciences were confined to their own departments and so on. One deleterious effect of this compartmentalization has been that individual disciplines have become self-enclosed and now avoid just the kind of interdisciplinary interaction that would raise questions about – i.e. “make difficult” – the objective and determined solid ground upon which any discipline perceives itself to be standing. Within the academy, interdisciplinary practice is frequently given lip service, but woe betides anyone who actually attempts it. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that we can actually define a discipline in terms of what it forbids its practitioners to do, and that suppression has inevitably been a suppression of the problematic, of the unstable and of the difficult. This academic suppression of difficulty has resulted in a consequent suppression of thinking itself. This perspective is based upon a central element of the current debate framed by Graeme Sullivan in his book Art Practice as Research, which holds that the conventional academic definition of knowledge is irreconcilable with contemporary artistic practice – a situation that urgently needs redress. The crux of this dispute is that the academy holds knowledge to be objective, utilitarian and based upon closed systems of method and orthodoxy, where conversely art remains subjective, ludic and open to any ideas, however heterodox.
My own embrace of failure is embodied in just this ludic approach to creative endeavor. For example, in the 35 years or so that I have been making music, I utilize what would ordinarily be considered a considerable drawback – the fact that I am unschooled and as a result unable to read music, coupled with the fact that I have something of a “tin ear” – so in trying to figure out other people’s music by ear – something I find extraordinarily difficult – I often stumble into my own composition, that is, in looking for something else, I get lost and unexpectedly find something new. Of course it helps that the genre I am active in is post-punk and that it has a strong DIY and “anti-muso” ethos, with entirely different standards in play than say Jazz or classical. Despite that admission, I frequently encounter remarks from trained fellow musicians that my band “has a much bigger sandbox” than theirs does. What they are implying is that they feel constrained by the rules imparted into them by music schooling and that they are unable to un-learn their own expectations of the “right way” to do things. The same is true of my visual practice and for that matter my writing – my sans souci and ludic approach allows me to make what would normally be regarded as serious errors and misunderstandings and to playfully deploy them in order to disrupt the expectations of the viewer / reader / listener. While this tactic doesn’t wash with those bound by orthodoxy, in art practice, it can lead to some novel arrangements – because as Andy Warhol famously said: “art is what you can get away with.” So in many ways, failure and error lie at the core of what I do – in essence, I deliberately court getting lost so that something I had no idea was there could be found and deployed to disrupt “common sense” assumptions about how the world is supposed to work.
Failure is perceived of as dangerous because it has the potential to disrupt everything that we “know,” to throw our cherished and comfortable certainties about how the world is supposed to work into question and to make us aware of that aesthetic faculty that Kant called “the sublime” – in short to make us aware of death. This is not to detract from the power of death in all of its very real physical manifestations, but rather to say that death signals what Paul de Man referred to in The Rhetoric of Romanticism as “the linguistic predicament [of] the impossibility of transparency” – in other words, the ineffable.
Americans persistently avoid failure and the often quite difficult problems it creates because those problems are not easily reducible to quick solutions. In particular, to “problematize” something, is in a very real sense to defer solutions and closure, but we are frequently encouraged to act as if the problematic stands in opposition to genuine understanding instead of recognizing that it is a natural consequence of it. As a result of this prejudice, much of the history of critical theory and the political stances taken towards it by the opposing sides in the academy remain entangled within issues of understanding and legitimation. The enemies of critical theory frequently take recourse in formalism. In visual art, formalism focused upon the aesthetic importance of the artistic object and separated it from the domains of culture and history – it “idealized” that object. One of the dictates pronounced by the modernist avatar Alfred Stieglitz is that in abstract art; “form and not content convey emotional and psychological meaning.” In this scheme of things, the art object remained frozen in space, complete within itself, untouched by time and hovering above the life world without context. The art object was its own self-contained context and difficulty was continually dispelled by its “resolution” – i.e. the art object’s ability to embody elaborate and often obscure allusions – e.g. Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhart’s crypto mysticism. These allusions could be researched and hunted down and firmly locked in place – in effect treating the art object as a puzzle to be considered solved when one can say; “aha, here is the hidden meaning.” Thus, formalism actually suppresses difficulty by resolving itself into closure.
Problematizing an issue demands that closure, solutions, concrete meanings and cures be deferred and that the gap between problem and solution remain forever unbridgeable. Accordingly, art and literature that embrace the problematic recognize that understanding is not geared to the elimination of difficulty, but is instead oriented towards a deepening recognition of difficulty as an un-transcendable horizon. Such art and literature often has a reciprocal relationship with critical theory. There is no question that critical theory has indeed been difficult in recent years. Part of this difficulty arises out of its heavy use of jargon, as well as very deliberate attempts to break the illusion of lucidity – e.g. Jacques Derrida – i.e. the illusion that language is a transparent entity and that we are somehow in control of it.
All of this is difficult stuff and it flies in the face of the ideology of transparency that is paramount in the American educational system – i.e. the notion of the “proper” arrangement of knowledge, so that nothing is lost with everything fitting into some definable classification – some formalist resolution. The name for such an arrangement is “method” and its subtext is “science.” It may be in the very nature of academic institutions to formalize learning and knowledge and thus subscribe to the ideology of transparency. But the cost of this ideology is nothing less than an end to thinking itself! Martin Heidegger took a very dim view of “method” and all of its formalist underpinnings; “method, especially in today’s scientific thought, is not a mere instrument serving the sciences; rather it has pressed the sciences into its own service.” Friedrich Nietzsche likewise was quite explicit on this subject; “it is not the victory of science that distinguishes our nineteenth century, but the victory of scientific method over science.” Thus “method” in American education is a fancy name for a “how to” approach to life and learning. It is fueled by a pragmatic desire for efficiency, for a utilitarian approach that privileges clarity over depth and always knowing precisely where you stand, as opposed to wandering freely, or even deliberately allowing yourself to get lost.
Thus “method” becomes a kind of all-encompassing plan that displaces “failure,” error,” and “chance” with “getting” whatever “it” is right. Chance is a rupture with identity and utilitarian experience based upon the determination of events. Since the time of Laplace, chance has been commonly thought of as a limiting horizon of human knowledge – i.e. “if only we could know more, then we would see the universe as determined rather than chaotic” – chance, in short, could then be dispelled as subjective in nature. Moreover, causality and the notion of determination are commonly assumed to be the very basis of scientific explanation, with knowledge always seemingly making chance an exception to its cardinal rule that there is a definite reason for everything. It is only with the rise of quantum theory in the early 20th century that this view was decisively challenged in the revelation that, in our universe, chance and chaos are the norm and not the exception. Richard Feynman’s succinctly summarized this realization when he stated; “a philosopher once said ‘it is necessary for the very existence of science that the same conditions always produce the same results’ – well they don’t.” The sublime that this difficult new physics revealed to anyone paying attention, is the vista that unfolds of a noumenal microphysical realm governed by quixotic rules and populated with bizarre entities that behave as if they were characters from Alice in Wonderland. The discourse of subatomic physics so dramatically problematizes the common sense view of how the world is supposed to work that it prompted Niles Bohr to famously remark that; “anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood a single word.”
It is not commonly recognized that when we “take a photograph” we encounter the quantum mechanical, probabilistic nature of light – i.e. we can’t predict with any certainty where any particular photon will land, either when activating a CCD, or causing a silver halide grain to form a development center. Thus, the fact that a camera can be seen as an analogue for the apparatus in Young’s famous “double slit experiment” reveals that photography remains a chance driven process. This means that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle remains in play in the very bones of the medium and as a result, all we can talk about in relation to any photograph are probabilities and not determined certainties. This is, without a doubt, a problematic and difficult revelation about a medium commonly held to “never lie.”
Even within the realm of critical theory, the most common complaint is that some critics are just “too difficult,” – e.g. Derrida – and as a consequence, demands are frequently placed upon it to “do its job” and clarify the whole mess of frayed thinking in the world while simultaneously dolling out some appropriate labels for classifying and thus controlling, the cultural landscape. Here in America, the demands placed upon the intellectual scene are not all that different from those placed upon the public sphere; “be clear and communicate something useful!” What is lost in this demand, in the Heideggerian sense, is any sense of the depth of darkness that we actually inhabit, our homelessness, our exile, the very condition of thinking itself. Heidegger insisted that; “by continually appealing to the logical, one conjures up the illusion that he is entering straightforward into thinking, when in fact he has disavowed it.”
The difficult work of creativity demands that we embrace chance and failure as opportunities and not attempt to dispel them as enemies, they are in fact the pathway to the new and unexpected. Embracing failure means being willing to allow oneself to get lost along unplanned “paths” in order to be confronted with unforeseen vistas. If we are able to embrace failure as the opening-up of creative possibility then we can stand on the threshold of the new.
This essay was presented at a symposium on “Failure in the Arts” held at the University at Buffalo on Friday, February 12, 2010.