metropolis m

The idea of failure is attracting great interest, not only in society in a broader sense, but also in art. A recently published book about failing in art comes to a surprising conclusion.The fact that the Netherlands have always identified with losers and underdogs is something we have known for some time, but since the start of the economic crisis, it seems as though the entire Western world has come into the grip of an inferiority complex of considerable proportions. Apocalyptic scenarios are popping up everywhere. Whether it is about the environment, about politics, economics or culture, it seems that new debacles are being announced on a daily basis. This ubiquitous fixation on failure obviously has an effect on the arts. In exhibitions over the last few years, failures of all kinds have been succeeding one another at a rapid pace. At the big biennial exhibitions, looking at art has developed into an unusual form of disaster tourism. En masse, the art-loving public is transported from starvation scenarios to oil disasters (Documenta 12), from drug squats to cemeteries (5th Berlin Biennial) and from prisons to environmental disasters (Manifesta 8). Initially, this still occurred from the perspective of a certain vigilant idealism, with a finger held high in the hope that art could rescue the world from the great neoliberal mistake and the devastating effects it has had on society. In the meantime, the criticism is increasingly focused on art itself. At the last Manifesta, which, as behoves a contemporary biennial, was crammed full of social misfortunes, large and small, art revealed itself as the biggest failure of all. In several works, the artists mocked the pretence of the artist or the curator to presume that they had anything whatsoever to tell the world. This self-deprecating art not only makes it clear that in recent years, despite all its good intentions, art has not succeeded in changing anything in society, but worse, that it has been in the process of alienating its audience and even the art world itself. If not so long ago, thanks to the theory of Richard Florida, art was full of faith in its economic value in a contemporary, post-industrial information economy, today there is little of that self-confidence left. All over Europe, art is seen as the first victim to be subjected to budget cuts, apparently in the idea that art is not very important to society. No one speaks about Richard Florida anymore. The big factory complexes that art somewhat demonstratively had occupied in the last decade as a sign of the so-called creative revolution (creative industries were presented as the alternative to industries that had been moving to the Far East), will consequently probably become vacant again, possibly for good. They will most probably decay into modern Western ruins, like the dozens that Lara Almarcegui has already been depicting over the last ten years.Against the background of this failure of art to protect itself and the Western world from the sadness of social loss, an introduction in a recently published anthology, entitled Failure, by Lisa Le Feuvre, seems rather naïve and syrupy. In it, the British curator/editor of the collection, in the framework of the Documents of Contemporary Art series for the Whitechapel Gallery, is relatively neutral about failure as a popular ‘subject of investigation’ in art. Instead of placing the failure in art in a topical social framework, she prefers to see it as a component of a long-existing fundamental critical movement, which she claims rose with the emergence of modernism, over a century ago. In her view, the failing artist turns primarily against modernism, with its linear, single-mindedly goal-oriented trajectory and its mechanisms for inclusion and exclusion. She sees the ‘failed’ artist not as a failure, but as an artistic adventurer who, without premeditation and beyond all expectations, is able to expose new artistic terrains, even against his or her own better judgment. For her, failure is a precondition for artistic innovation, something that is hopeful rather than something that is negative. She writes, ‘In art, failure can also be a component of speculative experiment, which arrives at something unrecognizable as art according to current criteria of knowledge and judgement.’ It is a shame that Lisa Le Feuvre’s anthology does not directly focus on the current political relevance of her subject, but this does not mean that amongst the collected essays by such figures as art critics Jörg Heiser and Jennifer Higgie and philosopher Paul Ricoeur, we cannot find a range of relevant insights into the function of failure in contemporary society: on, for example, the subtle stubbornness of Bartleby, the protagonist of Herman Melville’s short story, a famous clerk who refused to continue working; on professional provocateur Martin Kippenberger’s position ‘beyond winning and losing’; and on the stimulating melancholy of Matthew Brannon, who uses seemingly old-fashioned printmaking to produce graphic commentary on the idea of progress.In this book, failure is viewed as a socio-psychological principle, which is determined on the basis of all kinds of presuppositions and social conventions that the naturally somewhat asocial artist is happy to finish off. The artist is happy to fail, where ordinary people generally do not have the courage to risk the social break that may result. Where a society prefers prosperity above deception, the artist takes Satanic pleasure in turning against the regime of the success story and in its place, puts what appears to be an irritating importance of stagnation, obstruction, delay, imperfection, bungling, unmanageability, doubt and boredom.It does cheer me up to read a collection about the importance of all these different ‘non-success stories’ and the artistic losers who are responsible for them, who refuse to be ‘good’ for anyone or anything and are repulsed by the idea of having to take responsibility for them. Rather than going along with the economy of success, the failing artist takes comfort in the impossibility of his existence, one that is all too often indeed truly impossible.This book also places the interest in the failure on the part of society in a different light. Instead of bemoaning or fighting against that failure, the way a society preoccupied by success is accustomed to doing, it can better accept it as a simple fact of life. This is the kind of fact that certainly Christians have been acquainted with since childhood, by way of the story of original sin and the fall of man, which means that mankind is permanently predestined to fail. The failing artist, in turn, one could say in a secularized variation, shows that failure is not meant to be avoided, and is equally not meant to be learned from, the way teachers would have us believe. Failure can best be seen as a different, brutal truth, one that shows life in all its non-categorical barrenness, pure, painful, unreasoned and senseless. A great deal, if not all of human effort appears in the light of the failure as hopeless much ado about nothing, not worth the effort. In this sense, the economic malaise is not really so amazing. Only by occasionally suffering serious failure can we see what is truly important. Domeniek Ruyters is editor-in-chief of Metropolis MLisa Le Feuvre (ed.), Failure: Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2010, ISBN 978-0-85488-182-6Translated from the Dutch by Mari Shields

Domeniek Ruyters

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