I have been thinking a lot about failure and, in particular, contemporary art as a constant and positive field of failure. To be an artist seems to be implicitly at the edge of failure; to be pushing ideas and material toward their inevitable tipping point. Similarly, in the sciences (which are often held in higher esteem culturally) failure is the norm with the random breakthrough negating copious dead ends. In science, as in most other professionalized vocations, specialization and the metrics of “success” have changed the landscape or altered the playing field.
In football, the kicker only kicks. The specialization of players has gotten to the point that should the receiver of a kickoff make it past the defenders to find himself with only one player in the way of a touchdown, the kicker often simply gives up. He is so focused on the techniques of kicking that he does not train for the rest of the game. Similarly, in baseball with the pitcher coming to bat in a critical situation (runners on base, the team needs a hit) failure is almost always a given; pitchers will simply focus too much on pitching and almost not at all on hitting or fielding. Just as athletes in the past were often generalists (remember Jesse Owens and Babe Ruth) so were artists, who, in the muck of modernism often had a cursory understanding of the “game” but who reached into the abyss for methods and ideas that were often beyond their grasp. Most of the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings would have crumbled into the earth by now had conservators not sought to preserve them, thereby “fixing” his mistakes. By all accounts he would have rather they did fall apart so he could see where he failed and what he needed to think about further. Wright’s reach clearly exceeded his grasp as well as his skill set. Similarly, the work of many of the artists we teach in our degree granting programs left behind work that would, on its own, without the work of conservators, degrade beyond recognition. And much of the work from earlier eras across the arts is, by today’s standards of technique and virtuosity, far from exceptional. Yet, it moves us.
All of this is to say that the game has clearly changed. The metrics of “success” have changed or perhaps simply come into sharper focus.
To extend the sports metaphor further (possibly to the edge of failure or beyond) the 2016 Chicago Cubs baseball team who recently won the World Series did so with one of the youngest, most inexperienced teams on the field. They also battled the weight of their own history, much of which was, by any measure, a history of failure. When interviewed about that history and asked how he was coping with the pressure on the eve of the World Series, one of the young players noted that most of the team actually did not feel that pressure in the way that others did; that they were too young and too lacking in historical memory to know they should be burdened by the failures of the past, by history. They just loved the game. They just wanted to play. While the outcome of both sports and elections are in the end, numeric, art is less so. Perhaps giving ourselves permission to fail in the end challenges us to live with the unknown, to deal with the consequences and moves us forward in some poetic way.