Laura Gascoigne: It’s Not The Winning, It’s The Making Art – July 2017

Last month a new sort of museum opened in Sweden. The brainchild of psychologist Dr Samuel West, the Museum of Failure in Helsinborg is an unnatural history museum of commercial fossils, a repository of innovative products that flopped. “The majority of all innovation projects fail,” its website announces cheerfully, before expressing the hope that showcasing “interesting innovation failures” will “provide visitors with a fascinating learning experience” – assuming people learn from other people’s mistakes. Its collection of 60 failed products from around the world include the Bic for Her (more of a misconception than an invention); Harley-Davidson Perfume (a dumb idea when, as every biker’s moll knows, gentleman riders prefer a dab of Castrol Power 1 behind the ears); and a medical instrument called the Orbitoblast Lobotomy (which we can thank our stars never made it into the NHS supply chain, as it sounds like a seriously bad trip). As for Colgate Beef Lasagna, it speaks for itself.

What provides a “fascinating learning experience” for would-be Dragon’s Den contestants offers a salutary and rather comforting example for artists. Because if the majority of all innovation projects fail, the vast majority of artistic projects are doomed to extinction before they’ve even left the drawing board. If success in art is measured by public recognition of an artist’s work, then 99.9% of artists are serial failers and should, by any normal reckoning, be in another line of business.

Unsurprisingly, the man who would abolish America’s National Endowment for the Arts understands the problem. According to the wisdom of Donald Trump, “A lot of people don’t like to win. They actually don’t know how to win, and they don’t like to win because deep inside they don’t want to win”. One might not expect this level of perspicacity from Trump, but you don’t get to be the artist of the deal without a modicum of psychological acuity. In the case of the other sort of artist – the artist of the non-deal, if you like – a ‘lot of people’ means almost everyone.

What is wrong with artists? Or, looked at another way, what is right with them? Unlike the general population of downtrodden drudges who cling mindlessly to a belief in the survival of the fittest, artists are highly adaptable creatures. Their work may be headed for the landfill fossil layer but they persist in looking on the bright side of extinction. It’s an attitude that, after the last financial crash, prompted a number of artist-led projects pointing out the plus side of failure. Kettle’s Yard led the way in June 2009 with a one-day symposium ‘On not knowing: how artists think’, which examined “how artists formulate strategies of not knowing and use the states of ignorance, doubt, block and failure within their decision-making process.” For those whose decision-making back-up systems also failed, in 2010 the South London Gallery proposed a final solution of dumping their work in Michael Landy’s Art Bin and becoming part of “a monument to creative failure” to be buried, with due ceremony, in a landfill site.

This was too negative for Manchester’s Cornerhouse, which came up with a more positive offer. Their 2010 exhibition Unrealised Potential, curated by the interestingly-named Mike Chavez-Dawson, presented a selection of artists’ unfulfilled proposals to gallery visitors and offered the rights to their realisation for sale. Whether any business resulted is unclear. Some of the ideas were certainly appealing, though logistically challenging. The one I liked best was Simon Paterson’s International Heroes, a foreign exchange programme for equestrian statues whereby town squares could swap their resident stiffs on horseback for stiffs on horseback from other town squares – a farsighted if impracticable idea that, post-Brexit, would have added greatly to the gaiety of nations while proving that Britain always remains open to stiffs. Slightly more workable was Harry Hill’s proposal, in a follow-up exhibition at Cornerhouse in 2011, ‘To recreate George Cruikshank’s The Worship of Bacchus using known alcoholics’, though it would have called for greater organisational skills than your average piss-up in a brewery.

Unrealised Potential was a nice enough thought, except for the fact that, as Trump could have explained to Señor Chavez-Dawson, realising potential runs counter to the whole spirit of failure. To the committed loser, ‘Here’s one I failed to make earlier until someone else came along and did it for me’ sounds like a total cop-out. It violates the core principle of resistance to society’s prevailing winner-takes-all philosophy that portrays the whole of life as a sweaty-palmed race to the top in which the victor pips the vanquished to the post by a fraction of a second and thereby feels entitled to the spoils – a philosophy mistakenly modelled on the Olympics.

No surprise, then, that London 2012 brought an artistic backlash from believers in the benefits of failure. While Frieze Projects East commissioned Sarnath Banerjee to plaster East London with billboard-sized cartoons of sporting disaster, the Café Gallery in Southwark Park – a charitable underdogs’ home for artists no one has heard of – put on Backwards Man, a group exhibition of artists who “harness the dichotomies of success and failure, knowing and unknowing… using failure as a complementary force to disrupt [their] work and give moments of uncertainty which skew the perspectives and stretch the imagination”, and are typically followed by bursts of profanity and exits to the pub. In the case of Alex Crocker, they resulted in “a bad alchemy… wonky and drunken. Vessels became figures and figures vessels” – remember Father Jack and the Toilet Duck bottle? – while in the work of Kate Grobey we were told that “mismatched body parts and distorted poses shift about, persisting in spite of themselves.”

Persisting in spite of themselves is what failures do, unlike successes who persist in spite of everyone else. It’s part of the charm of the confirmed loser, and a large part of artistic genius consists in knowing how to capitalise on it. If it hadn’t been for Giacometti’s endless admissions of failure the public would never have taken him to their hearts. It’s not true that everybody loves a winner. It may seem like that while the champagne flows, but the truth (sorry Trump) is that losers are usually more likeable in their lifetimes and always more likeable after their deaths. If Van Gogh had sold more than one painting in his lifetime, would his personality hold the same appeal for posterity? In life he was smelly, argumentative, wonky and drunken, the very definition of a loser who didn’t like to win and deep inside didn’t want to. In death his failure made him a huge success.

Before Brexit turns the Channel into a cultural chasm, we British losers could learn from our continental brethren who understand how to do failure in style. Take the French artist Jules Berthier, who elevated failure to the ‘art of fiasco’ with his 2007 nautical installation Love-love in which he sailed a broken yacht with a wonky keel at a permanently sinking angle of 45 degrees along the coast of Normandy. Bravo, Jules! With a post-Brexit recession in the offing and the lowest productivity figures of any leading western economy, we can look forward to a resurgence of the art of failure. Sod the productive strivers, hail the creative skivers! It’s not the winning, it’s the making art.

Laura Gascoigne
The Jackdaw Jul/Aug 2017

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