The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Forward Momentum of Failure

Robert Rauschenberg

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 6: " Another Kind of Language"
section 2: "The Forward Momentum of Failure"

It's probably safe to say that we've all experienced "failure" in one form or another when it comes to producing art, which is a risky enterprise. And, it's probably true that most of us learn from our failures after we've overcome the disappointments they bring. In this section of her book, Richmond emphasizes the importance of risk in making art. She writes: risk, I believe, is a place between unsure and sure, where you are in unknown territory, you can't see what's around the corner, and yet you continue, full speed ahead.

She cites Robert Rauschenberg, who said: "I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop. At the time that I am bored or understand - I use those words interchangeably - another appetite has formed." Richmond notes here that Rauschenberg isn't just confronting uncertainty, he is sustaining uncertainty. In my opinion, that takes a lots of guts and confidence. As corny as this seems, it reminds me of the lyrics to Rodgers and Hammerstein's song from Carousel:

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone,
You'll never walk alone.

Doesn't that reflect the journey of the undaunted spirit of the artist?

Back to Richmond's book: This section is about the "forward momentum of failure" Wendy stresses the importance of the sum of our mistakes in the creative process.There is a forward directionality to it if we continue to take risks and and use them. Here, she cites Picasso, who said "My pictures are often made by a sum of destructions." I'm also reminded of something Helen van Wyck always said "My paintings are the record of a series of corrections."

Richmond concludes this section on a positive note: how refreshing it would be to look forward to failure! Imagine using it as a momentum to propel your work further.

And so it is that risk and failure pave the road to our success in art. Walk on, my friends!

Your thoughts??


-Don said...

I don't necessarily look forward to failure, but like Rauschenberg, I have to watch out for boredom. To this end, I feel a continual need to push myself outside of my comfort zone while trying new things with my work. As you know, Kathy, I'm always looking for new challenges - and to me those challenges are what keeps what I do fun.

I'm not sure I'm ready for sustained uncertainty, though. Once I understand something another appetite may have formed, but I also allow that understanding to inform my new appetite.

I've noticed that the amount of risk we take seems to affect the sum of the reward. When I've really gone out on a limb to try something new, and it works, there is an intensely rewarding feeling that results. If it fails, I find a need to try harder to "understand" - to figure it out. But, if I do something that I know I can do with my eyes closed then the feeling upon completion is much more subdued and, in fact, disingenuous. This makes me wonder if one is really being creative if there is no risk of failure involved?


tess stieben said...

What is failure? I don't believe I leave thought for such a negative connotation. Things may not progress as I intend yet I find pleasure in finding alternatives when art goes awry, but failure, no such thing. We have learning experiences.

I learned long ago that a piece that may not hold up to personal expectations usually means there is room for growth, challenge and learning. So on that note, there is only success.

Stan Kurth said...

I don't think I look for failure but in retrospect I know many of my failures are a result of both risks I take and don't take. I think risks are a necessary part of my progression. I break a lot of rules and it seems I can't hang out too long on the path of certainty; I move on, albeit sometimes too quickly or not soon enough. My art, like life, is a roller coaster ride.

Nancy Goldman said...

Sometimes, the paintings that I consider to be failures are ones that receive the most positive comments. Because art is so subjective, I imagine this is true for many artists. Now that I'm painting more often, I don't worry as much about failures because I find that trying new ideas and methods is invigorating regardless of the outcome. Also, I usually learn more from my 'failures' than my successes.

Unknown said...

Hi Don - my feelings are very similar to yours on all counts, and I'm always puzzled by the risks I take because I can't objectively evaluate them. Sometimes that's very frustrating. However, it's one of the reasons I continue to enter juried competitions each year - if I get in and/or earn an award then it looks like my risks were good ones. However, I'm also aware of the subjectivity of juried competitions, so I look at the total response of many over time. You ask if one is being creative if no risk of failure is involved and it seems to me to be true. No pain - no gain!

Hi Teresa - I like your positive attitude. The reality for me is that not everything I paint turns out well, but (as you point out) those works are learning experiences. I count them as "failures" only in the sense that they aren't good enough to sell or exhibit. That doesn't mean that I'm a failure, only that the work itself has failed to achieve what I wanted it to accomplish.

Hi Stan - I like the risks you take!!

Hi Nancy - isn't it ironic that some people actually like the works that we artists throw into the discard pile?? As you say, it happens. So, I guess we artists aren't the best judges of our work.

Anonymous said...
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hw (hallie) farber said...

I'm walking--I like the uncertainty.

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Greetings Katharine,

I believe in risk, especially when I come to understand the bases of a technique, when I then want to try something new and possible different.

I have found that when I attended collage last year and given some guidance and made aware of new materials, that I was willing to experiment, taking risks.

I miss school as it opened me up and allowed me to become the artist that was hidden. Now there are too many distractions to be able to focus and create and so fear sets in.

I have had my share of failures, but I look upon them as a success too, because from it I learned and tried again.

Thank you for sharing and wishing you a wonderful day,

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - repeat after me: ohhhhhm, ohhhhhm, ohhhhm ..... We need to find a way to get you to relax, girlfriend! Art can be a blissful journey, too :-)

Hi Hallie - you're definitely a risk-taker in your art, which is a great reward for the rest of us who view it!!

Hi Egmont - finding focus can be very difficult and I understand your struggle. For me, it was a matter of making a firm decision that I'm supposed to occupy my life with making art. But, life does have a way of throwing more immediate problems on our path, and I know you've had your share. I hope that you find enough rewarding moments to engage in your art.

Anonymous said...

I DARE you to make me relax... maybe it's my attitude.... :-)))

Deborah C. Stearns said...

I'm late to the discussion, but this post touches a key issue for me. Risk and the fear of failure is a huge stumbling block in my process. I'm easily bored by repetition, so I want to do new things, but I'm deeply afraid of failure, which is always attendant. (I think the risk of failure is always present in life, not just creativity -- to avoid the risk of failure we would have to do *nothing* at all, which of course means that we would fail to do anything -- again, failure.) What if I ruin it? What if this choice is the wrong one? In theory, I agree with Teresa's framing, that all choices lead to success, in that we either produce good work or learn from our mistakes so that we go on to produce better work. Risk and mistakes are necessary for growth. But it doesn't feel that way when I'm in the middle of it. When that fear of failure becomes too strong, I walk away and stop creating to avoid the possibility that I'll screw it up. So I struggle with this issue; it represents my biggest creative stumbling block. Every once in a while I go back and re-read Art and Fear to try to get a handle on this issue, but I don't have a systematic way of working through it yet.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said Deborah- from the heart.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Thanks, Pam. You seem to experience the anxiety (as I do) -- do you enjoy that buzz, or do you find it unpleasant? I'm risk-avoidant by nature, so the anxiety that goes with danger or risk is not pleasant for me at all. Do you just power through it or do you have a way of reducing the "stomach churning" part of creativity? I've learned all these strategies that are supposed to help, but I haven't figured out how to make them work for me.

Kaylyn Munro said...

I had a major aHah moment when I found a magnet printed in simple black type on a square white ground. It yelled at me from across the store " always make new mistakes". I don't buy magnets with sayings on them. But I walked right across and picked it up and bought it. Changed my life and my perfectionist fear of failure.

Mistakes (failures) are good if we learn from them and quit making the same ones over and over...and over again. So I welcome them and try to recognize when they're actually not mistakes at all but just the right thing breaking out of my thick skull!!

Unknown said...

Hi Kaylyn - I like the magnet and your attitude!!