In our society, we associate negative opinions and emotions with failure. In truth, failure is a significant ‘teachable moment’ that allows us to become more critical and creative in dealing with a variety of life’s issues.
Failure in the arts can equate to a piece of art being destroyed or distorted during the artistic process, or getting a rejection notice from a museum or gallery. In the examples to follow, artists learned to turn rejection and the physical manipulation of work into new and empowering ideas.
Contemporary art editor and writer Casey Lesser, recently published an article for Artsy about how working with ceramics teaches us to utilize failure as a tool for being flexible and overcoming challenges. Because ceramics is a labor intensive medium, there are a lot of physical things that can go awry, such as a clay breaking in the kiln or being dropped in the floor right after it was fired. There is even an Instagram account devoted to ‘ceramic casualties’.
It is almost inevitable that ceramic artists will experience physical mishaps during their engagement with clay. Ceramic artists become aware of clay’s affordances and the potential for physical accidents, and learn techniques and skills to minimize these effects. However, working to ensure that everything goes smoothly all the time can become stale and monotonous. Taking risks, albeit opening oneself up for failure, is what excites many of the artists mentioned in the article and enables them to grow artistically. For example, artist Matt Wedel says that “it felt so good not to know the outcome again; everything was new and exciting. My work now is a constant unraveling of what I know and how I make. It is about a constant evolution, and failure is a good indicator of whether or not I am moving forward” (Lesser, 2018).
Arlene Rush‘s series Silver Lining (2018) focuses on transforming the social and emotional aspects of failure by turning rejection letters into new material for art making. The works of art began as a way of archiving her career and investigating the trials of being a professional artist in an increasingly commercialized, competitive and niche art world. Each individual artwork takes its title from the institution that sent her a letter of rejection. Rush embellished the letters with silver leaf, symbolizing the idea of finding a ‘silver lining’ to the difficulties of rejection. She states “in considering my own evolution, I began to see the things as more than an accumulation of objects. I found they raised questions about the nature and importance of being an artist.”
Silver Lining is part of a larger series of work titled Evidence Of Being, which explores and offers insightful responses to the fraught and political nature of the art world. Issues such as the difficulty women artists or artists without an MFA face getting their work shown are expounded upon in a symbolic manner through artworks and installations such as Sorry to inform you… (2015-16).
Rejections from galleries became critical assessments for Rush, who is confident in embracing the ambiguous and problematic elements of her artistic practice. She utilized surplus materials that signified failure, and transformed them into contemplative works of art that realize rejection is an element within the cycle for self development. It is inspiring to see how Rush doesn’t allow defeat to define her. She uses both subtle and bold aesthetic expressions to communicate that there’s always a silver lining, such as self discovery, personal growth and resilience to try new things in the face of failure. Overall, Rush has been successful in Turning Lemons into Lemonade (2016).
Learning to turn mistakes or unsuccessful results into works of creativity is the crux of art education. If you have ever watched Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, you will know that his philosophical mantra is ‘happy accidents’ make for new discoveries and insights. Perhaps something didn’t go as planned, however in the process of ‘failure,’ something completely revelatory arose that opened up new avenues and perspectives that were even more desirable than the initial plan. The pedagogy of failure is a highly practical methodology for the advancement of social, emotional and cognitive development.
In the classroom, it is best to set open-ended, inquiry-based ‘aims’ rather than goals when introducing a unit or project. Aims are more flexible than goals because the focus is on the learning and doing that leads an individual or collective towards the goal. Since goals are often set prior to the activity, it can stifle the process because it makes you think about the end result without a sense of the actual steps needed to get there. Aims allow for experiential learning because they can shift as needed throughout the process in order to achieve the goal.
Additionally, asking questions at the beginning of a project instead of making overarching statements, helps to facilitate the procedure for learning and doing, because students will come up with responses that make learning personal and give them agency to direct the acquisition of knowledge.
Most importantly, student and teacher responses to failure should be re-presented as moments for deep reflection and new collaborative learning moments. Failure helps us to scaffold important steps, procedures and reflections, which enable our minds to be flexible in dealing with uncertainty and frustration.
Failure should not be a quantitative data set that measures whether we pass or fail, but rather a qualitative assessment of why something didn’t work out and how we can work through it to achieve a more effective outcome. Persistence through failure often attributes to success if the reasons for undesired results are assessed, and the new knowledge gained from this reflection leads to innovative and alternative approaches to the initial problem/objective.
The hands-on and experiential nature of art is a great avenue for working through failure and creating deeply symbolic and innovative perspectives in the process. So embrace those happy accidents and remember that artists turn mistakes into art.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Lesser, Casey. “Why Ceramic Artists Are so Good at Dealing With Failure.” Artsy. 9 Jan. 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-ceramic-artists-good-dealing-failure