Failure is considered to be the golden calf of art history. SCHIRN MAGAZINE devotes itself to the many variations of professional failure –precisely in the art business, too.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” This quote by author Samuel Beckett, which has long advanced to postcard fame, expresses how closely art and failure are apparently connected: As with the sciences, the art process is also seen as a kind of experimentation that works according to the trial and error principle.

However, this says nothing about the categories of failure: Is it our own expectations, those of the outside world or both? Simultaneously, Beckett formulates his belief in some sort of progress: fail again, fail better. Yet it remains open, whether he means artistic progress, a favored interpretation and which would in turn presuppose his belief that it is possible to talk objectively of good and bad art). Or does it not perhaps mean precisely the opposite: failing more comprehensively, as a more radical, more terrible failure with greater consequences.

All those in the treadmill

The notion of the failed artist is a romantic one, even though like many exaggerations it does contain a grain of truth: it reveals the longing for someone who can stand outside social conventions and consequently is not only allowed to fail, but very definitely should – on behalf of all those who remain in the treadmill. The state of permanent failure is viewed as an inherent quality of an artist’s existence per se, and both expresses the ambivalent admiration accorded by others, but equally serves to describe how artists define themselves.

Needless to say, there is no underestimating the creative and liberal potential of non-achievement, nonobservance – that said, failure also implies that initially at least an attempt was made to subordinate oneself and one’s actions to conventions, goals and the general situation.

Failing successfully on the market

Art historian Susana S Martins describes how paradoxes can arise from this omnipresent concept of failure in her essay “Failure as Art and Art History as Failure”: bad art, which intends to be bad (you need only think of the “bad paintings” by Kippenberger et al) cannot be said to have failed, but on the contrary is highly successful if judged by bad art’s own categories (and, incidentally, fairly often on the art market, too. The same can be said for most of the works on display 2013 in the Hamburger Kunsthalle in the show “Fail Better”.

Writing in the “Zeit” in August Annette Weisser proclaimed that failure was no longer a model for artists to base their lives on. Her theory was that today nobody could afford true failure any more, and that the achievement principle counted more than ever – also for autonomous arts, although Weisser suggested that in an age characterized by the ever-ready, poised for action virtual substitute self, failure no longer played such a great role anyhow.

Bruce Nauman fails

In various performances and film works Bruce Nauman explored the experience that for the artist themselves an artwork seldom feels like success: In the 1960s he filmed himself in the studio trying to fulfil tasks he set himself only to get annoyed and frustrated and exhausted as a result of his failure. “Failing to Levitate in the Studio” contains in its title the impossibility of succeeding in the given project, namely levitating in the studio. Nauman said that it might feel good having achieved something, but that you do not experience a longer sense of satisfaction or relaxation. If you switch from intense introspection to the objective view of an onlooker, then the former did not fail in the true sense, since failure was the very precondition for the work (which has long since been copied many times and served as a source of inspiration in an adapted form).

Failing financially and ...

For all the transfiguration of failure it most certainly has the potential to destroy entire lives – above all in financial terms: The list of projects worth millions that could not ultimately be realized, blockbusters that costs 10 times as much as they actually made or of vaporware, which was truly hyped but never made it to the market is long indeed. And the one or other video-gamer is still waiting for the console promised back in 2004 by gaming on demand – its name: Phantom.

Failure as a show

It might not have raised failure to a work of art, but it did elevate it to sophisticated entertainment: “Die Show des Scheiterns” (The Show of Failures). Originally established 2002 as a stage show in Berlin, the idea of celebrating losers and their failed projects transformed into a TV show in 2011. However, for entertainment purposes the producers gave the definition a liberal interpretation: a favorite ploy was to feature illegal activities involving a great deal of creative imagination, but which then went belly up.

Failure as the ultimate self-marketing

There is hardly a negative experience, which does not have some benefit and can be given a different interpretation according to the notions of positive thinking: there is hardly a self-help book on creativity or life in general which does not seek to demonstrate to its readers the huge potential of failure, which in its romantic interpretation also plays a role in the visual arts (see above). Here is just a small section of the German books on failure: Scheitern als Chance, Scheitern als Weg; Vom Glück des Scheiterns, and naturally, we would not want to forget art: Die Kunst des Scheiterns, Die Kunst des spielerischen Scheiterns und jene des erfolgreichen Scheiterns; Von der Kunst, hemmungslos zu scheitern; Scheitern, na und?, Geschichten vom schönen Scheitern (in this case not a self-help book but the subtitle of a novel by Kathrin Bauerfeind).

Look at books meant to encourage self-help in your life or career and you find titles like “Why Success Always Starts With Failure” or, somewhat longer “Ultimate Success Program” (Lesson 14) - “How to use what others call failure as your ticket to astounding success” competing for the favor of potential readers. But you also find counter titles: “Scheitern ist okay, nicht scheitern ist okayer” (Failing Is Okay Not Failing Is More Okay) by Stefan Dörsing and Olivier Kleiner, for example, seems to at least convey a sense that failing in the true sense of the word is not necessarily a matter that should be taken lightly.