Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Need for Affordable Failure

There's a scene in the Coen Brother's new film "Inside Llewyn Davis," where the protagonist, the struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis, is talking with his sister about a box of belongings she had cleared out of their parents' house after their mother passed away and their father entered a nursing home. In the box was an early record Llewyn had cut and given to his parents as a present. His sister said he should release the record...that his parents always loved that song. Llewyn responded that the industry doesn't like recording artists to put their lesser works out there: it ruins the mystique.

That notion stuck with me in a narrative full of life choices based on a perception of personal failure. Our friend Will, whom we saw the film with, saw the ending (where Bob Dylan makes his West Village debut and the rest, as they say, is history) as a beacon of hope for struggling artists who are perhaps ahead of their time. Hang tough and the world will catch up. I saw it more as a cautionary tale against reading too much into this or that personal disappointment, keep your eye on the long-term goals, which may essentially be the same takeaway Will had.

I also, though, saw it as an acknowledgement that within any creative field, as the disclaimer goes for lottery-type contests: "many will enter, few will win." And that's OK. If you don't love the playing for its own sake, you're not in the right game for you anyway.

Having said all that, though, I've been thinking a lot lately about being able to afford to fail. What I mean by that specifically, is that at a certain point in any creative industry the stakes become so high (the investments needed to try this or that are so significant, the pressure to succeed so great), that the kinds of risks that might make all the difference in pushing some "good" work into the "great" realm often seem too risky, and so "play it safe" dictates more and more of the decision making.

If our goal is greatness or meaningful accomplishment or even merely real innovation, though, this line of thinking is ass-backwards. Moreover, so much of what drives this line of thinking is merely perception and impatience (as if we expected masterstrokes should come along on a daily basis in our lives).

I was recently reading an article in The New York Times about the education industry's perception that MOOCs are a flop (stay with me here):

Two years after a Stanford professor drew 160,000 students from around the globe to a free online course on artificial intelligence, starting what was widely viewed as a revolution in higher education, early results for such large-scale courses are disappointing, forcing a rethinking of how college instruction can best use the Internet.

A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.
One of the architects of the Stanford experiment, artificial-intelligence professor Sebastian Thrun, became the poster boy for the sense that MOOCs had crashed and burned. And yet, Thrun responded with perhaps the most sensible thing I've heard anyone attempting to change things say in years:
“To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works,” he wrote on his blog. “Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement. ”
What I took away from that common sense assessment, though (and clearly, Thrun is right...many of the best innovations in the world took years of trial and error), is that we simply must build in room to fail at some of these attempts. And not just build in time to fail, but build in other resources as well. Failure...inevitable failure...must be affordable. The notion that everything someone puts out there in the world must be perfect from the get-go only serves to stymie innovation.

And this needs to be the case up and down the ladder in creative industries. Our best minds can't be pressured into increasingly playing it safe, because the stakes are so high. Not if we expect them to really make a difference. Failure is simply part of the process. And for those of us watching and waiting, so too is patience.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fortune cookie say . "The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed."

12/17/2013 10:30:00 AM  
Anonymous markcreegan said...

As an art professor and artist I can really relate to these ideas. The majority of my students are really afraid of failure because of various external and internal pressures. Conveying that artmaking is always a process of failure is one of the most difficult concepts I try to pass on to them.
I am also conceptually linking this post to recent articles by Coco Fusco and Jerry Saltz about the cost of grad school. Basically Saltz pointing out that unless you are rich, don't get an MFA. With the debt burden, the pressure to get the perfectly developed, mature practice right out the gate becomes overwhelming.

12/17/2013 10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An artist ten years my senior gave me some great advice at one time. Failure, and the wasted materials and time that come with it, should simply be factored in to overall costs of production, and be deducted at the end of the year with all other expenses.

That summed up perfectly (for me anyway) the ongoing failure that is always part of my studio practice. It certainly does not make failure easier but perhaps less emotional.

12/17/2013 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger Urban Earthen said...

Great post, the last sentence resonated with me, " And for those of us watching and waiting, so too is patience." I think it is our impatience for perfect consumption that is driving mediocrity. We expect too much quick innovation from artists an iphones alike.

12/17/2013 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous jason lujan said...

i think the secondary market has largely relieved artists of the risk of failure. as long as auction prices are high for one body of work, later work tends to be propped up by the system, too.

also, for those who have moved forward enough, no one is actually buying the work itself, but rather the artist brand: "I own a Blachly," rather than, "I own a small abstract painting mostly grey with some green on top."

12/17/2013 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Mel Smothers said...

It is validating to know that higher thinkers know the creative process well enough to write about it, and its there for the creative types to dig out and discover. Perhaps giving an artist a few more years of the stuggle.
The light at the end of the tunnel sometimes burns a little brighter.

12/17/2013 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger B & H said...

with all the hype around desktop 3d printing - this fact - of making failure affordable is usually lost. whether your are an aerospace engineer or a hacker in the basement cheap 3d printing enables you to draft and iterate through a series of ideas quickly and without any significant material cost. so in this sense 3d printers are actual time machines - they reduce the time from ideation to viable product significantly and in some cases they are able to make the product itself.

12/18/2013 01:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought this was what sketchbooks were for? You try out ideas in them before you commit the, time, materials and energy to a "finished" piece.

Did I miss a memo?

12/18/2013 10:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

so true,

I believe that this is the essence of art's value - it offers a means of trying out a paradigm without having to first commit yourself to the paradigm. Kind of let's us examine ourselves as if we were an other. Pushes the risk of the embodied paradigm to within the boundaries of the picture frame.

Art's a bit like play in this way, it allows us to take risks without incurring the consequences - such a an evolutionary social advantage!

the patience part is pertinent for all of us.

12/18/2013 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

@ Anonymous: "Did I miss a memo?"

I think you may have missed a couple, actually.

The scenario this most directly correlates to in the art world (and which has been raising quite a bit of chatter lately) is when a really interesting artist who gets swept up into a large, high-profile gallery with more space than they're used to filling for an exhibition, produces a show that feels too "safe" to the people who championed or were impressed by his/her work when they were at a lower level of the gallery ladder. The general sense is that they (or they plus others involved in the production of the exhibition) choked or consciously decided to "play it safe" (rather than take the kind of risks that had brought them critical attention in the first place) because the stakes were too high to do otherwise.

12/18/2013 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

Good post Edward. I'm reminded of an earlier post about collectors wisely 'watching' an artist for a few shows before deciding to collect them.

I understand the Rubells were even circumspect about collecting Rauch for some time, watching to see how he would develop initial scratchy insights. Unless you're someone like Saatchi and can afford to change you mind AFTER you've collected an artist, it seems only prudent and practical to just watch before you commit.

It's true in most things I think. :)

12/20/2013 10:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Probably some of the greatest video clips regarding this issue



Nice post, lots to think about with much of it bound to be unresolved over the lifetimes of countless artists.

12/23/2013 04:07:00 PM  

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