marcus westbury

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In Praise of Failure

January 25th, 2010 by marcus

Success is overrated. Take risks, be experimental, try failing creatively.

ONE of the things I’m hoping for more of in the arts this decade is failure.

No, I’m not wishing that the nation’s artists and arts companies spend the coming years slipping into decline, bankruptcy and despair.

I’m just hoping that they will find ways to take the kinds of creative risks that don’t always come off.

The kind of failure that I’m talking about is not the opposite of success but the kind that is intrinsically bound up in it.

It is one where the alternative is not success but risk aversion, low expectations and predictability.

It is a kind of failure that is actually a prerequisite for innovation in creative life – and most other areas of life for that matter.

It is part of the process of challenging yourself and those around you to try to do something a little different.

I know the only reason I’ve ended up any good at anything is through making mistakes and being reasonably good at not repeating them. It is failing and applying the lessons learnt that allow us to refine our ideas, experiment and innovate.

I’m particularly reminded that failure is important at this time of year because the commercial world is shoving it in our faces around now. Half the much-hyped TV shows starting over the coming month aren’t destined to see out the season. They will be unceremoniously axed or forced to run after midnight (or on the new digital channel graveyard) if the ratings don’t support them. The perpetually shunted local histories of the likes of The Sopranos, The West Wing and The Wire on Australian TV have demonstrated that being bumped in this way is hardly a sign of poor product. Hey Hey It’s Saturday on the other hand . . .

For every Avatar or mediocre Boxing Day blockbuster there are a dozen films that bomb at the box office and a hundred more that struggle straight to cable or on to video.

For every hit record there are a hundred that won’t make their money back. This is how culture moves forward. Failure in a commercial sense is very different from failure in a creative one.

Inevitably, much of the “failed” work will inspire a small but loyal audience and some will inspire and resonate long after the blockbusters are forgotten. Give me inspired flawed creative failures over lacklustre blockbusters any day.

Things aren’t so simple in the arts world.

Most of our publicly funded organisations and institutions would find it impossible to sustain anything like the failure rate that the commercial cultural world takes for granted. Competing claims for the public purse make it difficult to justify things that are complex and unpredictable. Risk-averse politics make it hard to justify resourcing failure, tight financial margins mean they often can’t afford it, and it is almost impossible to distinguish between types of failure.

Failing  from attempting to try something new, trying to challenge or reach a new audience, or long-term repositioning  is indistinguishable from mismanagement or a growing series of self-indulgent duds.

Public subsidy can also simply entrench the wrong kind of failure. It can create a culture of subsidised mediocrity and low expectations of success. The Australian film industry seems to revel in demonstrating that it is possible to fail repeatedly without it leading to innovation or evolution from applying the lessons of the experience.

Our failure at productive failure is not all the artists’, administrators’ or risk-averse managers’ fault. We in the media aren’t usually renowned for our sympathy either.

When a gallery puts on an exhibition that is panned and poorly attended, or when a theatre company puts forward a show that few see and even fewer would ever recommend, it is rare to see a review that contextualises the value of experimentation.

Yet where culture will truly flourish is when it has strategies for failure and risk. One of the great paradoxes of the arts is that you can take more risks with fewer resources. Part of this is simply about creating spaces for experimentation. It is encouraging to see that some larger institutions such as the Arts Centre in Melbourne and the Opera House and Belvoir Street in Sydney create spaces in their programs that allow for lower budgets, failure and innovation.

Here’s hoping that 2010 and beyond will be an era of fruitful failure and flawed experimentation. May we all find the courage to try ideas that may not quite come off.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Made By Heath Killen » #2 Jan 25, 2010 at 8:26 am

    […] to extend a big thank you to Marcus Westbury for his feature on the ABC Arts blog. There’s a great article on Marcus’s blog about cultural and artistic risk taking that’s definitely worth […]

  • 2 Alison Croggon Jan 25, 2010 at 9:42 am

    You know that story of Botho Strauss being asked what German theatre needed right now? “What we need,” he said, “Is more bad plays.” I think he meant what you’re saying here.

    As a friend of mine says all the time, success teaches you nothing.

  • 3 john Jan 25, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Nobody ever gets ‘there’ and if you did: Matisse “you would have to create some new set of difficulties ”
    Issac Babel’s words to the academy of his day:
    “Comrades we have lost an important freedom, the freedom to write badly”

    There is only one true sort of failure in art, boredom.

  • 4 Another Artist Jan 25, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    There is nothing to do and there is nowhere to go
    There is nothing to be and there is no-one to know
    – Thomas Ligotti

  • 5 ankown soldier Jan 27, 2010 at 10:08 am

    As a young artist maybe failing isn’t something i get over easily but what Helen Louis Mencken said “for every problem, there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong” definitely he was right ,the thing is that ,we must understand that is not about failure but is about experimenting with your knowledge,dreams,desires and goals that would lead you to find an intrinsic success which is not about recognition and money. “Since the art got for sale ,succession is a discount “

  • 6 Merle Hathaway Feb 10, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Hear hear! Should be obligatory reading for all funding and government bodies.

    Sad though when you consider Melbourne’s City Museum – a public gallery that took risks; it curated quirky exhibitions fusing social, historical and arts content. It’s being closed soon, apparently to make way for more weddings and occasional exhibitions of facsimile documents!

  • 7 Robbie Feb 15, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Yes “failure’ should be built into every endevour. I tend to accept failure every Monday morning. Seems to go well with a cup of coffee!