Bruce Nauman, Bound to Fail, from Eleven Color Photographs, 1967-1970; color photograph;
AP Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
—Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983)
Artists are no strangers to failure. Despite our persistence, we don’t always end up doing what we intended. Somewhere down the line, our initial plans are rendered irrelevant and our designs come undone, scattered by unnamed processes.
It’s not just about waiting for the happy accident. Failure has its rigors. It is not something experienced only by beginners, nor is it something to get past. Failure is a lifelong commitment. As our dedication to failure increases, our understanding of the meaning and value of failure changes. Gradually, we learn to give ourselves over to failure. We come to see that our best works rise from our most profound failures and that by failing utterly and repeatedly, we will stumble into as-yet-unimagined exigencies of work and play, even as we continue to fail.
According to those who are seasoned at failing, failure is not only inevitable but also necessary. We human beings need to fail, and we need to do so often.
Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett’s admonishment to fail better may not resonate with many people. Perhaps it comes out of a twentieth-century moment of urbanity, ferment, rigor, and wit now lost to us. These days, we routinely disavow our failures, ignoring them while in hot pursuit of malformed ideas of success. Failure, of late, is highly underrated.
In reassessing the value of failure, we might consider Princeton computer scientist Ed Felten’s expression “the freedom to tinker,” by which he means the freedom to get under the hood, to learn from mistakes and failures as we play with and modify our work. By embracing our freedom to tinker, we may fully inhabit the experimental, investigative mode-of-being that is kept alive through repeated failures.
And so, the freedom to tinker is predicated on being and feeling free to fail. We must not self-censor from a sense of shame and decorum or from fear of legal repercussions. In being free to fail, we exercise a certain right to free expression that many of us have come to take for granted.
Recently, while thinking about the freedom to fail, I came across an article in Blouin Art Info about the emerging Brooklyn artist Lauren Clay and the complaint leveled at her by the estate of Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith (1906–1965):