Yesterday, the Department of Visual Studies hosted a conference on failure in the arts and failure as a part of artistic practice. While I think there are a number of crucial, interesting topics to be discussed under this general rubric, I don’t think the presenters succeeded (ahem?) in bringing them to light, or turning a critical eye to the way they regard success and failure. By this I mean — all the presenters are situated in a certain relation to others in the academy or professionally; and all the presenters are positioned in other privileged positions. Interestingly, their bios did not outline in detail the ways in which they have failed in the past, but rather their successes — why we should listen to them as voices of authority, but perhaps not voices of authority on the topic of failure.

I think one of the things most confusing to the folks I was sitting with during the conference was the complete absence of any discussion about failures that are ultimate, that you cannot get up from and dust yourself off from, or that deal you the sort of blow that makes things impossibly difficult for you. As graduate students working on MFAs, trying to figure out what to do with them going forward, it’s actually kind of offensive to suggest that all failures are things we can get up from. There is a certain threat of failure from which we are acutely aware that either we cannot recover from, or a recovery might require more effort and resources than would be a change of course entirely. While I am sure the latter kind of failure would teach me something, I can’t say that the former kind of failure offers too many opportunities for learning.

When keynote speaker Karen Lewis responded to a question about the punitive nature of the grading system, she dismissed the idea that failing grades cannot be recovered from, or learned from. I take issue with this idea for several reasons, especially in the discussion of nurturing creative practice. First, regardless of the program’s roots in the arts, graduates may still need to furnish GPAs and transcripts when applying to further education. Second, punitive action as an outgrowth of this kind of failure might come from a number of quarters — parents, the government (in the form of scholarship withdrawal), or the school (in the case of academic probation). Third, a grading system is tied to a rigid temporal structure — the idea of failing-to-learn requires a more open-ended time scale, where the student/failer is allowed second, third, or fourth chances. On a rigid time structure, we are required to output something in the three to four months of a semester. Whether or not we like to admit it, I have never been in a class that focuses on a creative practice that rewarded students solely on innovative idea.

I also thought in further depth about what would happen were I to fail spectacularly — what would happen if I lost my TAship and was kicked out of school. For one thing, it would be unlikely that I would ever be able to return to academic life, at least not on the level I am currently functioning. For another, I would lose a number of critical life things — health insurance and a reliable income the foremost among these. For many people, myself included, the loss of health insurance is more than just annoying, inconvenient, expensive and frightening. It’s damn near a death sentence. Paying for the medical attention I receive on a monthly basis would be prohibitively expensive. On top of the crushing ego blow this would represent, I would have to tackle my healthcare alone. Which is to say nothing of the fact the government would start coming after me about my loans.

But let’s make this even more extreme. As far as the grand scheme goes, I’m pretty privileged. I can say that I do have that income and health insurance in the first place. But what about the people out there whose alternatives are actually success or death? You can’t say that they will learn anything from their failures. I’m not trying to be facetious, I’m very serious — you don’t learn from that which kills you, literally. If you’re struggling to put food in your mouth or keep a roof over your head, there is much less latitude for maneuvering. We should also dismiss out of hand that these sorts of at-risk individuals are not engaged in an artistic practice, either — on the contrary, many of them are, and it’s easy for privileged folks in the art-academy to miss that.

I can’t begin to express how angry this made me. To suggest that a failure that can kill me — or someone I care about — is something that should be embraced as part of an artistic practice that is driven by something other than a capitalist ethic of success is simply ludicrous. It’s like saying that poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough. It’s like saying the only true revolutionaries are the intellectuals who have the time and comfort to contemplate issues of liberation from their libraries and classrooms. It just doesn’t work.

Epic fail.