A friend asked me to write an essay for her website and I happily obliged! The project she is engaged in is absolutely worth exploring. Having confronted failure in her own work, and seen the impediment it can be for all creative ventures, she decided she could help create a discussion and sense of community around the idea of failure and so strengthen our resolve in its face. She has asked artists to share their stories of failure to help remind us that above all it is something we survive and grow from. Because, sometimes we DO need that reminder.

Check out her website. This is the essay I wrote for it:


As if things are not hard enough on artists, as if they were not already tormented within sight of (if not exceeding) their breaking point……

The idea of ‘failure’ for artists is a sometimes overwhelming part of our lives and it can paralyze even the bravest among us. We can be crippled by self doubt, crushed by falling short, and otherwise hamstrung by not ‘measuring up’. Failure is notorious for artists. The ‘bad’ angel perched on our shoulder. It only sulks back into silent darkness amidst our great triumphs. And only then with a vengeful appetite to reclaim its lost hold on us, to resume whispering its insidious deflating innuendo….

Failure walks by our side at every stage. One small misstep or stumble in the wrong direction and our gift to the world is on life support. Often terminal, but always damaged. ‘Success’ hangs by the slightest of slender threads…..

Or that’s how it can seem at times.

But I also think ‘failure’ is too often very poorly understood: What’s not confusing about it? When it strikes we can go numb or sink in despair. It rarely brings out the best in us, and our rational sense-making can crumple in its presence. Sometimes our anger in facing it down is our only survival skill. So why would we think something this calamitous is necessarily that easy to get a handle on? We shrink from failure as we shirk this very question.


I believe there are at least two areas of failure that need better exploring, and both are matters of our judgement. One aspect of failure we should address is how we measure failure, and another is what consequences failure necessarily has. Failure is something that happens to us, so how does it happen, and why does it leave what it leaves in its wake? Are we simply the victims here? Or, is there some part of this that can be made to put the ‘enemy’ on its own back foot? Are we creative enough to figure this out? Can we ‘lose’ the battle but win the war? And even win the battle but lose the war….?

First off, to measure failure implies that there was something aimed at, something against which our efforts are weighed. Failure requires a thing, a standard, that our efforts did not measure up to. There is no failure in isolation. Failure only happens against a background of the criteria for ‘success’. Our work is not a failure in itself, only in relation to something else: The measure of our failure. Our stereoscopic vision is challenged to see our art not just for what it IS but for what we want it to be.

So how is failure measured? What is its measure? Is this the same for everything? Or are there diverse measure and unique ways in which failure can be assessed? For that matter, is failure necessarily ‘absolute’? Are there degrees? If a work aims at more than one thing, does well in most of them, by what means do we determine its success? All or nothing? Better than 85%? Simply the ‘most important’ thing we aimed at? Doesn’t it depend?

Complete failure is so rare as to be more myth than reality or so narrowly defined as to miss the larger point. It’s the boogeyman hiding in the closet. But we are often trained to accept only ‘the best’ from ourselves, and the intimidation of ‘failing’ can contort our sense of proportion. Any ‘failure’ becomes mythological, in a sense. It can make us resent our work and hide any but the chosen few results unscarred by failure. We sometimes lock them away or destroy them outright. Too damaged to be allowed to live in this world…..

In some cultures they put the sick and malformed babies out to die, as if the nature of their weight would drag the rest down with it…. Our creative offspring are at the mercy of terrible forces, unforgiving and stone-hearted judges. We have not learned well how to love our failures…. We do not often accept them into polite company. Our artistic failures are orphans if they can escape us…..

Which is why this project being put together by Christine Leoff-Dawson is so interesting, ambitious, and potentially important. There is no hiding that artists are rough on their failures. Sometimes we have good reasons, but more often it is a culture of responding to failure that throws each failure on the scrap-heap. We must unlearn these habits of mind, learn to place each ‘failure’ in its proper context, find what we can that IS worth loving, and together grow what can be grown from not simply the best of the seeds we have sown. We need to be better than the angry archaic gods smiting their disobedient children.

Because the truth is that our own judgment is suspect. What we like today we may dislike tomorrow. What ‘failed’ yesterday may surprise us later. If we are the gods casting judgment, we are not reliable in any permanent sense.

And we can’t even rely on being understood by our audience. It is a considerable miracle when anything we do gets understood the way we intended it. Art is a language we invent as we go, and as such communicates to an audience by the appearance of familiarity more than the grasping of essentials. The common ground of actual communication is mostly lacking. At best we have an apparent ground, and the audience likes or does not like what you do for their own considered reasons. Not yours, in any sense. Except, perhaps, in very rare circumstances……

New art simply does not have the cultural foundation to make sense widely. It cannot say what it means (the ‘words’ are lacking), and so it must show what it intends. The audience must grasp it in unfamiliar hands, apply the standard tools of judgment on this strange nonconformity. And the more our art diverges from their expectations the more we challenge an audience to go beyond their own limits. Expression and impression are more likely than anything that qualifies as ‘communication’…..

The only conclusion seems to be that ‘failure’ is a useful fiction and a temporary designation. There is no one standpoint which confirms it for all time. Neither the audience is specifically entitled to judge, nor are we the artists in an objective or fair-minded place for it. At worst failure is a dead end in our process, and the choice for that usually depends on us. We take things no further. We back away. At best failure is simply the stepping stone to our next destination, itself the stepping stone to further explorations. And yes, that step can even be a backwards one 🙂

Failed art is part of our own story, and we can play it as a tragedy, a comedy, or a thrilling adventure. There are elements of all those things if we see in the proper light. But the story itself is important. If we frame it right the failed art actually IS a comedy, it IS a thrilling adventure…. We too often lack the imagination to see it as more than a tragedy, but that is on us. And the question we are left with is “Did the art fail us, or did we fail the art?”

If we hope to do better there seems only one response worth giving:

Lock your shame in the closet and put your ‘Failed art’ up for exhibition!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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2 Responses to failure

  1. Tony Clennell says:

    Awesome Carter. T

  2. Thank you sooo much for your support and the mention 🙂

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