I stole this slogan from Mythbusters, and it applies to pretty much the entirety of life, not just science and not just art. Sometimes, the best plans and the most professional presentation you can muster just aren’t enough. Nobody shows up to your event. Your artwork does not sell. A judge gives you a 1.3 for your poem. 1.3! That happened to me once. The fact that failure is a possibility should not dissuade you from attempting something. Nobody ever did anything truly great without the very real possibility of falling flat on their face.
On a small scale, this applies to making changes to a given artwork. If you are working on a drawing and don’t want to make a needed change because you are afraid that you might mess up the whole thing, the whole drawing will suffer as a result. Poems that you can’t bear to edit even though they are too long or don’t communicate your idea clearly won’t do anything but stay mediocre unless you do something to change it.
Great artists take risks and great artists fail. It’s a fact of progress, and there’s no use being afraid of it. In my experience the anticipation of failure is more gut-wrenching than the failure itself.
Of course, sometimes failures scuttle careers. In April, I wrote a blog entry about how Daniel Tosh is Important. I argued that his satire is more cutting and critical than the dick-jokes and racism it seems to be perpetuating, and I stand by what I wrote. Tosh now finds himself on the wrong end of the ire of many, especially feminists, after responding to a heckler during a comedy show with a “joke” about the heckler being gang-raped.
From what I understand of the incident, Tosh had been making a point about how there are terrible things in the world, but that doesn’t mean nobody should make jokes about them. When the woman called out that “rape jokes are never funny,” he responded in a satirical attempt to exaggerate his own stance by cracking that it would be funny if she were raped by five members of the audience right then and there.
His response was a failure. It did not effectively satirize mindless rape jokes, nor did it satirize knee-jerk indignation regarding humor with violence as its genesis. Because this one response failed, the entirety of Tosh’s body of work comes into question—is he really just as bad as the horrible “comics” who respond to the Tosh.0 blog posts?
A similar thing happened to Michael Richards in 2006 and public opinion of him still hasn’t recovered. In 2011, I posted a vitriolic critique of university art education on Facebook. I am no longer a professor.
My purpose is to illustrate that even big-time celebrities fail. Whether I defend or vilify Daniel Tosh, he is still important. What more are we seeking as artists? Whatever the risks you may take as an artist, the fear of failure shouldn’t stop you from taking them. Public opinion is something to pay attention to and try to manage as a professional artist, but to attempt to cater to it is not the answer. After all, if what you’re saying doesn’t make your voice shake, is it really worth saying?
For a response to the Daniel Tosh incident, please read this remarkable post by Lindy West: How to Make a Rape Joke.