Failure is Always an Option

15 07 2012

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.

This guy does not take a lot of artistic risks.

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.


Presentation is Everything

15 07 2012

While I spend a great deal of time and effort in this blog proclaiming the values of thinking about art as an integral part of everyday life, I am well aware that the products of art are commodities and if a person is going to live an “everyday life” as an artist, that person is going to need to have some level of monetary success result from those commodities.  Like anything else, art has real, monetary value—despite the notion that works of art are “priceless.”

However, artists trained in the Modernist mindset to make art for art’s sake inevitably have some level of resistance to looking at art as a business.  Like the relationship between art and society, each decision that an artist makes about his art—how to create it, how to display it, and how to (or not to) profit from it—is also the artwork.

I have written about the danger in thinking about art as something that exists outside of society.  In doing so, we are thinking about art as something that is not essential, trivial, and easy to marginalize.  If we expect to make our living as artists, we need to present what we do as something that is both necessary and of monetary value.  Nobody questions Apple for charging money for iPods.  It has presented the product to us as a valuable and necessary part of our lives, and we are prepared to pay handily for it.

Charge money for your art.  In The Dark Knight, the Joker says something to the effect of, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  Don’t give away your artwork, don’t hold events that ask for nothing at the door.  Your work is important and the person who is consuming it should be prepared to compensate you for your time, effort, and skill.

Of course, market forces apply here.  You may not be able to charge $1.5 million for a painting just because you feel like it’s worth that.  A poet’s chapbook is not going to sell for much more than five dollars, and you won’t be able to charge $45 at the door for a rock show in a dive bar unless your name is Mick Jagger.  But $5 is $5, and art patrons need to get used to the idea that art is something that costs real money so it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to have their tax dollars go to the NEA to support artists.

The road goes both ways.  As an artist, spend money on art.  Pony up the $5 to see your friend’s open mic performance, even if they say they’ll get you in for free.  Put a couple bucks in the donation jar as it’s passed around, even if you’re performing and trying to win some of that money back at a slam.  Buy (don’t trade) the work of other artists; even your friends, even if it’s expensive.  This is how economies work.  If cash isn’t circulating, it isn’t doing anybody any good.

If you are charging money for an artwork or for an event, present it like it is worth money.  Hang your artwork properly.  Make sure it is lit well, that the wall is relatively blemish-free, that the painting is dry (even though people aren’t supposed to touch the art, they touch the art—don’t give away souveniers of paint on fingers).  If you are producing a performance event, make sure your PA system is set up and working before the doors open, have the chairs arranged how you want them… START THE EVENT ON TIME.  If you want people to value your work, you should value their time.  Respect your audience.

Patrons aren’t the only people involved in an art event.  There are also other artists, venue owners, and journalists if you’re lucky.  Treat these people with respect as well.  Buy a drink from the bar.  If the bartender buys it for you, leave the bartender a tip.  Look at and discuss the work with the other artists in your exhibition.  Stay for and listen to other performers in your event, even if you go first.  Especially if you go first.  If you are a performer, leaving a concert, open mic, poetry slam, or play in which you are involved before it is over is the height of rudeness.  (Of course there are exceptions, but at the very least you should explain why you are leaving to an organizer and apologize—even if you don’t mean it).

Steve Buscemi’s character is the only one who maintains professionalism in Reservoir Dogs. He’s also the only one who makes it out alive.

By making a livelihood out of being an artist, you are positioning yourself as a professional.  Act like one.  Professionals don’t have to be boring, they don’t have to be stuffy, they don’t have to be snobs and wear cravats.  A professional conducts himself with the same respect for others that he expects from them.

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