Tag Archives: John Berger

Failure in the arts

Consider John Berger’s book Success and Failure of Picasso; you don’t have to have read it. The title is enough. Obviously, Picasso was one of the greatest artists of all time, but the failure of Picasso? Yes, the failure of Picasso, John Berger, the best art critic in my lifetime, wrote a book about the failure of Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, Femme au mouchoir, 1938

All artists will be failures; some will even be magnificent failures. For more on this subject read Adam Zucker on Artfully Failing (probably the inspiration for this post). Jane O’Sullivan in Piecework has a long list of comments from contemporary artists and writers about their failures.  Or my review of “Imperfections” at Trocadero Art Space, an exhibition of imperfect paintings by some of Melbourne’s best contemporary artists. 

(Of course, your art might feel like a failure. If it felt like a success, you would be so shallow. So shallow that I could not be bothered SHOUTING at you!! So to every artists who has felt a sting from my blog posts. This is like the Mafia; it is just business, it is not personal. This is just the business of an art critic. I am your drill sergeant of criticism.)

You knew this from the start, but if you hadn’t tried, you would have regretted it more. Visual arts teaches people about the learning experience of failure. It reminds us that we will all fail. It is the opposite of maths; there is no correct answer. Nothing will ever be the right answer. All there are is attempts at solutions.

(Your job as an artist is to heal the world with art, that is a success, anything less is a failure. Do I make myself clear? If not, sit down and read me all 113 pages of Donald Kuspit The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, 1993. Where he examines how great modern artists attempted to cure the world through the primordial, geometric, expressive, and even through unorthodox methods of cynicism and disenchantment.) 

If art is worth doing, then it is worth doing badly and ordinarily. If anyone can be an artist, then art must be something anyone can do, and therefore special skills are not required. If the experiment can be repeated, anyone can do it, like cutting up a newspaper article to make a poem, as the Dadaist Tristan Tzara proposed. 

(Next time your school teacher tells you to write a poem, get your scissors out. Anyone can make readymades, play some of John Cage’s compositions, and form a punk band — look up the tab charts for D, G and A chords, now go out and start a band. Not that your band is likely to be any good, but playing in a band, or doing any art, including graffiti, might be one of the best things you do in your life. It is in my personal the top 100).

Normally I wouldn’t write anything like self-help philosophy, but failure does help explain so much about contemporary art.

(Should we be giving out medals for participation? Why not? After all, the military does it all the time – service medals, campaign medals…)


Eight books

Eight books that changed my mind about art and visual culture.

  1. The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, as told to André Parinaud When I found this book in my high school library it blew my teenage mind. Dali made thinking about art exciting and full of possibilities. 
  2. Theories of Modern Art, a source book by artists and critics Edited by Herschell B. Chip. This was on my first year art history reading list and I  keep on reading and rereading the various texts by artists and critics in it. It was this book that opened my mind to the theoretical and political aspects of art. 
  3. John Berger Ways of Seeing This short book is an excellent introduction to Marxist art criticism. It is also the easiest and fastest to read on the whole list, some chapters only have pictures but does not diminishes its quality.
  4. Arthur Danto The Transfiguration of the Common Place I read this when I was doing my Master’s thesis. If you want to know what is art is at a very deep Hegelian level, Danto’s institutional theory of the art world is worth reading. Danto’s art world is not about organisations defining art but a metaphor … The problem is that art world as an organisational theory is useful and Danto’s metaphor may be too subtle to be useful.
  5. Notes from the Pop Underground Edited by Peter Belsito. Expanding my idea of what was possible as art were the subjects of this collection of interviews that I found in the sale bin at Minotaur. When I bought the book I only knew about Keith Haring and Spalding Grey but this book introduced me to Art Spiegelmam, Diamonda Galas,  the Church of the Subgenius, Survival Research Labs and others. 
  6. Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces – a secret history of the Twentieth Century. The secret history of Dada, rock’n’roll and the Situationalists born from a radical negation is not explained but wonderfully retold. Marcus weaves in obscure anabaptist heretics and punk rockers gleamed before easy internet searches. I also have the CD of the book and I must share Marie Osmond reciting Dada poetry. I haven’t seen the stage production of the book; how many non-fiction books have stage versions?
  7. Stewart Home The Assault on Culture – Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War diligently tells the history of utopian culture from Dada to Neo-Dada in just over a hundred pages. The history of the groups that are ignored in a broad sweep from Dada to the Situationalists and Punk. In the afterword Home writes distinguishing art movements from isms, sensibilities and traditions. Home argues that: “‘Isms’ are emotional categorisations and close examination often reveals them to be intellectually incoherent.”
  8. Art in Society Edited by Paul Barker. More essays by John Berger, Dennis Potter, amongst others including Angela Carter, writing about sixties style and make-up, and a great essay by Micheal Thompson, Rubbish Theory that explains the chaotic flow of valuations of everything from used cars to art. These essays on films, popular music, marketing, design, television, theatre expanded my idea of critical examination of culture.

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