Why I Reject The Aesthetics Of Failure…



Quite often art galleries and performance spaces around the world feature work that revolves around the idea of failure as an aesthetic principle: the study of mistakes as a source of artistic insight and growth. As Lisa Le Feuve (Failure, 2010), and Nicole Antebi et al (Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices, 2008) have shown, failure, as an aesthetic concept embracing mistakes, is a productive space where paradox is unproblematic and dogmatic ideology is refused. And as such, a study of the aesthetics of failure could be a useful parergon to the philosophical study of artistic processes.

But this aesthetic may be a site of dispute, because it can imply that there is a religious reality behind it, that it carries a hidden theological worldview (onto-theology). As art and artworks are in constant philosophical flux and continuously “becoming,” it would seem to privilege a foundational onto-theology of an Absolute of Becoming, never being perfect but always ‘being.’ This would suggest that to believe as such would be iconoclastic to an onto-theology that supports, or at least assumes, analytical formal order or ordering, one that might be ascribed to the influence of Judeo-Christian theology (strict form as morality, the logical tautology of morality). Simply put, classical art (orderly, formal) could be seen as more moral uplifting or “moral” when compared to works whose beauty lies in their lack of refinement, i.e. abstract art, art brut and/or naïve art, etc. That which is based in improvisation and chance ergo chaotic is thus of lesser moral value or in opposition to the ideals we supposedly learn from the Old (Western) Masters.

As Daniel Dombrowski suggests in A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective (p.1), an aesthetic of becoming (and thus never seeking or desiring perfection) may be seen as a type of gignolatry, the ‘worship of Becoming’ itself, which is in opposition to the perceived moral order of the perfect and the beautiful in classical art, especially in Christian iconography. The aesthetic of imperfection and failure then disrupts, and fails to stay put within reasonable onto-theological grounds, ergo this constant limitless flux foundationally fails for its opponents. This art doesn’t follow the moral code of formal beauty, thus it fails to be moral…and by a transitive property, fails to conform to what is good and true, traits of the divine, or an individual god such as the Judeo-Christian God of Abraham. “That which fails” is contrary to what is good, thus must be categorized as lesser, as failed or ‘fallen’ onto-theology that can only be then ascribed to a Luciferian ideal. An “ideal of failure” contains no self-criticism, and lacks the necessary “repentant” embrace of what is superior to it (metanoia). Mimetically, it is “chaotic” and “noisy,” and creates aesthetic distance from the everyday world: not to a place of teleological beauty, but to a place that both celebrates and inculcates irrationality, a virtual Hell. This art and music, then, is chaotic, “evil,” and “of the Devil.”

But it may also be said that an aesthetic of failure, the embrace of paradox, un- intentionality, and such suggests an onto-theology of divine “dipolarity” suggested by process theology. If God can have both changing and unchanging aspects, then may art also reflect such an assumption, not contradict a primary Absolute?

As an improvising musician and artist, I embrace the potential new paths and insights mistakes can often lead to, and thus find the general idea of the aesthetic of failure at the very least interesting. But ultimately, I reject it in my own work. Why? The answer comes from two different ideas about the content and use of art.

The Moral (?) Museum of Alain De Botton

In his book Religion for Atheists, de Botton states that “attempting to prove the non-existence of God can be an entertaining activity for atheists” (p.11). This is an informal fallacy (begging the question), as true atheists reject any/all false evidence presented to them, and thus must reject on truth grounds the more fantastical claims of the world’s religions and holy books. No atheist or scientist worthy of the name can reject any/all possibility of god or gods in some form or another, no scientist can or would without bearing the burden of proof, thus the true atheist rejects any spurious claims by atheism as well. But assuming de Botton’s atheist exists, he states that it must be possible to be an atheist and still find some religious thought and action useful e.g. loving others unconditionally, showing compassion, etc. de Botton also applies this possibility to art museums, which he asserts can function socially like a church does for believers. He states that:

The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our museums, so that art can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, it has served those of theology. Curators should dare to reinvent their spaces so they can be more than dead libraries for the creations of the past. These creators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live: to achieve self-knowledge, to remember forgiveness and love and to stay sensitive to the pains suffered by our ever-troubled species and its urgently imperilled [sic] planet. Museums must be more than places for displaying beautiful objects. They should be places that use beautiful objects in order to try and make us good and wise. Only then will museums be able to claim that they have properly fulfilled the noble but still elusive ambition of becoming our new churches” (p. 244).

First of all, de Botton implies that museums are essentially dead libraries of past creativity if they are not serving what he sees as their higher function as centers of personal moral growth. He states that we “know intellectually that we should be kind and forgiving and empathetic, but such adjectives have a tendency to lose all their meaning until we meet with a work of art that grabs us through our senses and won’t let us go until we have properly remembered why these qualities matter and how badly society needs them for its balance and its sanity” (p. 217).

Quite frankly, this is nonsense. To categorically assign such specific moral impact to art in general is ludicrous. To say that I will forget the importance of empathy if I don’t see a particular work of art is nonsense, as a stroll through the impoverished back alleys (hutong) of Beijing is a much more potent reminder to be charitable than any Monet, Rauschenberg, Klee, or Cezanne. Plus, to imply that ultimately the museum is a dead library is nonsense as well, as the better museums and galleries around the world are lively places featuring multiple programs of art, music, film, crafts, design, architecture and engineering. Thus, I would challenge de Botton to spend an afternoon at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and see just how un-dead it is.

Also, to have one’s work used as moral propaganda by a museum is inherently self-serving – “immoral,” if one is going to assign moral value to the museum as a site for social (read: quasitheological) transformation. To be a good (moral) museum, i.e. “remember love,” would not much of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work be rejected? Will Serrano’s Piss Christ teach me to not lie? Just how much of a moral statement is Dali’s lobster-based Aphrodisiac Telephone, and how exactly will it make me “wise”? Who gets to decide?

My own work is apolitical, non-religious abstraction heavily influenced by Zen aesthetics (and not Zen Buddhism itself). I work with free-form improvisation and high abstraction in my work; I am avant-garde. Will my patrons become more loving after seeing my graphic scores or performing them? Can the written/drawn instruction to play C# lead to satyagraha, to non-violent resistance of corrupted NeoLiberalism? In my own work…not at all. But if abstraction could be assumed to lead to anything, then I would argue the opposite would happen – that the aesthetic of failure, transformed into a social philosophy, would do the opposite of teach us to love.

The Aesthetics of Decay and Failure

For example, if de Botton’s new “Museums of Wisdom” existed, would they program works that celebrate the aesthetic(s) of Failure? How about the aesthetic works of decay and physical rot? Works that “fail” to make  one loving? Could they or would they reject such works because they are not somehow “wise,” or somehow teach compassion? Works that discuss or celebrate the life and work of the Marquis de Sade, what judgment will be made on them? To display them would, in de Botton’s new museum, be to teach the viewer something. Would that thing be “sexual torture is bad,” or “sexual torture is good”? Is to exhibit artists who display sexual torture “good,” or would we then need to post a disclaimer saying that the next room “contains images that may not teach you to be wise, therefore maybe you should not see them”?

Often, improvising musicians and artists create work about sadism or masochism (terms both inspired by the name and sexual proclivities of white men), such as saxophonist John Zorn’s Naked City group recordings. Dealing with an aesthetic of transgression, the recordings consist of highly intense music, often with violent or erotic titles: Perfume of a Critic’s Burning Flesh, S&M Sniper, Igneous Ejaculation, etc, interspersed with sound sculpture/music concrete. Graphic photographs and images of sadistic sexual grotesquery appear within the packaging, a visual counterpoint to the thematic eroticism of this ensembles work. Though some might see it as art, these images prompted picketing of Zorn’s concerts in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s by Asian-American women who were offended by his depiction of a Japanese love slave (Forbidden Fruit), and Asian women being sexually abused (Torture Garden).


I cannot morally support the aesthetics of transgression, if they prey upon the social status of the disenfranchised. To aestheticize female transgression as a subject of creative play is abhorrent to me, but I would never attempt to suppress the rights of others by trying to keep it from being seen. In this case not going to an exhibit of Zorn’s accompanying sexual abuse photos would be a choice I made based on my own humanity, and not something I would have learned from seeing other works of art – The Persistence of Memory is quite silent on the subject of misogyny.

To play at aesthetic transgression, playing at sexual torture is not completely innocent, as an “aesthetic of…” would imply. The ideology is set in stark contrast to a chance lack of a certain outcome. To fail is to ‘not achieve,’ to ‘not want’. To desire the failure of desire itself is inherently inhumane. Thus, much aesthetic failure comes off as a “safe” or covert form of criminal desire! Witness Zorn’s usage of pornographic images of young Japanese women (one illustrated case being prepubescent) in his Naked City group album graphics. Pornographic images as art? Maybe. A pornographic image of a naked little girl to accompany violent, dissonant music: is it made clean, nice, or safe by knowing her vicariously through art? Such aesthetics are not innocent, aesthetic or not, and I doubt such work would teach anyone to be nice to each other. They wouldn’t make it into De Botton’s Museum of Secular Morality, and I wouldn’t view them if they did. But they would have to be rejected on the grounds of De Botton’s socio-religious creative morality, and the last thing I want is to go to “church” at MoMA.


© 2013 Daniel Schnee.danielpaulschnee.wordpress.com


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