Posted by: Liz Massey | February 26, 2009

Embracing Creative Failure (III): But what about quality?


Illustration courtesy of SXC.

In this final post of my three-part series on embracing the concept of creative failure, I’m going to touch what I think might be on the minds of many failure-avoidant readers — that I’m pussyfooting around the issue of quality.

“Sure, it’s possible to view imperfect work as a steppingstone, and work with your artistic accidents to discover unplanned approaches to a subject,” you might say, “but isn’t there a time to admit your failed work is just no damn good?”

Well, yes and no. While developing and maintaining standards is an important part of maturing as a creative person, those standards need to be applied appropriately. It’s important to be able to recognize when something about your creation isn’t working, so that you can decide whether to alter or abandon the project; but using your failed projects as an opportunity to beat yourself up is self-torture, not a demonstration of your quality-mindedness.

There are at least two levels upon which one must deal with creative failure and the question of quality: the personal level and the societal.

Failure at the personal level

Much of what I’ve been discussing in the other two posts in this series has had to do with accepting and leveraging the fruits of personal creative failures. There are some great books that address elements of personal creative failure, including Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland and Trust the Process by Shaun McNiff.

At the California Center for the Arts,  Jeanne C. Finley even runs a graduate critique seminar dedicated to the topic of failure. The course celebrates the process of creation, instead of having students defend their work, and the class description says,

“We take as our premise that there is no such thing as a mistake and that all failures lead to innovation. Students in this seminar will work to create artworks that succeed, but will present their work from the vantage point of its failures, thus shifting the focus of the critique from defense of the work, to the celebration of the process of creation.”

I love the tension in that snippet between “creat(ing) artworks that succeed” and “present(ing) their work from the vantage point of its failures.” It’s precisely that ability to aim towards excellence, yet have an open mind about the things that go wrong, that is the reward of embracing one’s creative failures.

Failure at the societal level

Beyond our self-assessment that our creative work has failed is the failure that most of us truly dread: the rejection of our offerings by clients, patrons, the market, any entity that could potentially buy or promote our works. Many an artist maintains a hostile personal relationship with failure, in the hopes that a perfectionistic attitude towards creative quality will head off social condemnation of his or her work.

Perfectionism or high standards for one’s work doesn’t guarantee quality, or success, for that matter, either. Societal-level failure and rejection can follow amazing successes. In the documentary “The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale,” producer Jeff Stimmel chronicles some of the lowest years, personally as well as artistically, of Connelly’s life. In the 1980s, Connelly’s sold more than $1 million worth of paintings; at the dawn of the 2000s he was bartering his work for accounting help.

Some of his change in fortunes can be attributed to a changing art market, but the situation is more complicated than that, as an article about the film in the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Tribune-Review explains. He may have taken his concerns with maintaining personal standards to an extreme, leading to problems in his career:

“Even by art world standards, Connelly was difficult. Though handsome, charismatic and generous, his abrasiveness managed to make enemies almost as quickly as he produced paintings. He bad-mouthed the (Martin) Scorcese film (his paintings were featured in), possibly alienating a man who could have promoted his paintings in the Hollywood community. He refused to ‘brand’ his paintings by sticking to one recognizable style. He fell out with wealthy collectors, whom he alternately courted and resented.”

Another factor related to “failing” creatively in the eyes of others is the shaky role of the arts in American society. Artist and arts administrator Michael Fallon’s gritty blog, The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America, documents in a spectacularly candid way the forces that cause artists of many disciplines to fail. He doesn’t pull any punches—his take on the way artists treat their own kind, as well as the way the market-is-king mentality can savage creative ambitions, can be sobering reading, but worth digesting. Here’s an excerpt from a review Fallon wrote on several films that relate to failure in one way or another:

“It would be easy to find oneself depressed after seeing all of this thwarted ambition and all of these shattered dreams. But I actually love these three films, mainly because they are real. They reveal personal stories that gibe with what we all see experience every day in this unfair world. After all, this is a country in which rich bankers reward themselves billions after extorting money from taxpayers, while good and honest and talented people can’t find decent enough jobs to support their families.

“These films show the truth: That the vast majority of us will come to the end of our lives having failed, over and over, to achieve our dreams. But then, that’s okay. This story about our inability to achieve our dreams is a beautiful, if sad, part of the human condition.”

Whether or not you agree with his point of view, failure truly is a part of the creative condition, perhaps the innovator’s shadow, if you will. The sooner we accept that we will fail creatively, many times and on many levels, the sooner we can get past being dominated by the fear of it.


  1. Nicely written. Good information. Lots of food for thought. One doesn’t often seen carefully crafted, longer articles on the Web.

  2. Excellent, well-written, thought-provoking post, Liz. I love the idea of celebrating and focusing on the process of creation rather than the product. Time spent focusing on outcome/output is time not spent doing art and experimenting. You put a lot of work and research into your posts, thanks!!!

  3. I love, love, love that sentence you wrote about failure being the innovator’s shadow. I’m definitely going to take that thought everywhere with me this week! 🙂

    Thanks for another wonderful post!

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