Disappointment is a difficult thing to glorify. In trying to come up with a good, pop-historical list of the world’s greatest disappointments for this text, I thought of nothing that isn’t better characterised by treachery, failure, and misfortune (all of which have their glorious aspects), and no disappointment that isn’t eclipsed by the tragedy of its own effects.
It would, for example, be absurd to describe the sinking of the HMS Titanic on its maiden voyage merely as a disappointment. On the other hand, Tim Henman’s continued failure to fulfil the unreasonable expectation of winning at Wimbledon no longer disappoints, because we have stopped assigning him that expectation. Disappointment is the quiet guest at the party, only noticeable in the absence of more glorious negatives like violence or disaster. It is most felt at the moments when the stakes are quite low, and in the interpersonal.
It’s far easier to pin down when it is a character trait. In film, history and literature, there is a trope of the character who is a disappointment to his family (usually it is a he, given the fact that the privilege of well-rounded characterisation in mainstream fiction is routinely still given to men). His highest attainment is usually to be born of privilege, and to be evil – if he’s not evil, he is merely weak. (Though if he is evil, he’s truly evil: in the ultimate disappointment-child scenario, Mormon theology is frequently misunderstood as asserting that Satan is the other son of God, who just didn’t turn out as well as Jesus.) Edward Tudor, the weakly and studious prince who died undramatically of an ear abscess, was a terrible disappointment as the firstborn son of King Henry VIII, who openly wished that the princess Elizabeth had been born a boy. These disappointments are the offspring of grand and macho parents, but have none of the qualities their parents desire in them. Commodus, the imperial prince fictionalised in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), exemplifies this role and its evil potential:
… I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list.
(This is just before he strangles his father and usurps the imperial throne.) Easily the most interesting character, Commodus had another key characteristic of the disappointment child, which is sexual deviance, in his incestuous impulses. In comedy, too, these etiolated princes exist, such as the Swamp King’s son Herbert who refuses to marry the wealthy princess and only wishes to sing light musical numbers and be carried off by a handsome knight (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, year).
In his book How To Do Things With Words (1955), JL Austin’s treatment of the speech act reverses our common understanding of performance as imitative; instead demonstrating how what is understood as the real is constituted by performative gestures and statements. He also notes that the assigned falsity of the performative results in the theatrical being consistently associated with the weak, the etiolated, the effeminate; strikingly similar to the disappointment-child1. And while the stronger, more wholesome characters go on to win out as the heroes of mainstream culture (Elizabeth I with her heart and stomach of a prince, and Maximus to whom Marcus Aurelius intended the imperial throne, and the ridiculously battle-prone Sir Launcelot, all being the inverse examples of the characters above), the disappointment-child continues on bitterly and unhealthily in the shadows.
As this child is to his robust and noble parents, perhaps, even more so than theatre, so contemporary art is to mainstream culture. Art is generally inherently unsatisfying according to the criteria of mainstream culture (to entertain, to add to the sum of human knowledge, to glorify or debase, to educate, to provide spectacle). Mainstream culture tends to look to contemporary art for it to provide more profound and gratifying versions of its own output, only to find that instead of being the golden child, contemporary art is the one in the corner burning ants to death with a magnifying glass. This status of disappointment we can bear, in contemporary art; we provide cafes and other nicely designed consumer experiences to pacify those who brought the expectations of mainstream culture to our galleries and museums.
It is little surprise, then, that art has its fascination with failure. In an abstract sense, and in full consciousness of this disappointing position of contemporary art, failure has a lot of appealing qualities. These happen to concur quite nicely with some of the most recurrent artistic preoccupations of the last couple of centuries such as abjection, misunderstanding, bathos, and the quixotic; also, particularly according to the rest of the world, artists themselves tend to spend the majority of their careers occupying one definition or another of failure. It makes sense that we’re interested in it.
The problem with all this is a common neglect of rigour. In accepting art’s failures, we forget to be disappointed, and neglect to define genuinely what failure might constitute for us, for artists and curators and even critics. On a simple level, but one that is essential to understanding the work, Philippe Parreno’s 2007 work Speaking to the Penguins was a total failure. It was known from the beginning that there is no means of communication – on any intellectual level at least, and in that form – with penguins. But in a move reminiscent of the hundred monkeys on one hundred typewriters scenario, he tried anyway, travelling to Patagonia and addressing the masses – would one phrase stick with a penguin? Would their anthropomorphic attentiveness and dapper exteriors pay off, finally? Would their eponymous association with modernism’s great publishing project have given them some appreciation for letters? Of course not. As far as we know, it was a resounding failure. And we like it that way.
There’s a weird compulsion in me now to talk about Anthony Gormley’s work. This is because for all the things you can say about Gormley, is that he never, ever, ever fails. In his great, passive- impressive homunculi are bound the simple and visually sensationalist desires of the British public, and the public art commissioners who strive to please them. Sometimes, you just want a giant, burning effigy of a man, burning so meaningfully, and with his part in The Margate Exodus (2007) Gormley gave it to you. Here is art with a stated, concrete intention – don’t be fooled by its easily-drafted dalliance with intangible-sounding artistic languages, it is all quite tangible – and in this it succeeds.
So this is basically why failure is still on the cards. Despite its prescribed success, even those art professionals who find an arch thrill in some knowing configuration of ‘the popular’ can’t claim to value Gormley’s work despite what it does for the vast majority of people who have, justifiably, no time to react profoundly to art. It’s not just to do with a snobbish aversion to spectacle, or to popular participation, as both a lecture to penguins and a village burning a huge junkheap effigy have their elements of both.
Between these two poles are any number of positions and any number of definitions of failure, which provides plenty of grounds for discussion. The seminar Histories of Productive Failures: From French Revolution to Manifesta VI, organized by Anton Vidokle & Tirdad Zolghadr in 2006, reflected on exactly this thematic as prompted by the apparent political and bureaucratic fiasco that resulted Manifesta VI‘s failure to materialise. Perhaps the most pragmatic question that the seminar could have addressed is: what would we prefer, for Manifesta VI to have failed – and produce interesting seminars such as this – or for it to have actually happened? Given the level of anticipation before, and eulogising of the project after, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s still preferable for a good project to happen, rather than for the failure of a good project to be theorised.
The danger for this situation – particularly as we face the foreclosure of state and private funding of the non commercial art sector – is that we begin to anticipate failure as the ‘interesting anyway’ posture most easily relaxed into after something was patently a mess. Not all failures, unlike Manifesta VI, have the luxury of being that interesting. Not only that, we also need to question how useful it actually is to attempt to re-establish a sense of posture in the whole discussion, with surprisingly few assumptions or sense of authority undone, particularly regarding the value of artistic discussion in itself. Unlike the status of being the disappointment-child of mainstream culture, which we can legitimately celebrate, the exciting aspects of failure to achieve more internalised terms and desires stop being exciting when we relax about such failure and over-anticipate its potential. What is needed for such discussions is candour and indignity, and for this one needs a sense of personal investment, and for that one needs disappointment.
How to formulate this? The Histories of Productive Failures seminar addressed, most strikingly, ‘[…]the question of the elusive nature of collective ideals in a situation where the political projections at hand are lacking in any adequate referent to latch on to2’ – precisely such ideals as are needed for the production of disappointment after things fail. But the idea of art setting, and achieving, concrete objectives is repugnant to many. The hifalutin claims art makes on its own terms and within its own frames of reference are unwittingly parodied in the language of press releases, as Jennifer Higgie paraphrases:
… hollow boasts about subverting, riffing, reordering, dialoguing, deconstructing, investigating and renegotiating; about destroying assumptions, provoking, participating, blurring boundaries or destroying borders, beliefs, poverty, globalism, the World Bank, you name it. (Who do they think they are, Attila the Hun?)’3.
This language is ridiculous because we accept art’s ineffectiveness; if we wanted to hold art to common standards of all these objectives we wouldn’t have art, we’d have interrogation chambers.
So neither the louche pseudo-candour of the curator riffing on failure, nor the strictly instrumentalist approach is quite right; because either position is too comfortable, too opportunist. Perhaps sometimes we just need to be like the kid in the picture: step back from our failures, contemplate them for the embarrassments they truly are, and howl in outrage.
1 Austin, J.L., (1962) How to do things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955. Clarendon, Oxford
2 E-flux statement, 2006
3Higgie, J. frieze 103 Please Release Me Nov-Dec 2007