Failure: The Seminar

A graduate school class aims to answer the question: What can failed works teach the artists that create them?

Flat  Land
Flat Land, Jeanne Finley/John Muse, one of the failed works shown to students on day one of CCA's “Failure” seminar.

In Jeanne C. Finley’s “Failure” seminar at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts (CCA), there is no such thing as a mistake. There is no evaluation of the students’ work either, at least not in the traditional academic sense. To be sure, enrollees aim to create well-received art, but instead of focusing on what they’ve done well, students are expected to examine and discuss the ways in which their efforts failed, in hopes of creating or learning something new and unexpected.

If the concept sounds vague and ungrounded—not to mention decidedly anti-academia—that’s because it is. And at first, Finley wondered if the pass-fail seminar—labeled FINAR604: Failure in the school’s course catalog—was destined to live up to its name. Recalling a downright disastrous first day of class this past semester she says, “I have never felt so devastated in all my years of being a [media arts] professor.” But Finley—along with five intrepid students—stuck with the program, and it “turned out to be the most successful seminar I’ve ever taught,” she reports.

The roots of Finley’s “Failure” seminar (taught for the first time between January and April of this year) can be traced to a similar class offered at CCA seven years ago by her former colleagues David Sherman and Rebecca Barton. Finley also credits another professor at CCA—Brian Conley, who served as an editor at Cabinet magazine—for helping to produce a particularly inspiring issue of Cabinet, one that was devoted entirely to the subject of failure.

But Finley’s motivations for creating and teaching “Failure” can be described as philosophical in nature. In recent years, she’s been fretting about how dramatically the world has changed since she earned an MFA in photography in the early 1980s.

“I went to grad school for free, having availed myself of one of the many scholarships that were available. My students are paying thirty-five thousand dollars a year to go to CCA, and they graduate with student loans that are fantastic,” she exclaims, using “fantastic” in the astronomical sense of the word.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of MFA graduates has increased dramatically in the last 25 years, yet the number of art-related jobs hasn’t increased proportionately. “In our cultural climate, there’s not really a work environment for these graduates to go into, and I have a sense that we’re setting our students up for failure. It’s very difficult for them not to run into a lot of frustration when they get out of school,” she laments.

Rebecca Ora, one of the five students who completed last spring’s seminar, is certainly cognizant of the problem, saying, “In terms of being an artist, failure is always on your mind. And in terms of society’s gauge of success, if you’re an artist the odds are stacked against you.”

So it’s apropos that Finley’s seminar forces enrollees to confront artistic failure head-on. Anyway, “much of the work completed in graduate school falls short of being highly successful,” notes the course description, clearly implying that students ought to take the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Hence the requirement that students display their class work publicly, and also post it online at Michael Fallon’s Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America (“Where all creative intentions go to die”). It’s a potentially humbling and traumatic experience for twenty-something’s still developing their artistic skills and personal style, but it can be a revelation in terms of opening new creative doors.

“In this seminar, the final result—the exhibition—is not the most important thing,” emphasizes Finley. “The idea is to get students to focus on the process as opposed to the product—to love their failures and look at where their mistakes moved them in a new direction.”

For better or worse, however, most of the CCA students who considered taking “Failure” this past spring didn’t make it beyond the first day—and some didn’t even make it through the first class.

“On day one the seminar was full, with 12 students enrolled and another ten on the waiting list,” recalls Finley. But things got off to an inauspicious start when she couldn’t get the classroom’s projector working, leaving her unable to display the PowerPoint presentation she prepared. “A couple of students went to the AV [audio-visual] center to address the problem, but they never came back,” she continues.

But the most daunting problem was revealed when Finley—a media artist who works in both experimental and documentary forms, including film, video, photography and installation—went around the room and asked each student which fine arts discipline they were studying. She expected that the majority would be affiliated with the media arts program, and had designed the seminar with those students in mind. To her horror, almost all the attendees were painters and sculptors; not a single media arts student was in attendance.

Already having grave reservations about the outlook for the semester, Finley pressed on and showed the class some of her own failed works—that is, works that were failures either in her own eyes or in the eyes of curators—including Flat Land (pictured above). Eventually, time came for the appointed break, a welcome relief for Finley, at least at first. “Then students began approaching to say they would be dropping because the description of the seminar didn’t match what was happening that first day,” she admits.

Overnight, a highly-anticipated course offering became “intimate,” an uncomfortable development for Finley, who hadn’t taught graduate students in two years, having been away on sabbatical (as Artist in Residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France). Fortunately, the five students who remained were a dedicated group, and Finley challenged each one of them to come up with a bold class project.

On this count the students exceeded her expectations. Natalia Gomez, for one, proposed stop-action animation that explored the “cyclical effects of violent acts,” which she ultimately presented to a high school art class. And painter Kamil Dawson conceived the idea of holding a salon in her studio, where fellow students would come to draw portraits of each other, thereby sharing her creative process with a large group.

But it was Ora—a social practice student from Los Angeles—who addressed the subject of failure in no uncertain terms. In fact, the first line of her written proposal read: “My mother is a failure.”

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Ora went on to clarify that her mom—who single-handedly raised seven children and had a vibrant career as a high school admissions director—failed only in terms of reaching the financial benchmarks necessary to realize the stereotypical American Dream. Yet in terms of her influence and the achievements of her progeny, her mom was a remarkable success story. Hence the last line of Ora’s proposal: “My mother is not a failure.”

For her project, Rebecca asked her mother to simply “make art,” and promised to publicly display it for her. Notably, however, Ora didn’t advise her mom—at least not initially—that the project was for a class called “Failure,” as she believes her mother neglected to pursue her dream of being an artist in part because of “her deep inhibitions and fear of failure.”

“I was not entirely forthcoming at first because I didn’t want her to associate a pejorative with the project,” admits Ora. “And it was difficult to get her to allow me to show her illustrations,” but mom ultimately allowed her drawings to be displayed (in conjunction with images and text by her daughter) in an exhibition space at CCA.

The exhibit turned out to be “really powerful,” assesses Finley, as Ora provided her mother—who has since passed away—with a sense of artistic accomplishment, while at the same time illustrating how she played a role in her daughter’s endeavors, even when not physically present.

It’s worth noting, though, that even if Ora’s project had turned out to be less than inspiring, it wouldn’t have mattered—at least not in terms of a grade point average. After all, the students weren’t graded on their efforts, as “grades would have been totally counter to the class itself,” begins Finley. “We looked at what worked and what didn’t, but there was no evaluation in the conventional sense.”

It’s fitting then that process turned out to be integral to the ultimate success of the seminar, as Finley’s early stumbles prompted on-the-fly adjustments that allowed the course to achieve its desired ends. “The first day’s failure is not something I would necessarily wish to repeat, but I’m grateful it happened,” she says, “as the seminar would never have succeeded in the way it did if we hadn’t first failed.”