Failure: The Seminar

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

Failure: The Seminar

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.

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