One lesson I’ve learned in my short time at the Walker is there’s no such thing as failure. Artists explore. They experiment. They take risks. They take paths best (and often only) left to art history PhDs to decipher, let alone interpret. Artists don’t fail. Same goes for programmers, curators and designers. That’s why I’m an immediate fan, sight unseen, of The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale, a documentary premiering Monday on HBO.
You can be forgiven for not knowing Connelly — he’s not in the Walker collection — but the synopsis from HBO describes the film as “the unusual story of the rise and fall of a major talent, along with Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, from the 1980s art world. Though he was extremely talented with a profitable collection of work, Chuck Connelly ended up alienating every collector and gallery owner he worked with. This 63-minute documentary follows the life of this brilliant yet enigmatic painter, who had great success as a young artist but who now sees his career fading.” The New York Times caught up with Connelly for an amusing, pre-premiere profile that ran over the weekend.
I don’t know why there’s such a stigma about owning up to or assessing one’s own work as a failure. Throughout my years in newspapers, I instigated many long conversations with colleagues about why this or that story didn’t work. Some of those stories were even mine. Some people don’t have the stomach for such flagellation, and some workplace cultures don’t leave room for it. I’ve worked for newspapers that turned the daily “critique” of that morning’s rag into a platform for editors to praise their own team’s work. Actual criticism was viewed as heresy.
The art world is even more insular and self-congratulatory. It’s easy to see why — there are more fragile and tightly wound egos, reputations to uphold and donors and collectors to mollify. I get it. But while this documentary seems to view Connelly’s so-called failings more off the canvas than on, I find it hard to imagine anyone in a creative pursuit not, at least privately, beating him/herself purple over self-perceived misfires.
This isn’t about emptying the hamper or awaiting any mea culpas. I just think a little more open-door intellectual candor would only make artists and their art — and the institutions that house them — better. And our audiences would take us more seriously when we, far more often and rightfully, claim success.
IMAGES: All by Chuck Connelly — Self Portrait (1995), Acid Rain (1998), Lesbians #1 (2006)