Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In Favour of Artistic Failure

 Rovio published 51 games before it came up with "Angry Birds," Pulp had been going for a dozen years, releasing a stream of singles and albums, before "Common People" was a hit. In the "start up" and entrepreneurship field, the phrase "fail faster" is used to encourage a culture of constant reinvention, and in literature, of course, there is Beckett's ever useful line: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." 

Yet when I think about artistic failure I don't think these really cut the mustard. Those games, those albums, are the finished article. They are perceived failures, but they were created with the idea of becoming a success. This year we've heard about the Swedish "Museum of Failure" with a corporate mis-steps such as Colgate Lasagne. We can learn more from failure, says its founder.

Ah, this is getting closer. The thing about artistic failure is that it is more noble than success. The success is always, paradoxically, a failure in some way - for it is at a point of completion that is good enough to succeed, it is all it will ever be; whilst the artistic failure is still possible...the unwritten or unfinished possible. So we are intrigued by the film that was never completed, the song that has never seen the light of day, the work curtailed by death. "The Pale King" may never be as successful as "Infinite Jest" but it has one advantage over the earlier novel, because Foster Wallace died before it was completed it joins that list of might have beens. We can see the flaws in even a masterpiece like "The Great Gatsby" but in "The Last Tycoon" - unfinished at Fitzgerald's death, and with the completed parts as good as anything he'd written, we have the tantalising hope of what might have come. It's why "Sgt. Pepper" or "Pet Sounds" may never quite satisfy us as much as the unfinished - and belatedly completed "Smile". What might have been? 

In music we are seeing a sense of "completeness" - where we now have access to ALL of the recordings of "Like a Rolling Stone." We know that one we know so well is the work of genius, but seeing the versions that fell short, or may have gone in a slightly different direction is a fascinating stretch of history. Because however "perfect" the final rendition, these are still the works of man. A "live" creation on a particular day, or over a particular week or month, where a myriad choices lead to the finished work. What seems obvious now - when you listen to the mastertapes, was a result of chance, of serendipity - of Al Kooper happening to be in the studio and playing the organ that way... 

If the contemporary boxset reissue fascinates its less about this "versioning" I think - and more about the tantalising sketches that could have become something else. On The Police's last but one album they had a number one hit with "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" a song that had lain unfinished from early in their career. This is not uncommon. We are finding out that Prince's back catalogue was a composite - similar to Neil Young, or even David Bowie at times - finding songs from earlier periods that "fit" and then completing them. Of less interest are the demos without the band of Robert Smith, or Fleetwood Mac. Those versions feel like templates of the more famous versions. 

I've been playing and compiling some old and new music of late, and in both cases, as I try and work out what is "the best" - or what tracks should make it onto my new album, I'm also drawn to the ones that didn't work out. I've got a natural sympathy for the runt of the litter, the song I never quite got right, or the poem that didn't really find its way. I'm fascinated, I think, by the mechanics of that failure: is it because I couldn't qutie get the lyric right or the drum beat or the recording - there's something wrong with it which means the piece got abandoned. I've long ago realised that I should try and get as close to a finished work as possible, and yet sometimes the abandoned piece is far off, but still has a certain magic - a feel to it that might not be replicated in the more stately performances, or the more honed pieces. With about fourteen songs recorded for a new album - and with ten "chosen" - I find myself drawn as much to the songs I'm about to leave off: in their failure, and they are failures, something not quite adding up, there is the germ of something else - of some future success that is less easily recognisable. 

It sometimes seems that some poets in particular only manage "gems" as if they only have to unsheath their metaphorical quill to write with authority and genius. It won't surprise you that I'm usually less interested: it seems the abandoned fragments, or the things that stretch away from the usual style, are the more interesting somehow. Perhaps there's something of Picasso's "to finish (a painting) means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul" in this. The finished work, is it ever finished, or abandoned, let go? Or simply let into the world in its best bib and tucker with a dollar in its pocket and a hope that it will somehow survive?

We see in literature in particular how what once was strange and difficult becomes easier through repetition or replication. So "The Shadow of the Wind" is an enjoyable pastiche of Borges, without the depth; or a consummate writer like David Mitchell, in his apparent ability to do anything, may well be disguising the impossibility at the heart of his endeavour - "Black Swan Green" a scarcely concealed bilgdungsroman that pretends to be a novel but is sort of a collection of stories, and the Russian dolls of "Cloud Atlas" giving us a dazzling display that disguises the fragmentation therein.

I sit there wondering about all of this and thinking that because the next thing you write is - like all the last things you wrote - an attempt to banish the white severity of the paper, it also is the most exciting, for it has not yet failed, and better still, it has not yet succeeded. It's the artistic failure, not the success, that keeps one going - and those "runts" remain as fascinating for their knobbly uncertainty as the things that worked, the alignment of the stars that somehow makes a work "succeed."

No comments: