Until the emergence of an avant-garde in 19th-century Europe, there existed a relative consensus in the West as to what constituted “good” art, aligned with the interests of the institutions in power – the Royal Academies, museums, and universities – that made it easy for cultural producers to maintain standards that fit the interests of the middle and upper classes.

However, around the mid-19th century, art of the establishment became synonymous with having “sold out” or relinquished one’s values. This gave rise to new perceptions of success and failure that have flourished in Western culture, notably in the belief that one can be entirely responsible for one’s own successes or failures.

It has, for instance, further motivated the “American Dream” – the idea that one person can rise from rags to riches through hard work and sheer force of will alone. A culture obsessed with this fantasy has been (and is still) deeply influenced by late-stage capitalism, marked by an increased esteem for economic success.

Success and failure are both subjective and objective: one can be objectively successful, but still feel like a failure for various reasons. Likewise, certain Cheeto-coloured politicians can fail every metric across the board while still viewing themselves as hugely successful winners.

This two-part series will explore perceptions of success and failure, asking what is failure? How do we measure it? Why does it matter?

An investigation of success and failure can only be conducted through perceptions, of course, as “success” and “failure” are not inherent qualifiers of accomplishment.

When these perceptions concern the success of another person, they can be called “interpersonal.” Large numbers of shared perceptions - widespread disapproval of an avant-garde artist, for instance – can then be used to establish the general esteem of a certain subject by a certain group of individuals. General, or public, esteem is useful as a departure point for this investigation, but it can also be problematic.

Unanimous judgements, although representative of a large group of people, fail to acknowledge the institutionalized systems that often make these judgments inequitable. Sometimes – oftentimes – the failure lies in a system that emphasizes the winner-loser dichotomy, tempting the winner with fame, money, and power, and taunting the loser with social castration, debt, and helplessness.

As professor, curator, and critic Andrea Fatona expressed so eloquently:

Capitalism wouldn’t have gotten to this state without the appropriation of Indigenous lands; we wouldn’t have gotten to this state without the use of Black labour, and the slave economies used to create the capitalist economy; it wouldn’t exist without the status of females being less than males, hence the caregivers of kids, so it’s predicated on a whole set of inequalities that fail when you think about them. We now see the folks that aren’t gaining the spoils of capitalism … light right up at the bottom, whether or not it’s poor white women, black women, the list goes on and on. And without those people, capitalism cannot survive.

This study fits squarely in a Western – predominantly American – cultural sphere. I chose this deliberately because success and failure are uniquely precarious in this system. Ambition and exertion, for instance, are both valued in “hard workers,” but, as we will see, overambition and overexertion quickly lead to failure.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 article for The New Yorker, “The Art of Failure,” looked at the ways in which “implicit” and “explicit” learning affected one’s performance in situations of stress. He categorized three common causes of failure: i) panicking, where the implicit system takes over and leaves you with only instincts, ii) choking, where the explicit system takes over and removes all your instincts, and iii) stereotype threat, when one falters under the pressure of defying a stereotype (e.g., that women are bad drivers).

Although the clean simplicity of the first two categories originally motivated me to write this article, the influence of stereotype threat has become a much larger piece of the study.

Gladwell’s article is uniquely valuable because it was written for a relatively uninformed public, and it is one of the few texts that examines failure as its own subject. He writes “isn’t pressure supposed to bring out the best in us? We try harder. We concentrate harder. We get a boost of adrenaline. We care more about how well we perform.” But what if that’s the problem?

Ambition and overambition

Growing up, how often were you told to “shoot for the stars”? Were you not told, as I was, to set ambitious goals and do your level best to achieve them?

Western society encourages ambition, hard work, and perseverance in pursuit of success. Ambition, though, heightens the risks and rewards of failure. The capacity for ambition is admired as a strong trait, but it alone cannot guarantee success. In fact, ambition without the necessary skill or creativity often reads as an overambitious failure.

At the 2013 Venice Biennale, for example, Canadian artist Shary Boyle left the critic Sky Goodden wanting more. The artist, chosen to represent Canada at the Biennale, had achieved international acclaim for her delicately detailed ceramic works. However, Goodden wrote that the exhibition was disappointing for many reasons, ultimately crediting the failure to the artist’s “outsized ambition,” unrealized by the show’s directors and curators. Goodden highlighted the importance of picking one’s battles, remarking “this is not the moment for experiment, this is the moment for expertise.”

Expertise featured predominantly in another exhibition, the 2016 retrospective of the realist painter Ken Danby at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Although Danby is hugely respected for his mastery of hyperrealistic techniques, the Toronto Star’s art critic, Murray Whyte, wrote a critical review of the show, noting that “it smacked of the institution retreating to a neutral corner.” He critiqued the Gallery’s delicacy in curating the retrospective, admitting that yes, Danby’s work is very skilled in its realism, but arguing that the works could have been positioned more successfully with a more ambitious spin on the collection. This lack of ambition resulted in an underwhelming and bland exhibition that failed to embody, in any sense, the West’s esteem for innovation.

Surely, other factors were at play in these two case studies of ambition and failure, but it’s clear that the achievement of lofty goals relies on more than ambition alone.

Exertion and overexertion

A few brief things must be said on exertion and overexertion, as embodied in the focus on hard work and determination. The fetishization of hard work occurs throughout popular culture and has even led some organizations to consider shorter working weeks to ease stress and exhaustion.

It has become fashionable to brag about how little sleep you got the night before; not getting enough sleep is a source of pride for many and a successful person only getting a few hours every night is glamourized across pop culture.

However, hard work is only interpreted as a qualifier of success when success itself is also present. This can be seen in the popular idiom “give it 110%,” which is not only physically impossible, but the spent exertion goes unrecognized when “110%” of one’s effort is still unable to achieve a specific goal. In this way “overexertion” rests on the periphery of overambition, representing one’s good intentions without a successful outcome.

Stereotype threat

Gladwell’s “The Art of Failure” categorizes the three most influential causes of failure by athletes in moments of acute stress: panicking, choking, and stereotype threat. For Gladwell, stereotype threat describes the tendency for an individual who is being directly confronted with a stereotype about their demographic (e.g., white men can’t jump) to falter under the pressure they place on themselves, in the desire to “prove” their worth against any perceived bias.

Gladwell writes about a study wherein two researchers at Stanford University gave a group of students a standardized test, telling them “it was a measure of their intellectual ability.” White students in the class performed consistently, while their non-white peers performed much worse. But, Gladwell writes “when the same test was presented simply as an abstract laboratory tool, with no relevance to ability, the scores of black [student]s and whites were virtually identical.” Biases of the observer (of race, gender, disability, etc.) can either sway towards “failure,” based on the assumption that an individual was doomed to fail due to a factor out of their control, or “success,” that an individual stands out from their demographic due to unusual merit.

This stereotype threat can be broken down into smaller, more specific, moments of discrimination, for example the belief in men as the superior sex. In her essay, Reading Lacan, Jane Gallop suggests that phallocentric thought reflects the attempted covering of one’s inadequacies in order to have the right to speak or take up political space. Female artists and scholars, who “have always been considered “castrated” in psychoanalytic thinking” traditionally do not represent the same force as their male counterparts, and as such do not demand the same space and attention to assert this phallocentrism.

This “castration” is, of course, metaphorical. Despite the idea that male and female artists ought to “fail” at the same rate, for instance, “failures” by women are shared more frequently in art journals, publications, and written reviews than those by their male peers. This is compounded by the fact that there is an overwhelming disparity in the representation of male and female artists by North American galleries and museums.

Professor Andrea Fatona referenced a 2015 article in Canadian Art which suggests “we’re past the point where these kinds of statistical analyses are shocking. But they remain necessary, since, apparently, nothing changes.” The article criticized the disparity between the number of non-white and female artists, and the frequency of their showing at Canadian institutions. On average, 56% of solo exhibitions at the time (from 2013 to 2015) featured white male artists, while white female artists “placed second” at 33%. Non-white artists, male and female, were represented in 8% and 3% of solo exhibitions, respectively. These numbers vary greatly province-to-province and institution-to-institution, from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s startling tendency to exhibit white male artists 77% of the time, to The Room’s (Newfoundland and Labrador) and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s lack of any representation of non-white artists, to the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s relatively generous history of exhibiting white male artists, non-white male artists, white female artists, and non-white female artists 60%, 10%, 30%, and 10% of the time, respectively.

In this context, issues of representation risk perpetuating themselves through confirmation bias, where institutions and media only support successful artists, who themselves are only successful through the support of these institutions and media.

Failure pervades the increasingly digital world in which we are constantly performing our lives for one another, claiming success only when we can feel some sort of power over another. Western society’s obsession with success – or, more accurately, the avoidance of failure – seems in conflict with the ever-innovating art world that promotes innovation, risk, and “new-ness,” but their affinity to capitalism and its precarious notions of success and failure connect them.

The arbiters of success and failure today are, for the most part, very similar to those that existed for the 19th-century avant-garde and earlier; institutions like the media hold severe influence over our perceptions of others’ successes and failures.

In closing, I suggest we consider the idea that this model perpetuates failure in the pursuit of success. The more influencers who fail to get past the 1,000-subscriber mark only increases the prestige of those who do. The more students who apply for top-level universities only increases the odds of rejection. The relationship between failure and success is an interesting one, and I look forward to concluding this series with the next article.


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