I’m writing this today for two reasons. Firstly it’s a lovely day for someone with ancestral vampire skin to find an excuse to stay indoors and over-think. Secondly a culmination of events have led this to being a bit of a ‘black dog’ weekend, except in my case instead of a black dog, I have a pelican:
So yeah, I was thinking about the ‘right to fail’ today. It’s an expression that gets thrown around a lot, especially at people like me who make a point of talking loudly in theatre bars about why I’m the ONLY person who doesn’t suck.
But seriously folks, I used to do proper theatre reviews under an ingenious Clark Kent/Keyser Soze/El Kabong-style pseudonym. Contrary to what media practice seems to currently be dictating, it’s a very rewarding and insightful experience, which doesn’t change even if you fully intend on analysing art ‘at-source’ rather than after it’s finished. I stopped ages ago, mainly because I was getting increasingly close to reviewing people I’d consider my peers, and I felt like a twat about that.
One idea I’d kept coming back to when I was reviewing was ‘why is this show even HERE?’ On the one hand that might have been God’s way of making me stop, but as a piece of ruthless standalone philosophy I’ve since found it very helpful.
It’s meant that ever since then I’ve asked myself:
1) Is this thing I’m writing saying something different that I have not heard said before?
2) If not, is it saying so in a manner that I have not seen before?
And I think if the answer to both these questions is ‘no’, then… why? Why will the world be worse off if this piece of art is never made? Why therefore is it worth your time, oh labouring writer, when it’s most likely a version of something you’re seen and really like and want to emulate?
Don’t get me wrong, we’re all allowed to be the product of our influences. I myself spent a good couple of years trying to be Tom Stoppard, before realising how much I needed to fuck off with that, and then spent another 3 years trying to be Joss Whedon. Nuance happens when you realise people and techniques you want to emulate might not actually work brilliantly for you, and you devise your own ways of working with your particular skills. Thus you eventually develop the whole ‘unique voice’ thing that we hear so much about.
Taking this back to the ‘right to fail’, this is how I really see it applying in art, and I think it’s also what William Zinsser was talking about . It’s about one’s personal journey being a necessary series of troughs and peaks, all of which should be treated as learning experiences, and how there is no ‘ideal way’. It’s genuinely good and inspiring reading for anyone with any self-doubt about where they’re heading. I say that even though it references Holden Caulfield, a front-runner in my list of ‘notable literary characters I would happily leave critically injured without summoning medical assistance’ (other contenders include Cathy Earnshaw and the bloke from David Nicholls’ One Day).
But the thing is, right, I don’t think it’s fair to take that very individual principle and apply it to organisations. Organisations have multi-layered oversight and appoint on merit. Organisations are organisations FOR THIS VERY REASON. I can see how a person might accidentally produce some art that doesn’t work if they’re making it by themselves, but if they’re producing various drafts over time for an organisation that can afford a literary department, dramaturgs, etc. then there’s a lot more accountability going on. And let’s not even get started on if they happen to be subsidised…
So should this usher in an era of X-Treme artistic safety? No, of course not. I’ve said as much before:
…although some people bafflingly pretend that I didn’t:
See, I don’t think a lot of people even know what they mean by ‘fail’. That might even include me. I used to think of it as the double-team of ‘artistically nonsense’ and ‘lost even more money than would normally be considered acceptable’, but that’s probably wrong. Reading Zinsser again it seems to be about having the bravery to try new and interesting things and being reflective enough to learn from them and see them as part of a ‘bigger picture’. Again, wonderful advice for the aspiring artist.
But for an organisation with more resources and oversight, isn’t a ‘failure’ the inability do the things they’ve evolved and exist to do, i.e. the bravery, the interestingness, the reflection?
And perhaps the greatest of these is reflection. The others can take years to attain and are subjective as heck, but I can’t see how you propose to get to either without reflection. I constantly reflect on past work because it’s the main mechanism the world has by which to judge me. It’s a constantly open invitation to adapt, improve and accept yourself at any given stage of your career. I’ve somehow managed to eventually do this without giving myself a hard time, and I am the acknowledged Eternal Galactic Champion of giving-myself-a-hard-time-for-shitty-reasons.
What I’m basically saying is that for all we talk about the right to fail, we never talk about the corresponding responsibility that’s inherent with any right that’s any use at all. In this case I suppose it’s the responsibility to reflect. Fail, yes, fail in grandiose, overarching ways – and then show what you’ve learned. I always find it refreshing when I hear individual artists talking publically or privately about aspects of their career that didn’t work. It makes it okay, and the fact that they can talk about it means that they see it as part of a bigger picture.
When did you last hear an organisation, artistic director, producer, or arguably anyone with substantial power in the industry do that? Even if you have, is it more or less than the number of ‘right to reply’ columns you’ve seen written in response to poor critical receptions?
Anyone who talks about rights without addressing their own responsibilities doesn’t like responsibility. You should not listen to such people.