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Why Failure Is Being Taught in Art Schools

Failure isn’t so bad, or at least that’s what these art teachers want to show their students.

Alex Bradley Cohen jumping over his teacher, Alberto Aguilar   Photo: Courtesy of the artists

Of course art schools want to propel students toward success, but should they also teach young artists how to fail? The answer is found sprinkled throughout the curriculum of Chicago’s top art schools, where students are routinely encouraged to consider what it means to fail, but also how to “fail better,” in the immortal words of playwright Samuel Beckett.

“I start out asking my students to make the ugliest painting they can possibly think of,” says Sabina Ott, a professor at Columbia College. “This usually gets them into a lather,” she says, but it teaches them “to be fearless.”

In Chicago, many artists have passed through an influential class on failure. “The Ethics and Aesthetics of Failure,” founded by performance artist Matthew Goulish at the School of the Art Institute in 2001, was later renamed “The Institute of Failure.” One of Goulish’s former students, Alberto Aguilar, speaks of the class with admiration. He recalls that “deviant behavior” like tardiness and sleeping during lectures was allowed—even encouraged—as research into failure. (The sleeping student would have to share his dreams upon waking.)

Now, Aguilar leads his own art classes at Harold Washington College. “The way Goulish taught [about failure] struck a chord with me,” says Aguilar. “To this day I incorporate similar tactics in my teaching.” He recounts one class in which he was giving a painting demonstration when a student, Alex Bradley Cohen, began jumping over things in the classroom. Aguilar says that while Cohen might be considered “a failure in the public education system” due to his low attention span, the teacher instead redirected his efforts. “So I said to him: ‘Why don’t you jump over me instead?’” recalls Aguilar.

They did a couple takes and all the students watched. “When all is said and done, this activity had a lot to teach about painting, like how to be flexible with whatever comes your way, resourcefulness, play, pushing boundaries, and painting as a physical feat,” among other lessons, Aguilar says. Their initial teacher-student improvisation has led to a couple years’ worth of performance collaborations.

Classes on failure have moved beyond The Institute of Failure in the last decade, to elite high school Northside College Prep in 2002 and Northwestern University in 2008. Back at SAIC, a new class (“Fail Better") sprung up in 2015. Instructor Erin Washington says one of the projects in her class triggered tears, as one student couldn’t admit that she had ever failed at anything. “Did I successfully teach the kids to embrace failure?” reflects Washington. “I was hoping to show them that failure is part of making art, and that it doesn’t have to be traumatizing.”

In the art world, failure has a different meaning than elsewhere. Consider, for instance, Jeff Koons, whose sculptures sell for millions, but “my students found Koons really creepy and his work lacking of soul,” says Washington. “The Jeff Koons lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago coincided with the beginning of the semester [and] that really set the tone for the class, as we wound up having a long discussion about how you can be so successful and world domineering, yet also be a failure.”

Kelly Kaczynski, who taught the Northwestern class, adds that “ideas of failure are extremely useful and exciting in environments where experimentation occurs,” especially art school. “Some of the best works are incredible and honest failures,” like the iconic monument by Vladimir Tatlin, the unbuilt Soviet version of the Eiffel Tower, she explains.

We may learn from our failures in various aspects of life, but why is art failure so different and appealing? Artists are expected—needed, some would say—to shake up the status quo, to ditch tradition, and to reject dominant, often damaging cultural norms like racism, colonialism, and patriarchy. If artists aren’t going to take these creative liberties, then who will?

But, not everyone is a fan of failure in the educational system. Zachary Cahill, a lecturer at the University of Chicago, says that “failure at the U. of C. tends to be romanticized.” Cahill notices his students discussing failure as an artistic motivation. “U. of C. isn’t exactly built on failure,” he says, “It’s composed of extremely successful people. Real failure is hard to recover from. It can mean real loss.” Cahill would prefer his students refocus on success as a model, especially in the “hyper-competitive” environment of art school.

Still, failure doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, for example, just launched a Failure Lab for its teen education program. Or, as art professor Claire Pentecost says, with a dash of irony, “Reach out and fail someone.”

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