The [Ir]responsibility of the Artist (failure) Beaux Arts Paris (conference)

7 June 2016

Lisa Le Feuvre


Introduction for LirRESPONSABILITÉ de lArtiste

Discussion between Peter Lewis and Lisa Le Feuvre

Wednesday 27 May



Firstly I would like to thank everyone here for inviting me, or even allowing me, to talk in public about a topic that I am obsessed by with someone who I deeply admire.  Both Peter and I will begin with a polemic, and then we will argue. I could not think of anything I would prefer to be doing right now.


I am not an artist, it is important to be clear in this. I do the stuff around what artists do and I am lead by their cues. I care deeply about working with artists to underline that art has stake in the world that is means something, that it has a currency, a responsibility and a unique ability to help us make sense of the world. Art cannot change the world, but it can change perceptions and that can change the world. Art exceeds language, exceeds reason and because of this can remind us of our humanity that to often escapes us. The artist John Latham called for art to be unreasonable, to escape being neatly packaged into reason. Art has a responsibility to do this, to make itself an intellectual activity that can never be dismissed as just art


To be unreasonable is to stretch beyond the limits of our horizon and to do this is risky. It involves saying no to self-expression and yes to failure. What does it mean to fail? The answer must always be tuned to the key of context. Failure is personal and political, local, global, present, past and future. You have failed is a judgment that cuts to the quick, makes the heart sink. Yet, if failure is released from success, its tired and familiar travelling companion, it can become productive, oppositional and capable of contesting and rupturing expectations. 


Uncertainty and instability characterise contemporary times. Nonetheless, success and progress endure as a condition to strive for, even though there is little faith in either. All individuals and systems know failure better than they might care to admit failed romance, failed careers, failed politics, failed society, failed targets, failed humanity, failed failures. Failure is too often tied to its twin of achievement. This co-dependent relationship is fed by distinction, fear and opportunity. A more accurate pairing might be utopias, an abused and misused term, certainly in the realm of art. This trope haunts discussion of art on the first decade of the twentieth-first century. To speak of utopia is to, in the very same breath, invoke failure. Whether located in rhetoric or enacted in heterotopias, utopias are subjective ideals.  Reality fails the idealisms of utopian desires, which are always built on particularity and subjectivity. Utopias are useful in their very failure.


In a world where it seems that there is nothing that can be done, sometimes a secular, non-dogmatic glimmer of hope informed by failure rather than success can offer a position for possibility. In the realm of art failure has currency and potential for criticality that embraces possibility.  Without the doubt that failure ushers in, any situation becomes closed and in danger of becoming dogmatic. Art making can be characterised as an activity where doubt lies in wait at every turn and where failure is not always unacceptable conduct. In actively engaging with failure, artistic practices have the ability to propose a resistant view of the world where doubt is embraced, experimentation encouraged and risk considered a viable position. To celebrate failure is to identify moments of thought that eschew consensus. One of the most crucial places where we can identify the endemic presence of failure in the art making is in the inevitable gap between intention and realisation. This condition of art-making places failure central to engagements with the complexities of artistic practice and to the ways in which art resonates with the surrounding world.


If failure is endemic in the creative act, it opens the question not if something is a failure, rather how that failure is harnessed. Give me failure over success, but also know that I am no romantic who wants to weep in the corner about what has not worked: I want look at the failures and try to learn how we can think, understand and perceive with a different kind of clarity.


Between the two subjective poles of success and failure lies a space of potentially productive operations where paradox rules and where transgressive activities can refuse dogma and surety. It is here that failure can be celebrated. Failure operates in the production, reception and distribution of artworks, which inscribe certain practices into the history of art. The history of art is constantly tested and challenged and that very history itself is involved with the artist operating as an active agent seeking ruptures and spaces within contemporary experience in order to place something at stake within the realm of art. The purpose of art is not to represent or to illustrate what already exists: there is an urgency to it. There must be something at stake with art; otherwise we should all go home.