This Flight from Failure

Compare a work of abstract art to a work of representational art, though, and there’s a dimension of risk that the representational artist accepts and the abstract artist shirks. Let’s say you set out to paint someone’s portrait. When you do that, your creative vision is no longer the only thing that matters. You’re not just expressing yourself, you’re expressing something that is not you , and you can succeed at that or you can fail. You can, for example, try to paint a likeness of someone and make something that doesn’t resemble the sitter closely, or at all. You can also paint a likeness of someone’s face that fails to catch any trace of that person’s character and personality and life—the things that a good portrait can express better than any photograph, and a great portrait can express better than a three-volume autobiography. What’s more, if you fail in either way, the failure is something that most people can see at a glance.

That’s the kind of failure from which a purely abstract approach to art protects you. Here as in the rest of life, of course, if you shut yourself off from the risk of failure you shut yourself off just as effectively from the chance of success; there are things you will never accomplish, things that are very much worth doing, if your sole criterion is that you’re not willing to fail.

Been thinking about this a lot.

h/t to @equipoise thanks for the link!


Just a Bunch of Paintings with Lines?
Guy walks into a bar…
Sees the painter Franz Kline sitting down with a beer and says, “Hey Franz, just came from the new Barnett Newman show.” Kline says, “Oh yeah? What did you think? I haven’t seen it yet.” Guy says, “You know, it seemed pretty simple, just a bunch of paintings with lines.” Kline says, “Huh. These paintings… all the same color?” Guy says “No.” “These paintings, they all the same size?” Guy says “no.” “How about those lines? They all the same color? same size? same placement?” Guy says, “No.” Kline says “sounds pretty damned complicated to me.”

Giacometti portrait

p.s. Politicized Landscapes
BBC Four - Forest, Field & Sky: Art out of Nature =



I feel like abstraction has as much possibility to fail as representational art, if not more. Abstract art is often more deeply personal for the artist, and the difficulty of communicating that personal meaning is difficult and often misunderstood or dismissed.

So while there is (sometimes) more flexibility in terms of raw craft or materiality, there is also more at stake.

A bad portrait is a failure of craft that is immediately apparent to the audience. A failure of concept or abstraction is a failure of intent, or even of the mind, that can be dismissed or misread by the audience.


I think the points made here fit interestingly alongside the comments on @jasonw22’s original post.

I’m not for or against abstractness in any meaningful sense and I have very little to say about artistic merit, meaning, what art really is about or any of that stuff. It’s clearly deeply personal, both for artists and art observers/appreciators/people who are exposed to it/whatever you want to call it.

I also think Mr. Greer isn’t really going on against abstract art in specific - he’s using it as an example of how people can hide behind a style - and I DO think many people hiding in the more abstract worlds of art are in fact doing precisely that - not to take anything away from those who aren’t or the various styles that can be perceived as abstract themselves. Some of you are going a little too far towards throwing the baby out with the bathwater by assuming that’s what he’s saying.

I do agree that there are many artists (and a general public at large) who are afraid of being CHALLENGING with their work (or being challenged by it). I also believe that “challenge” (as in, difficulty finding/uncovering “meaning” behind an artwork or performance) is another thing that people with limited vision hide behind - “make the end user work hard to figure out whatever meaning I might have put there, because I’m too tired to actually put the meaning there” is, I’d argue, not unheard of in the so-called artistic world. Both things are true, yet there remains excellent art in all styles/genres/categorizations/non-categorizations/etc…

Perhaps people can “challenge” themselves to not knee-jerk about the criticisms of abstract art and focus on the real point which is: our culture does exhibit signs of having difficulty with confrontational issues in the arts* - whether that’s new or not new or increasing or not increasing is not really relevant - and this is perhaps especially not a good time for that to be true. Perhaps we can find good ways to rise to the challenge, to find new means of expressing human emotion, desire, experience, in ever-richer fashions without losing the subtle, perhaps a return to vibrance is as important as a deep dive into nuance? Perhaps they’re not on opposite ends of a fictitious spectrum?

I’d be much more interested in discussing the social and human relevance of this topic, which is I think more at the core of what Greer is trying to get to, than in discussing whether there is or isn’t merit in abstraction, ambient-isms, or whatever other subtle, sublime, or not-strictly-formulaic art forms out there.

@emenel, I especially liked your comment about the failure of concept or abstraction - what does it mean to fail in this way? How can we recognize and build on those failures and the lessons in them to become better (better what? better artists? better communicators? better listeners? better storytellers?..)? What IS excellence, and should we be inspiring each other to pursue it? How do we find it?

And perhaps most relevant to topics you all seem to love to discuss here: how can you be EXCELLENT at abstract art forms? Is there a standard for this? Can there be one? Should there be one? How do you relate to the concept of excellence at all? :smiley:

I’m very happy we have a forum where we can ask these questions non-ironically and really dig into things sometimes. As an artist who recognizes my own lack of excellence (according to my own standards at the very least) I’m always inspired by those who exhibit what I experience as excellence - which is a very wide, deep, and polymorphic field - and I find it worthwhile to pursue each day a little bit of that same spirit in myself. I’d love to see how we can use the power of discussion to sharpen our craft collectively.

  • Edit: when I say ‘confrontational issues’ I’m not limiting this to politics, but including the entire range of human experience that is not culturally ‘in fashion’ at any given moment, context, place, or audience. Take this in a very broad sense, I’m not trying to be political here in specific.

I love this. And want to clarify that when I wrote about “intent” in abstract art, or concept, I did not intend to imply this sort of material-in-service relationship. More that when work has no obvious representation of something “real” (a whole other conversation) then the work is the result of a different sort of conversation between the artist, the material, and the world. One that can be even more “risky” than representation (even if realistic representation is not the point of the representation).


Ok, so I went back and read the rest of the essay because I wanted to see if there is anything I missed.

There was - a clear fundamental ignorance of contemporary art practice or literature, and a startlingly narrow and subjective definition of art, craft, and meaning.

Not to mention a tone so dismissive that he makes it very clear that he doesn’t think any contemporary art is “real art” (a phrase he uses).

It comes of as an essay of “my kid could paint that” without a really sense of what goes into artworks or their function.


I don’t have anything coherent to add at the moment, but I liked these quotes so much I had to re-quote them. :grin:


I like very much Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movies paintings. He never called them paintings but they are in museums and galleries. It’s abstract and it is a deep direct depiction of people and process. It represents as much as the representation of a human face in an oil painting.

Abstraction can represent quite a lot of detail that doesn’t belong to the artist.


Yes, I completely agree. A lot of this reminds me of concepts from second order cybernetics. We don’t observe and react, it’s more symbiosis between the acotrs and systems. We are not looking from outside, but constantly conversing with a world in flux - as much acting on it and it acts on us (us being any animate being).

I’ve been reading a book called Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett. In it she argues for a way of seeing the world as ecologies where all the actors, animate and inanimate, exert forces on each other. That all things have an active role in this ongoing reshaping of “real”.

I’ve been reading it as part of my artistic research. Art can be a way of investigating. Where the intent isn’t about production but instead about focusing the conversation with material and ideas towards the eventual making of something that is about the questions that come from that conversation… or the learnings. Quite often the work is perpetually unfinished just as the conversations are. It’s one of the reasons I love interactivity as a core to this type of artwork. You can frame an interaction to engage a larger group, or wider world, in an aspect of the conversation.


One more quick thought. Even if we want to reframe artistic intent in a different light (I.e. non-servomechanical) there is always a reason to start. Someone or some group starts on a project with some impetus, their intention for the endeavor. It may or may not include a firm idea of the form of the work, I think in contemporary practice this is less common. It’s more common to start with a line of inquiry and let that lead to an expression of the idea (as artifact, engagement, system, etc)


One of the things I picked up from Greer’s other writings is that this is sort of fundamental to his worldview - intent. Of course, being a ceremonial magician, his entire worldview is pretty much focused intent, so let’s realize that’s heavily colouring even his view of art - I think in his mind art, in a metaphorical sense, is encapsulated intent, just as his magic is encapsulated intent. I do agree with @ht73 that he’s quite narrowminded in his ability to see precisely what he’s talking about in art forms or practices that he’s less familiar with.

But, I’m strongly in the view that there’s a lot “art” as a whole can do for humanity, and while discovery, play, and this practice of “saying nothing” have a strong place especially in a very disciplined artist who has trained themselves to listen to what the universe is saying and to either discover it or express it or bring it into the physical in some way (I’m not trying to nitpick or pigeonhole -just emphasize) – while this practice has a role for the artist and maybe for humanity in a discovery sort of way – the practice of starting from a strongly focused intent and then working WITH the medium and the concept as collaborative (and occasionally opposing) forces to end up with an expression that is a symbiosis of the artist and the process has a great amount of relevance to the human experience throughout our history on this planet. I do think that the more we “abstract” (and I’m not speaking here of the genre) meaning from form or figure, and the more we abstract intent from the final product, the more we lose certain aspects of the impact to exchange for others. This leads into the questions of “who is art for - the artist, the observer, society, the purchaser, who?” and of course also deals with “what is the role of art at all and what responsibilities should an artist have?” So I think what’s coming up here between all of us who are actively interested in this discussion is a classic balance between going very deep into a practice for the pure pleasure of discovery, versus going very deep into the application of intent to create something very specific. Neither excludes the artist’s will or skill, nor the ability of the materials, process, universe, happenstance, etc. from shaping the end result. But I don’t think that it’s appropriate to celebrate John Cage’s statement “I have nothing to say” without also acknowledging the validity of those artists who very much do have quite a lot to say and work hard to find equally creative and often sublime means of expressing it - and judging the results of both of them against an appropriate standard of accomplishment or communication or whatever it is we can put our finger on to say “wow” or not.

So… that to say that intent really matters to me, as well as the means the artist chooses to express that intent, and even John Cage’s intent to say “nothing” is a very strong artistic will expressed in his pieces with great force and clarity.


You’ll have to read Greer’s own magical writings to answer your question regarding how he would see all of that - he’s rather widely published.

On the other hand, I am not a philosopher, I am an engineer, and the distinction between mind and will (or the lack thereof, or which viewpoint makes one and which does not) does not particularly interest me.

I did in fact mention that Cage was being very intentional about saying nothing, so I think we agree there; whether it’s mind, will, or whatever. Intent, to me is where the mind and the will meet, and in my view, I think that’s what you were quoting Carroll as saying here:

But that’s neither here nor there. I think there are core questions here: can there be “bad” art? is art something someone can “fail” at at all? and is there any truth to the supposition that “without failure there is no success”?

If Cage, to continue with your example, had NOT done a good job of “saying nothing” as it were, would his art still have had a strong impact? Would it have mattered? Is it important that he focused his mind/will/intent/whatever on that or simply that he delivered the concept of “saying nothing” as a musician in such interesting and diverse ways?

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I remember from art school that it was easier to whip up a few abstracts when end of year deadlines were looming. It was easier to present them in class for criticism since the critical framework for abstract work focused more on the conceptual rather than the technical criticism that realistic work generated.

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First post here, was going to write a pretty long post about my experiences within the avant garde community but deleted it to say this.

Abstract art has become a con, highly profitable for some and easily exploited.


Well. If we’re calling whole swathes of contemporary art “a con”, I guess it’s about time to stop. I don’t see where we can productively go from here. Sheesh.


I’m not sure I can stand by a sweeping statement like this… what do you include in “abstract art”? Do you mean painting? Photography? Installation? Performance? Sound?

I know lots of amazing artists working in “abstraction” that certainly don’t see the financial benefit of it and work very hard to make their works meaningful.

Do you mean in the commercial art world? IMO, that’s a whole different game and not what Greer was talking about in the piece that sparked this conversation.


I suspect that there’s a kernel of truth in this overly sweeping statement. Rather than being immediately dismissive, I’m more interested in digging into it and understanding what was specifically meant.

I can certainly think of instances where I’d tend to agree. Others where I definitely wouldn’t.

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I’m down with that though.

Yer gonna have your ‘authenticity’ and ‘artist’s visions’ on one hand,
and yer works that just function in weird ways as they rub against our institutions, on the other hand. (those aren’t the poles really…but we all know that ;)) So why is it ok that art is a con sometimes? 1. Art is amoral (there are no “shoulds”) and 2.It’s because people like money and our society centres itself around it. Artists know this and play with that membrane.

In the book Art, Performance, Media Nam Jun Paik is asked what makes a work good and he answers that it’s because it’s expensive. If you want to make a work better, you make it more expensive. Infallible advice.

Andy Warhol wanted a million dollars so he made a print of a million dollars and exchanged it for a real million…over and over again. (That’s in his autobiography The philosophy of Andy Warhol: A to B and back again)

Both these examples tickle me in a very particular way.

(I just jumped into the conversation here, but if this is in no way relevant I don’t want to derail.)


Happy to see a conversation, yes my statement is provocative and is meant to be, as to which medium I feel is a con, all mediums suffer but as this forum is dedicated to musical expression let us explore that medium, it’s probably far easier to analyse what I mean.

As someone who has enjoyed making music with electronic gadgets for several decades now for no other reason than the self-satisfaction of doing so I have been involved with many projects, every project I have been involved with had an ulterior motive, always ego driven by those involved, mainly exposure for either profit or sex, neither interests me but it does enable those that are and are willing to put themselves in full view of the public, what is abstract when it comes to a musical performance, does it still have to follow rules?

This is what I would like to debate, I’m not trying to tell people to give up making music because I don’t agree with what they are doing but if you feel that other people should understand what you are expressing via your music, I would like to know why.


I don’t know if it’s a necessity, but it is often a personal goal. Music can be a powerful communication medium, and I would love to be able to use it as such. But when I stick to abstractions, I do find the confidence I have about my ability to communicate intention or meaning through those abstractions is negatively impacted. I have more confidence in my ability to communicate when I move to a more explicit, straightforward, and provocatively I’ll suggest “honest” forms.

What do I mean by honest? I mean “it does what it says on the tin”. It’s not engaging in dual meanings, subtext, or esoteric/hidden/secret motives.

I think it’s possible we’ve grown both cynical and fearful about the possibility for such honesty.

And hey, I get it. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in marginalized communities, esoteric communities. Communities intentionally operating in the shadows because the obscurity is a necessary framing, and the knowledge literally wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t protected from the full sun.

But does this describe everything we might ever express? Obviously not.