The Dynamics and Aesthetics of Failure (an introduction)

In general terms, the aesthetic of failure can be defined as the way artists reflexively quote and misuse the programmed aspects of their medium.[1]

With the advent of the industrial revolution, many artists in the beginning of the 20th century turned their attention to newly conceived and constantly changing landscape, at the core of this change they found technology.

In 1909 Marinetti published the Manifesto of Futurism, placing technology and violence at the center of the futurist artistic concerns.

In 1922 Man Ray began the production of Rayographs, cameraless photographs produced by placing miscellaneous objects on an unexposed sheet of photographic paper and turning on the light. The result was not a mechanical copy but an unpredictable event.

Marcel Duchamp worked on La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même until 1923 when he abandoned it in what he called a 'definitively unfinished” state. The imagery of the piece is pervaded by references to science and technology [2]. The piece also represents a failure in itself "the bachelor is not even a suitor, and the bride will never be married."[3]

In 1952 composer John Cage, influenced by the White Paintings [4] series of Robert Rauschenberg, the writings of Laslo-Maholy Naggy [5] and La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même by Marcel Duchamp [6], composed 4'33'', a piece for any instrument but made up entirely of silence. This piece by Cage marks the dawn of an aesthetic of failure.

Destruction and misuse, physical or metaphorical, coupled with technology proved to be a fertile breeding ground for artistic exploration throughout the 20th century.

The two are closely related, one of the fundamental aspects of technology is it's ability to fail and for most of us technology is invisible until it fails. Schimtt (2009) argues that technology “can fail miserably or it can fail gracefully, and if it is graceful enough failure might not even be noticed or even appreciated as success.”

[1] The definition of an aesthetic of failure in net- art proposed by White (2002) is broaden here to encompass the whole spectrum of artistic creation after the industrial revolution.
[2] See Henderson (1999) for a summary of Duchamp's scientific interests.
[3] Paz (1978, 32)
[4] Joseph et al (2003, 45) “Cage would explain that not only did Rauschenberg's White Paintings give him the 'courage' to compose a piece of such radicality, they made him fear that the development of music had fallen behind that of art.”
[5] Cage cited Laslo Maholo-Nagy's book The New Vision as “very influential for my thinking.”
[6] “Looking at the Large Glass the thing that I like so much is that I can focus my attention wherever I wish. It helps me to blur the distinction between art and life and produces a kind of silence in the work itself. There is nothing in it that requires me to look in one place or another or, in fact, requires me to look at all. I can look through it to the world beyond.” See Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Press, 988), pp. 179-80.

Cage, John (1952) 4’33”. Published c. 1960. New York: Henmar Press.
Cage, John (1961) Silence (Midletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press).
Cascone, Kim (2000) The Aesthetics Of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music, Computer Music Journal, 24:4, pp. 12-18, Winter 2000, MIT Press.
Crary, Jonathan (1984) “Eclipse of the Spectacle” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art) 290.
Herderson, Linda Dalrymple (1999) Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the “Large Glass” and Related Work, Pinceton University Press.
Joseph, Branden Wayne et al. (2003) Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-avant Garde, MIT Press.
Kahn, D. (1999). Noise, Water, Meat, MIT Press.
Landow, George P. (1997) Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, Johns Hopkins University Press.
Paz, Octavio (1978) Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, Viking (New York, NY).
Pritchett, James (1996) The Music of John Cage, Cambridge University Press.
Schmitt, Florian (2009) Fail Gracefully, Offf 2009 , OFFF Festival for the Post Digital Culture.
White, Michele (2002) 'The Aesthetic Of Failure: Net Art Gone Wrong', Angelaki, 7: 1, 173 — 194