California State University Northridge Graduate Exhibition 2020
Alicia Dianne, MA Illustration @aliciadianneart
Matt Brugger, MA Ceramics @claymmaatt
Coby Cerna, MA Painting @cuhcuhcoby
Matthew Chan, MFA Photography/Video @matthewmfknchan
Tirsa Delate, MFA Photography/Video @tirsadelate
Erin Eleniak, MA Ceramics @_eeeeee
Faeze Ilkhani, MA Photography/Video, Eligallery.com
Garen Novruzyan, MA Sculpture/Painting @ga.ren
Graduate Exhibition Essay
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Worstward Ho
“…you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” – The Unnamable
Artistic practice has long flirted with and acquiesced to failure, and perhaps we could stay that this is also something of a truism for any current graduate student in the arts. Far from being viewed as a lack of success, however, failure has fueled a renegotiation of interpretive boundaries and successive movements in the arts. Whole aesthetic categories, such as camp, are built on the pretense of failure, loosely defined as taking enjoyment in the failed attempt. Beyond the arts, failure is a crucial concept for philosophy in thinking a ground or condition of possibility for the real.
One of the most familiar quotes describing artistic failure comes from Samuel Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” captures Beckett’s pessimistic existentialism in describing the alienation artists will endure in pursuit of authentic expression. Beckett’s idea that artistic communication must court failure is premised on the importance of “real” art as a sustained attempt to produce the unexpected, the impossible, and thus, the fleeting. It is the idea that pursuing great art is only possible through even greater doubt in the very possibility of success.
Yet today, Beckett’s view is undergoing something of a crisis. “Fail better,” far from defining the tension of the voided act that is nothing, is now more firmly associated with the tennis player Stanislas Wawrinka, Virgin Record tycoon Richard Branson, #failbetter, self-help literature, parenting manuals, political rhetoric, and hundreds of inspirational memes. In a sense, Beckett’s famous quote has been reduced to an empty platitude extolling the virtues of entrepreneurial resilience. “Ever tried. Ever failed” now resonates with the same profundity as famous quotes such as “Hang in there,” “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection,” or “Don’t limit your challenges. Challenge your limits.” As such, “Ever tried. Ever failed” sits comfortably amidst the emerging genre of failure porn (a genre with the odd effect of fetishizing failure).  However, this genre only celebrates those failures which anticipate a success: a meaning largely antithetical to Beckett’s intention.
Unmoored from past definitions and drawing heavily on sentiment, failure now teeters on being kitsch. Yet, in this state something uniquely new emerges. Between the impossible slog of Beckett’s pessimism and today’s emotionally reassuring definition as inevitable success sits a synthesis. In discussing this impasse, Sianne Ngai describes a new positive “turn” towards minor aesthetic categories, each of which is defined by the central quality of failure, but which is also able to represent new forms of togetherness. These categories address not only subjective capacities for feeling and acting but the many ways that interacting in the world can include affective labor (the zany), the transmission of information and circulation (the interesting), and conspicuous consumption (the cute).
Taking one category as an example, cute objects offer us new insights into how we think about commodities, consumption, and power dynamics. As an aesthetic of powerlessness — or of failed social interactions — there is no experience of a cute object that does not rely on losing one’s sense of control or on pitying the powerless. Cuteness conjures an adoration or desire for intimacy in an object, perhaps speaking to the distance of a world built around abstract exchange, which we come to love because it submits to us all too easily. In this sense, the cute sits between the tension created by tenderness and aggression.
Examples of the cute aesthetic include the work of Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara; in pop culture the recent appearance of baby Yoda; and one could even say that the more pernicious examples of being-cute infiltrate social interactions through face tuning apps, emojis, and user experience design. As an aesthetic in the fine arts cute fails on two fronts. The first is art’s capacity to serve as an image of non-alienated labor and the second concerns modernity’s preoccupation with shock value. However, this failure opens up a crucial discussion on the very relation between art and society today. The uses and abuses of cuteness posit the crucial question of whether or not aesthetic experience is far enough removed from its social context to provide a critique of the consumptive mechanisms in which it is forever embedded.
The graduates in this year’s exhibition have brought together rather pointed ideas and diverse artistic practices that function through a process of criticism and renegotiation that engages with an aesthetics of failure. Each artist in this exhibition is aware of the re-emergence of ‘minor genres’ today and each one is engaged in different models of deconstructing specific dichotomies in art production like labor/play, high/low, affective subjectivity/social processes, and the work of art/commodity. As such these artists carry with them a firsthand appreciation of Beckett’s artistic journey. Living a life of creativity, is at first a rather bewildering challenge to develop and to sustain, but if one dares to “fail, and fail better”, it leads to more developed insights and focused interventions into the current state of cultural politics.
Each artist in the graduate exhibition shows a certain willingness to fail consistently but is successful in maintaining both a sense of levity and critical irreverence. It is the tension between these two extremes that shows us how each of these artists’ trials and errors lead to an altered awareness of the formal and social interactions that are at play in the world all around us. And for this, their exhibition offers a sense of repose from the failures of the worst, offered up under the dictates of always failing, and failing for the better.
Professor Steven Hampton
Department of Art, CSUN
 Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 2001), 285. Put differently, our delight in camp comes by way of the pain of failure converted to enjoyment often by way of exaggerating or making failure theatrical.
 Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (New York: Verso, 2013). Zizek’s synthetic ontology in Less Than Nothing is an attempt to understand “the real” as the failed attempt.
 Liza Mundy, The Atlantic, “Losing is the New Winning: How We Came to fetishize failure,” Oct. 2013
 Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
 Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).
 Ngai, 21.