Some art critics appear to enjoy writing about artists who, as they see it, have failed. John Berger was fond of this kind of thing at one time; a whole book was devoted to ’The Failure of Picasso’, and his collection of writings ‘Permanent Red’ contained a chapter titled ‘Artists Defeated by the Difficulties’ (Naom Gabo, Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, Dubuffet, Germaine Richier, Barbara Hepworth, John Bratby). The reputations of some of these artists have diminished since the 1950s and 60s, which could be a sign that they did ‘fail’. But what does it mean to fail? For Berger it often meant not being able to satisfy his desire for an art that was of high artistic quality, but at the same time spoke to the ordinary working man (or woman). But the inability to reach an unattainable goal in which formal and social considerations are balanced to the critic’s satisfaction cannot be considered failure.
We can find many examples of artists who themselves admit that they have failed, and their words are usually more informative than those of the critics. Cézanne, Hokusai, and Giacometti (“All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or perhaps equal to the failure.”) are examples of artists who felt they had not achieved what they wanted. According to their own words, failure for a painter usually means an inability to realise a formal goal. I have never read of an artist who believed that he or she had failed to sufficiently move the public. Most artists of any note, whether we like it or not, reject the idea of working with public approval in mind.