The Value of Artistic Failure

Justin Heazlewood (aka The Bedroom Philosopher) has had national success - and failure. He says that most artists experience failure on a daily basis, whether it’s an idea turned sour or a second draft. And provided you don’t beat yourself up too hard, it’s those negative experiences that you can learn from the most.

Image by John Haynes Photography.

Australian society doesn’t always value ambition, and by the same token overlooks the value of failure. The reality is that artists live and breathe it on a daily basis. Whether it’s an idea turned sour, a second draft in a heap or an album with a lukewarm review, it is these negative experiences from which an artist learns the most. The trick is not beating yourself up along the way. Perhaps the process would be more constructive if failures were rebranded as ‘experiments’. Artist as cultural scientist: researching material, combining ideas and injecting them into an audience in a bid to find a temporary cure for apathy.

Angie Hart understands the importance of experimentation and failure. She’s going through the process to write her new album. ‘You have to have that time before you write the actual album where you write all the shit songs.’ She laughs. ‘How do you move forward without having the time to really suck?’

‘Failure is something we have to live with,’ says theatre-maker Tim Spencer. ‘Only quite recently have I come to reconcile the idea of failure as a beautiful thing. As artists, I think we exist outside the dominant paradigm of our society.’

Playwright Lally Katz counts as some of her greatest accomplishments those that went wrong. ‘All of my great opportunities, or the next thing that’s happened in my career, have usually come out of the something that felt at the time like a failure. Years later some of my biggest failures are the plays that I’m most proud of. The people I’ve formed really big connections with have been from them seeing my works which have failed in some way, but they’ve seen something in it and offered me another opportunity.’

If an artist isn’t a perfectionist, they will be an idealist, meaning their work will always struggle to live up to the purity of their vision. After recording my first album, In Bed With My Doona, I sat on the couch listening to it through headphones. My God, I thought, this is the best work of my life! I fantasised about radio and media clamouring for it as I was bathed in rave reviews. I could feel it in my guts – this was going to be my ‘big break’.

To my casual horror, it wasn’t. ‘I’m So Post Modern’ was played on Triple J, but the album didn’t receive a single review. By the time I realised, I’d already moved on. Two years later I listened back to the songs through scalding ears. How deluded was I? I thought. I’m ten times better now.

And so this process of experimenting, creating, delighting myself, tripping on expectation, being disappointed, getting over it, growing and tucking into the next project has continued. It’s the cycle of creative life.

While the creative process means the artist can experiment from the safety of their bedroom, once the work is submitted for public approval, the process becomes much more embarrassing. In my early years as The Bedroom Philosopher I was wildly inconsistent, struggling to exorcise brilliance from my ouija board of humour. For comedians, these creative experiments are especially challenging as they are not only conducted in front of a live audience, but also graded on the spot.

My fourth year of The Bedroom Philosopher, 2005, was a pivotal one. I was performing my third Melbourne International Comedy Festival show and beginning to attract some buzz. I was courting a high-level manager and being told that if I played my cards right, it could be ‘my year’. Meanwhile, I was still deeply insecure and trying to douse industry pressure with onstage overcompensation. In the space of a few months I had a number of onstage meltdowns. During filming of a live DVD for musical comedy gala Laughapoolooza I broke a string, covering with a performance-art Björk impression, which involved knocking over most of the equipment and going well over the strict seven-minute curfew. In my Super Band performance of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, I spontaneously took off my clothes in front of eight hundred punters and peers at the Hi-Fi Bar. At a gig in the foyer of the Seymour Centre in Sydney, I ripped off my shirt while screaming, ‘Fuck art, it’s all about comedy,’ picked up a large metal sculpture and tried to put it in the bin. (I was later told the piece carried a price tag of $25,000. The venue manager was later heard muttering, ‘Yes, but why did he pick it up?’)

While audiences appreciated these rock star antics, the industry did not. When my manager championed me to television producers, he was told I had a reputation for being ‘wild and unpredictable’. I was passed over by the major comedy agencies3 and, despite winning the 2010 Director’s Choice award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, was unable to get a hub venue at Adelaide Fringe because the bookers, as I was told by a colleague, ‘didn’t know which Justin they were going to get’. Bad reviews were one thing, but this was deeper. I was being rejected by my industry. I took it to heart, which soon became infected, forming a chip on my shoulder, infuriating the monkey on my back.

John Safran says that rejection is a healthy part of the creative process. ‘The key is to not psyche yourself out. A lot of the struggles and the disadvantages aren’t just you. It is tough, but it’s not as if the world’s picking on you. Every other artist is going through a similar thing and they’re just processing it differently.