If I were a painter, I would want to hang the above painting in my studio. There are paintings you want to hang in your living room, and there are paintings you want to hang in your studio, where you work. The paintings you put in your living room are those that are brilliant, bold, and satisfying. The paintings you want in your studio to inspire you are those that a brilliant, bold, and failures.
“Isabelle in the Garden” is a failure. At least, it is in my book. I find it completely unsatisfactory. It’s clearly unfinished, but with Morisot, a work appearing to be unfinished doesn’t mean it’s truly unfinished. Consider, for example, the painting below.
This painting, whose brilliance and boldness cannot be captured in a photo (at least, not in a photo with my smartphone camera), is by far my favorite by Morisot. And I love her work overall. This is the painting I would happily hang in my living room and view on a daily basis for the rest of my life. It’s “unfinished,” but at the same time clearly finished. It’s bold and powerful, and the detail in the center dissolved to the chaos and sketchiness of the edges. From a distance, the woman’s dress looks lavender, while up close it’s clearly sketches of brown, red, and dark blue. A few places are lavender, but only because the red and blue had overlapped while she painted.
Being satisfied with this painting, there’s nothing I could do except look upon it in satisfaction. The other painting, however, is highly suggestive to me in its failures. It makes me think of ways to fix it, of ways to make something similar that actually works. Learning she was influenced by Japanese painting makes me think of new ways of creating something similar. I could look upon this painting, and I feel inspired to solve the problems Morisot created in making it. This is one way in which an artist solves artistic problems.
To say that something is a failure isn’t to say that it isn’t good. A work can be very good, and still be a failure. That’s why I am using the term “brilliant failure” here. Consider, for example, this painting by Paul Signac.
While I find this painting quite beautiful, the shadow in the bottom left portion of the painting doesn’t look like a shadow at all. It looks like a sunk-in area of darker plants with tufts of the lighter grass growing here and there. Given that it’s supposed to be a shadow, and thus appear flat rather than more 3-dimentional, the work is clearly a failure. As we can see, though, Camille Pissaro solves the problem the very next year.
This is a shadow that works. Both paintings are done in pointillist style, but Pissaro accomplished what Signac failed to do. Specifically, Pissaro solved the artistic problem Signac created. Of course, pointillism was developed as a way to try to solve the problem of how to capture light — an artistic problem the Impressionists wrestled with for decades.
Brilliant failures are of course hardly confined to the visual arts. I first developed this idea when I was reading Faulkner. Indeed, I read a great deal of Faulkner the semester I took a graduate class on Faulkner with Noel Polk at the University of Southern Mississippi. There is no question Faulkner is absolutely brilliant. At the same time, Faulkner was much more interested, it seems, in playing with the form of the novel than in crafting something that would feel fully satisfactory. Either that, or Faulkner was driven from experimental form to experimental form precisely because he could never find the form that fit what he was trying to say.
Whichever the case may be, almost every novel Faulkner wrote was a brilliant failure — certainly each of them after (and including) The Sound and the Fury. This is perhaps why Faulkner continues to inspire so many writers — including Toni Morrison, whose novels feel far more satisfactory than do Faulkner’s. This implies that Morrison came closer to solving the artistic problems created by Faulkner in his novels — and this is no doubt why she won her well-deserved Nobel Prize. After all, if you solve the artistic problems created by a Nobel Prize winner, you deserve one yourself.
When I read The Plague by Albert Camus, I felt completely satisfied. Worse, I felt like it was an absolutely perfect novel, and that there was nothing I could possibly do to match it. Camus apparently felt the same way, because his next novel, The Fall, was structurally a quite different novel. Having apparently solved the problems of how to create a solid minimalist novel, he moved on to create something much more loose and less minimalist. It certainly doesn’t work as well, but then it is a new way of writing a novel. You can’t expect him to master it on the first try. It being a brilliant failure, though, it calls writers to try to solve the artistic problems it raises.
A novelist who has spent his writing life trying to solve artistic problems is Milan Kundera. He’s quite explicit about this fact. He poses the problem of creating a polyphonic novel — one which includes a variety of forms, from a fictional narrative to biography, history, essays, philosophical musings, and so on — and sets out to solve this problem in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. This novel is perhaps my favorite of his. Although Kundera arguably solves the problem he sets out for himself in his very next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the loose structure of BLF creates a a bigger space for imagination to fill, and to inspire in those who wish to write novels. ULB does so as well, but in a different way. I feel satisfied with his solution, though I could still think of other ways to solve the artistic problem he poses.
Whether we are talking about poetry or painting, novels or music, sculpture or plays, there are always going to be brilliant failures out there inspiring artists to try to solve those problems. That’s one of the main stimulations to creativity. If I read a poem and think, “Wow! What a brilliant poem! I really want to think on this,” the poet has written a fully successful poem. However, if I read a poem and think, “Now, this is interesting, but it doesn’t quite work. Why doesn’t this quite work? How could I fix this?” then the poet has perhaps created a brilliant failure. As I try to solve the problems I identify, I may or may not succeed. And even if I succeed, I may create a new problem to solve. Thus does art evolve, brilliant failure to brilliant failure, with only a few true masterpieces peaking above the waves, towering above everything else like lighthouses, providing illumination for us to see the rocks among the waves and steer ourselves and our works into better waters.