Art, Identity and Failure

How to accept ourselves as artists

Buckminister Fuller once said, ‘When I am thinking of a problem I am never thinking about beauty. But when I’ve finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it’s wrong.’

Achieving a balance between architectural concepts in our minds and their successful manifestation into beautiful and meaningful works of art, later physical buildings, can grow into an obsession as designers fear the scrutiny of their artistic decisions. The visual and presentational aspect of the profession naturally allows designers to fall into a never-ending loop of perfectionism which is enhanced by their dread of failure. Is this because our identities are intrinsically attached to our art? Is our work a representation of who we are? How do we let go?

Portraying your sense of beauty and defending ideas in front of an audience puts you in a vulnerable position. To a degree, practicing architecture requires one to be vulnerable both during the design process and when presenting the final product. Presenting art is very revealing as we await to be scrutinised. Constructive criticism is always beneficial and necessary, but all architecture students know how critics can be. Feedback consists of a critic identifying the gap between what we have achieved and what we intended to achieve. They uncover flaws in our concepts and our drawings. In a sense, this makes us feel as though we are flawed as humans, as we hold close attachment to our work. The work, as we see it, is an extension of our identity.

The importance of practice identity

The responsibility of architecture lies in serving the identity of place, rather than the identity of an architect (which is how ‘starchitects’ are born). As Reinier de Graaf notes in Four Walls and a Roof: ‘The focus on the importance of individual figures in architecture masks architecture’s failing as a collective.’ However, the artistic identity of an architectural practice remains an inseparable part of the design process. The ability to holistically combine all aspects of a building into a beautiful space is art, as there is no single way to do it. The final result is unpredictable, as even if you get a machine to calculate the design response the output will contain numerous possibilities. Thus, it is the identity of an architectural practice that makes the conclusive choice of the ‘beautiful solution’ (following from Buckminster Fuller’s quote). Architect Gabor Gallov says that drawings bring the designer’s intent to life. Additionally, models, renderings, film, photography, and text help us understand a building’s role in a community and the role of the architectural practice within the design process. The variety of media used to communicate design intent portrays the artistic identity of a practice. Despite the effectiveness of different visual mediums, practices and students should be thoughtful not to present unrealistic images of their designs, as then the point of the profession is misunderstood. It seems there is always a danger of crossing the line between our artistic ‘selves’ and architecture’s social mission which is ultimately based in reality.

But what is personal identity?

An architect will join a practice based on whether their personal identity relates to the practice’s identity. But what is identity? Why does the revealing of artistic identity feel so exposing and terrifying? Scottish philosopher David Hume’s Bundle Theory states that the self is an illusion, a reaction to the world around us. Without our perceptions we would no longer exist. Since the world is constantly in flux, our perception of it is also changing. In essence, we are changing with the world around us. Similarly, as artists draw on what they know, they are influenced by their changing surroundings, which is reflected in their art. Vincent Van Gogh painted the surroundings of the mental institute St Paul Mausole in the South of France, where he checked in after a breakdown. This led to his famous painting, The Starry Night. Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie was inspired by the 1940s in New York. Even Salvador Dali’s surrealist painting, The Persistence of Memory, which is based on his dreams and subconscious, includes the coast of Catalonia, Dali’s home, in the background.

We are but a collection of elements, consisting of body, mind, emotions, preferences, memories, even labels that are imposed on us by others. The latter is how Marilyn Monroe’s artistic identity as an actress was established – imposed by the public and shaped by Hollywood. Andy Warhol called this commodification of a person ‘a death of self’ which he portrayed in his Gold Marilyn Monroe 1962. Similarly, some practices and architects commodify their identity by overusing visual art presented in the media, thus creating a false self. This is an unhealthy example to younger architects and students who are in the early stages of shaping their identity as artists and are often anxious of being wrong. Thus, they similarly hide behind overinflated words, ideologies, and images. We need to learn that there is a positive use of our identity, but not at the cost of social and environmental sustainability.

In Laura Iloniemi’s book, The Identity of the Architect: Culture and Communication, she explores the importance of Alvar Aalto’s identity and architectural role in shaping modern Finnish values. His identity as an architect served not only his nation but the world through a humanistic approach to Modernism, portraying a mastery of the poetic and technical aspects of architecture. Apparently, Aalto too had a period of self-consciousness. This was during his classical period which brought us one of his earlier designs, (1924-25) Workers’ Club in Jyvaskyla, in his hometown. This is an encouraging example for students. There are times we will feel unsure of our authenticity and judgement as artists. But, regardless of age, we continue learning and growing throughout our lives.

Regardless of our circumstances, our doubts and failures, it is important to stay truthful to ourselves because one failure at a time will lead to better art. Art with which others can relate and art which serves a higher purpose than ourselves. For example, Frida Kahlo said her art was ‘the most frank expression of [her]self.’ Months after divorcing her famous love Diego Rivera, Kahlo painted Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, which presented a personal statement. The details are an expression of Kahlo’s feelings about her former husband while also establishing her individualistic artistic identity, devoid of Rivera’s image. She produced numerous self-portraits, each one a reflection of her heartbreaks, her individuality, her sexuality, and more.

If artists embrace uncertainty as a virtue (Art & Fear, Bayles and Orland) it might become easier to forgive ourselves if we fail a crit, or when pitching an idea, or when presenting a drawing. Art is not created from predictability. If our identity is made up of a dynamic bundle of selves, then we have the freedom to restart at any given moment. What keeps us a single self and separates us from schizophrenia is our ‘psychological continuity’ from our birth to death, as Derek Parfit argued in his book, Reasons and Persons. Having said that, embracing uncertainty within this continuity is an encouraging and productive strategy, rather than becoming a circumstantial product and identifying with past mistakes, thus experiencing shame.

One day one might decide to give up, if no one agrees with our ideas or perhaps we lack an audience, or we have been told we are not good enough or even outrageous. And maybe, at times, this is true. However, if making art is an essential part of one’s self, inevitably there will come an irresistible urge to return to it. This might be provoked by a sudden idea that needs to come to life, an emotion that needs to be expressed, a meaningful thought that needs to be explored. Becoming an artist is acceptance of one’s self in the present. The ability to accept our own failures and mistakes with lightness will bring us closer to letting go of perfectionism. Then we can have a clear vision of what we have achieved, allowing us to see where to go next.  Who wants to live life fearing the possibility of unfulfilled potential? Or fearing that we haven’t expressed everything that we wanted to express?  

‘Ever tried. Ever failed.

No Matter. Try again.

Fail again. Fail better.’

Samuel Beckett