Fail Your Way to the Top

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It seems that the only way out of artistic failure in New York is to make art about it. From Lena Dunham’s Girls to the recent Hulu show Difficult People, many New Yorkers make it into the limelight by documenting their failure to do so, or simply their failure at life. It’s a surprisingly effective tool, and I understand why. Living in New York for nearly five years taught me that the foibles of everyday life and our own neurosis are far more engaging than most TV and film. One could argue that Annie Hall, for example, also falls into this category. Life in New York is so rich, often with personal catastrophes, that making art from it can lead to some remarkable works. Considering that nearly everyone in the city is “struggling,” artist or otherwise, it makes sense that this would become a common theme.

This has given rise to the curious cultural presumption that to make great art one must first fail at making that art. The failure, somehow, reveals a deep truth about the universe, which is then explored when the artist begins to make art about failing to make art. Often, that deep truth is that one cannot be successful at making art. But do artists truly need to fail, in career terms, to find a successful voice? Is this true of any other profession (politicians excepted)? Perhaps this is because failure is an easily understood trope that artists can call upon to connect with their audience. As a culture at large, Americans seem to understand at least this about artists – they usually fail.

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Perhaps this increasingly common trope can be explained by the simple need for dramatic action. To make a story compelling and add tension and emotional stakes there must be an “issue” or “problem” that confronts the characters. If a character is an artist or actor, then professional success is a simple, easily understood theme that can be mined for dramatic action. Since audiences in general expect people to fail in professional artistic endeavors, this makes for a effortlessly digestible trope to use for story and comedy purposes.

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Lena Dunham rocketed to fame with her movie Tiny Furniture and subsequent HBO series Girls. Both are considered semi-autobiographical. Via
Lena Dunham (shown here with singer Christina Aguilera) rocketed to fame with her movie Tiny Furniture and subsequent HBO series Girls, both based on her own life.

While this is certainly an influence, I believe that something more deeply linked to the underlying currents of culture is occurring. In most cases where this crops up – GIRLS, Broad City, Difficult People, Inside Amy Schumer – the main creatives making the show are actually the artists the story is based on. This creates a very strange meta experience for the viewer: the actors are playing characters who fail at their artistic professional goals, yet the very performance of this indicates that the actors have attained these same goals. In GIRLS Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, constantly languishes in her inability to “make it” as a writer. However, Lena Dunham wrote, directed, and starred in those scenes.

Essentially, these artists fail at being artists, make art about that experience, and suddenly succeed at being an artist. How does that work? Usually, if you fail at something it means you fail at something. In most cases, you don’t become President of the United States by losing the election. Why is it that in New York artists find success by highlighting their lack of it?

It is also worth noting here that artists in these series–with the possible exception of Broad City–never focus on institutional, economic, or societal blocks in their way to success in art. Instead, they focus on crushingly debilitating emotional and personal issues. For Hannah, the issue is not that books, news, and other outlets for writing have become flooded with content and are no longer offering a viable economic model for writers, but rather boy problems and anxiety attacks. It is also worth noting that, as these characters “fail at life,” they do so in massive apartments with designer clothes and seemingly limitless time to contemplate the neuroses and dramas that bar them from success. Maybe this was exclusive to me, but when I was a failing artist in New York, I lived in an unfurnished living room the size of a small cupboard and worked 45+ hours a week at my day job, barely making enough to feed and occasionally clothe myself. I didn’t have time, money, or energy for personal drama.

Calling a character poor doesn't make them poor. Especially if show them with all the trappings of wealth. Via
Calling Amy Schumer’s character poor doesn’t make her poor. Especially if a series ensconces her within all the trappings of wealth.

Perhaps that is the deeper truth that these stories reveal and ultimately why I find them so unsettling. Instead of focusing on genuine issues that affect viewers, such as societal shifts, the widening wealth gap and its repercussions, accumulating pollutants, etc., these stories zero in on attractive wealthy people and their personal problems. Yes, I understand that these characters are meant to be “poor.” Here’s the thing, you can call Hannah poor all you want in GIRLS, she always has nice clothes, a nice apartment, nice food, and ample free time. If that’s not wealth, then what is?

Comedy Central's Broad City conveys the feeling of New York life with surprising accuracy. Photo Credit: Linda KallerusVia
Comedy Central’s Broad City (written by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson) conveys the feeling of New York life with surprising accuracy. Photo: Linda Kallerus.

That is how these stories work and connect with an audience. They are not groundbreaking or insightful or at a certain level even truthful, especially considering their rather monochromatic cast. These stories are comfortable. They offer challenges to the characters in the form of professional goals and the personal dramas that prevent them but without real danger, as is constantly shown through implied wealth and low stakes. No one is going to die on these shows, at least not in an emotionally impactful way. If characters fail, they do so in a way that is comical or ultimately beneficial. These stories allow us to touch the threatening and avant-garde world of art with minimal risk. That’s fine – they are fun stories and they have value. Broad City crafts an eerily accurate New York experience for example. But they are not insightful, and they are certainly not depictions of failing at art. They are the same stories we already know–the ones focused on attractive, rich, and primarily white people and their personal problems.

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Dillon Slagle
Dillon Slagle works in New York as a dramaturg and biological anthropologist. His experiences range from dramaturgy for puppet performances exploring the nature and formation of mono-theism with Kevin Augustine, to excavating pre-Greek burial sites in Menorca, Spain. In both anthropology and dramaturgy, Dillon believes in rigorous research, cultural awareness, and creative approaches to the process. Dillon is constantly searching for new, engaging, and relevant work. He is a member of LMDA, Dramaturg for the Carroll Simmons Performance Collective, and the Literary Manager for the Creation & Completion Project. Check out his Web site, Dramaturgy Tea, and find him on Twitter and Facebook.