Broken Glass and the Beauty of Artistic Failure

In 2014, a friend (whom I will call “S”) took me to an amateur cabaret performance in Hamilton, where a couple of his friends would be performing aerial dance. They were still learning, and there were a few small mistakes where someone stopped their downward motion a bit suddenly or had to visibly adjust a silk that had wrapped around a limb. Just before the intermission, two rather more experienced aerial dancers performed, and their every move was fluid, flawless, and exquisite.

I experienced a mini “aha” moment, but as I started reflecting on the differences in the quality of the performances, I got a shocked look from S. Immediately, I realized that I looked like a complete asshole and needed to get to the point quickly. And the point was not to criticize the less experienced performers but to acknowledge the difficulty of the performance and the level of skill needed to pull it off.

The Price of Perfection

The seamless performances were the result of many years of practice and physical exertion, sweat and pain, pulled tendons and maybe even broken bones. Those small mistakes were reminders that those were human bodies, with all their mass and weight, suspended in the air and fighting gravity every second. Such a performance demands full body strength and grace. (Meanwhile, I can barely do a single pull-up.)

Artists, craftspersons, and many other makers, builders, and skilled workers know that the apparent ease of creation is superficial. Of course it looks easy—they’ve been doing it for years. It wasn’t that easy for them when they started, although we typically only see the products that result from years of skill development. We rarely get to peek behind the curtain and observe the failed experiments and hard lessons that define the creative process, and we almost never see the products of these failures.

But whether or not you are an artist, you must learn to value failure if you’re going to succeed.

Blown Away

Fast-forward from 2014 to … this past weekend. A glass-blowing competition called Blown Away had popped up in my Netflix listings, and I just had to watch it. I’m not usually a fan of reality TV, but competitions of skill are always fascinating, and glass is (to me, at least) still a mysterious substance. I’ve never tried to work with it, and I had only seen glass blowers at work once on an arts walk in Kingston, where I really only witnessed a snippet of the action.

Blown Away gave me the time-lapse version of the glass blower’s work. In each half-hour episode, I got to watch craftspersons with various approaches and experience levels push themselves to create new and fantastic things. They typically had anywhere from four to eight hours in the “hot shop” to design and create a piece that would meet the challenge they had been given. It was a beautiful and chaotic time-lapse version of the creative process from conception to completion, and there was A LOT of broken glass in between.

Now, when you or I break glass, it’s usually the result of accident, clumsiness, or a fit of uncontrollable Hulk rage. In the hot shop, however, broken glass is just a fact of life.

Glass blowing is finicky, demanding work, and for all the skill that goes into it, there is always an element of chance. Accidents happen occasionally, but even when the artists have done everything right, they may still be confronted by a self-destructing object.  Invisible imperfections in the glass can produce unpleasant surprises, and some processes are just inherently risky, such as rapidly cooling the glass in water to create delicate internal fractures. Sometimes, the artists check the annealing oven the next day only to find their completed piece in pieces. Even the most experienced glass blowers can’t eliminate these problems altogether.

Risky Business

There is nothing about art—or life—that is entirely without risk, and attempting to remove all risks makes people kind of useless and boring. Learning to face risks, challenges, and disruptions gracefully requires that you face them in the first place. Those who are not accustomed to challenges can never learn to handle them constructively.

Watching all that beautifully crafted glass shatter is a reminder that you can never have complete control over the process. Stop trying to avoid failure and embrace it instead.

Header image courtesy of 412designs.


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