I feel an affinity toward the word failure. As a member of Generation X, the words loser and slacker have been historically used as general-purpose descriptive terms to define people of my generation. Of course, this characterization ultimately did not end up being the whole of the story, as is true for every generation before and to follow. But still, the concept of failure is deeply embedded in those born in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. In The Queer Art of Failure Judith Halberstam, who also writes under the name J. Jack Halberstam (see Gaga Feminism), introduces us to alternative ways of viewing failure, as perhaps an expression of rebellion or as means to resist mainstream America’s pressure to conform. Halberstam writes in the introduction entitled “Low Theory” : “From the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success. Where feminine success is always measured by male standards, and gender failure often means being relieved of the pressure to measure up to patriarchal ideas, not succeeding at womanhood can offer unexpected pleasures.” Through this feminist lens the book examines contemporary art and pop culture looking for places of resistance within popular texts. “This resistance,” writes Halberstam, “takes the form of investing in counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity.” (See the chapter “Dude, Where’s My Phallus” for a discussion of the charmingness of male stupidity.)
Chapter One, “Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation” introduces the idea that childhood itself is a queer state wherein children are “disorderly,” and that if you “believe that children need training, you assume and allow for the fact that they are always already anarchic and rebellious, our of order, and out of time.” It is within this framework that Halberstam undertakes the discussion of contemporary animated children’s films such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Monsters, Inc and positions these films as Marxist texts of revolt. Halbertam credits new methods of animation, CGI in particular, as the catalyst for this form of storytelling. Halberstam calls these films “‘Pixarvolt’ i
n order to link the technology to the thematic focus.” That these tales of insurgency and escape appeal to children is not surprising, but that these same films offer an alternative, queer, utopian vision of the future to adult viewers, is. Just re-watch Chicken Run and re-consider the ending of the films where “the all-female society of chickens allows for unforeseen feminist implications to this utopian fantasy.”
One of the things I like best about Halberstam’s books is that contemporary art is always included in the discussion of more general contemporary culture. In a Queer Time and Place and Female Masculinity are good examples of this. The chapter “The Queer Art of Failure,” includes a discussion of both the process of art-making and the works themselves. Looking at queer culture through the lens of failure was surprisingly revealing. Halberstam says, “[for Quentin] Crisp, as for an artist such as Andy Warhol, failure presents an opportunity rather than a dead end; in true camp fashion, the queer artist works with rather than against failure and inhabits the darkness. Indeed the darkness becomes a crucial part of a queer aesthetic.” Transgressive fiction and art have always appealed to my sensibility. In fact, I divide my life into before High Risk books and after. Undeniably, this genre is dominated by self-defined queers. I have read critiques that dismiss the whole lot of them as bitter and angry. While I agree that this work is often bitter and angry, that does not seem to be the motivating factor for creation of the work. It is Halberstam’s discussion of darkness as a queer place, that led me to better understand work I have already loved for decades, and helped me to see more recent work in a new light.
Included in the text are glossy color plates as well as some black-and-white images peppered throughout. My favorite of the included works are two photographs from the series Fourth, by Tracey Moffatt. Moffatt had been considered for a position as the official photographer for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and though this did not come to pass, it sparked her interested in the way we talk about winning, and the ramifications of fame and celebrity. Her series Fourth, shows athletes as they discover they have come in fourth place at the Olympics. These athletes, whose names we will never remember, came so close to earning a medal, but failed epically. Perhaps even a worse failure than coming in last.
The Queer Art of Failure is a surprisingly fun read, and more than once I laughed out loud, which is a pretty unusual response to a Queer Theory text. It is also one of the most accessible books on Queer Art Theory that I’ve read, if accessibility is one of your criterion. Halberstam is my favorite theorist and excels pulling challenging ideas from the least challenging material. Halbertam is most successful introducing new ideas and applying them to popular culture. Perhaps less successful is Halberstam’s follow-through. But then again, So what?
The Queer Art of Failure, by Judith Halberstam
Duke University Press