Cast-off to Comeback: Artistic "Failures" That Made History

Failure is a difficult topic to discuss. It reminds us that not every leap of faith lands somewhere solid and can cause that curl of uncertainty to appear when trying to make decisions both big and small. The same is true in the arts. We’ve collected a few examples of artists and artworks that initially fell flat, sometimes causing the creator to despair, but eventually leading them to greatness. Many of the works listed were once considered radical, or were too much of a departure from traditional forms to garner initial success. However, with time, they have all become fundamental blocks of our shared cultural history, and enjoy the notoriety of cast-offs that staged comebacks.

Book cover of A Confederacy of Dunces

John Kennedy Toole received posthumously the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for A Confederacy of Dunces. The comic novel was published by Lousiana State University Press, with support from the Arts Endowment. 

A Confederacy of Dunces

After many years of attempting to publish his manuscript, and many years of attempted revisions, John Kennedy Toole gave his lifetime work up as a failure. It remained neglected on top of his dresser with the many rejection notices it had accumulated. Toole would take his own life in 1969, and his mother came to consider the manuscript as one last chance to save her son's legacy. It took her a decade before she finally found a willing publisher for the tragicomedy, which tells of a gluttonous, dead-beat college philosopher in New Orleans who lives off his elderly mother's meager earnings. The willing publisher, Louisiana State University Press, was awarded an NEA grant of $3,500 to help cover the costs of publishing the novel. Released in 1980, A Confederacy of Dunces sold more than 50,000 copies in its first year along, and Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

Citizen Kane

Now considered a landmark achievement in film, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane tells the life story of the fictional Charles Foster Kane, moving through his rise to power in the newspaper industry and into his downward spiral of failure and isolation. However, it was clear that Kane was based on the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who controlled many of the country’s newspapers and magazines when Citizen Kane was released in 1941. Enraged at the unflattering portrait, Hearst forbid his publications to print advertisements or reviews for the film, or even to mention it. Hearst launched a massive campaign to suppress the movie, attacking Welles, threatening lawsuits, and persuading many theaters not to screen it. To a large extent, he was successful in shaping public opinion. While praised critically, Citizen Kane flopped at the box office and failed to recoup its production costs. It was so hated by the public, that when each of its nine Oscar nominations were announced at the Academy Awards, the crowd loudly booed. It won in only one category, Best Writing. The film would fade into obscurity until French film critic André Bazin wrote a piece in 1956 that praised the film, and drew new attention to its masterful cinematic technique and captivating characters.


A performance of The Rite of Spring by the Joffrey Ballet

The Joffrey Ballet's 1987 production of Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring used the original sets, costumes, and choreography from the 1913 production. Photo by Herb Migdoll 

Rite of Spring

Choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and composed by Igor Stravinsky, this ballet and orchestral concert was performed for the first time in Paris in 1913 by the Ballets Russes. The piece was very avant-garde for its time, showcasing untraditional choreography and dissonant compositions that didn’t follow typical patterns of rhythm, tone, or meter. It proved too much for the audience, and triggered a volatile reaction at the premier, though it would arguably be the most exciting opening night the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées would ever have. Rite of Spring was performed second in a show of new works, and by the crescendo of the overture, the crowd was beginning to become irrational. As dancers in the "Augurs of Spring" movement stomped and lurched in accordance with the choreography, the crowd became excessive in displaying their rejection of the piece. Objects were thrown into the orchestra pit as the audience fought amongst themselves and the noise became so loud that not even the performers could hear the score. After intervention from theater managers and police, the situation became more pleasant for the remainder of the performance. One thing that is important to note is that at no time did the performance halt and that it was fully completed, showing great fortitude on the part of the performers and creators. The piece was met with mixed reviews from critics, though it is now considered to be one of the most influential pieces of art created in the 20th century.

Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)

Marcel Duchamp's classic work of modern expressionism shocked and appalled viewers when it was displayed at The International Exhibition of Modern Art at the New York City Armory in 1913. The Armory Show, as it was called, featured American and European artists and ushered in a new era of modernism for the United States. Duchamp's piece Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) features overlapping, almost mechanical geometric shapes in beige that are meant to depict a woman's movement down a set of steps. It was a direct challenge to traditional depictions of the female form, and viewers struggled to relate to the piece and its radical idea of the human figure. It was called "an explosion in a shingle factory" by an art critic from the New York Times and became the punch line of satirical cartoons. During the exhibit the piece was alternatively crowded by critical and appalled viewers, or ignored in favor of other less volatile pieces. However, at the end of the exhibit the piece sold for its asking price of $324. Today, the piece is on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Duchamp went on to become one of art history’s most famous—and most admired—provocateurs.

Women's reflection in front of black wall with white writing, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. Photo courtesy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Perhaps fitting for so controversial a war, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was initially met with heavy criticism and reluctance by both the public and veterans. The NEA helped facilitated the design competition for the memorial in 1981, and panelists unanimously voted to award the project to 21-year-old Maya Lin. The design was modern and simple: two planes of polished black granite recessed into the earth and etched with the names of all 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict. However, some interpreted the minimalist design as a political position. Called the "black gash of shame," amongst other unsavory names, critics found its lack of traditional indicators of honor and glory as evidence of anti-war sentiments. Due to these protests, the memorial plans were altered to include three bronze soldiers and a flagpole, designed by contest runner-up, Frederick Hart. Today, “The Wall” is lauded as a pioneer among war memorials, and it has come to serve as a place of quiet reflection and national mourning. 

Elvis Presley

In 1954, Memphis musician Eddie Bond told Elvis Presley to stick to his day job driving a truck, thus ending Presley’s audition with Bond’s band. It was a rough period for Presley. He flopped another audition with local quartet called the Songfellows, and performed a single show at the Grande Ole Opry.  Opry manager Jimmy Denny did not ask him to return. Thankfully, Presley was not easily dissuaded. Knowing he had talent, he went on to audition at Louisiana Hayride a live radio show that directly competed with the Grand Ole Opry. He began weekly Saturday night appearances on Hayride and soon signed on with Sun Records. By 1955, bigger labels were taking notice, and RCA Victor eventually acquired his contract for $40,000. From here, he quickly made his ascent into music history, sealing his fate through records, radio, television, and film. Songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Love Me Tender” are still a part of mainstream music culture, and his unique and revolutionary style have justifiably earned him the title “The King of Rock 'n' Roll.”