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Perfection: a curse on the world of art

Image courtesy of Zach Dyson

Perfection. Something everyone strives to achieve, whether they know it or not. In athletics, in academics, in physical appearance. In art, perfection has been long debated. Is it technical, or does it rely on the expression of the piece?

Image courtesy of Amy-Leigh Barnard

In art, say if one wants to become a painter, they will likely take a class. They will paint in their free time and listen to the words of so-called masters to improve their skills. Say our artist hopes to become a painter who does hyper-realistic portraits. They will have to take hours and hours of classes on shading, color, dimensions of people, lighting, etc. This will be, for them, a road to perfection.

Say we have a second artist. This artist wants to paint as well but hopes to create abstract images, combining colors never seen together in the real world, creating shapes that convey emotions rather than physical form. This artist will take classes as well. These classes will be on things like what colors summon what emotions, what different shapes convey in the subconscious mind, etc. Another road to perfection.

These two styles of painting, hyperrealism and abstract, are so vastly different from one another, and yet the ideal of perfection encapsulates them both. In an ideal world, our amateur painters will both reach their final goal: being perfect at their art. But what does this mean? At what point can they rest and breathe; at what point will they be perfect?

Image courtesy of Steve Johnson

And although perfection seems such a distant future, especially to artists just beginning their journey into their own creative passions, it is achievable in one sense. In order to fully describe how to achieve perfection, the two types of perfection must be defined: objective and subjective.

Objective Perfection

In science, in math, or in other subjects of the correct-answer-correct-method genre, objective perfection is undeniably achievable. Two plus two equals four. This is correct, and so it is perfect. A perfect circle can be generated on a screen. A perfect formula in chemistry can flawlessly describe how water molecules are formed. This can be perfect, objectively perfect, because it can be fact.

In art, though, in something so heavily reliant on the human mind and spirit, objective perfection is but a dream. When it comes to something so difficult to describe as art, it is impossible to know where objective perfection falls. Without knowing how to get there, it is impossible to pursue this undeniable perfection.

Because we are such a divided species, in practically every way, it is impossible to find something we all agree on. Even fact is difficult to understand for some of us (see: the Earth is round), so something so experimental and emotional as art is going to be undeniably disagreed upon. Not everyone thinks the Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting. Not everyone believes that Edgar Allan Poe was a talented writer (shame on them). I guarantee that there is not a single piece of art that is appreciated by every living man in the world. And because of that, the only conclusion that can be drawn regarding objective perfection is its nonexistence. In art, it is nothing but a lie built to push every artist to strive to be better. “There is always room for improvement.” Maybe that is the case, but is it always right to improve? Maybe mediocrity can make an abstract painting beautiful.

The philosophy of pushing everyone to be better than what they are and what they’re already capable of is a concept in and of itself, and one for another time. So, the only thing to be said truly about objective perfection is that it should be ignored. Art should be for the artist and for no one else.

Subjective perfection

Subjective perfection is a vastly different concept. Subjective perfection is a healthier goal, often rooted in the self-approval of artists. Returning to the example of our portrait painter and our abstract painter, they are taking classes because they want to be better at their art. But they don’t want to create something that is inarguably perfect in the eye of every artistic consumer, they want to create art that is perfect for they, themselves. They will grow to be extremely talented artists who see their own art and take great pride in it, seeing the message they’ve conveyed and the colors they’ve combined as something to be proud of, not something to be improved upon.

Image courtesy of Europeana (artwork by Maris)

This perfection can also apply to the consumer of the art. When our portrait painter was a child, they did a paint by number. Because it was the first time they’d ever painted, it was, in simple terms, bad. But when they went to their mother, proud as can be with a wide toothy grin across their face, and she nearly teared up, she decided in that moment that it was perfect. This mother, the mother of a professional-artist-to-be, sees this first creation as perfect. It might be flawed in the technical sense, but in her eyes it is the start of something beautiful, and therefore she can see no wrong in it. She frames it, puts it in her room, and looks at it with the same esteem as the paintings done after years of practice.

Subjective perfection is ignoring the flaws in something because we are too overpowered by the goodness of it, the beauty of it (whether it’s the talent in the shading, the power of the message, or the simple emotional value).

In closing

So, in the end, perfection is nothing but a word. Something can be perfect to someone and horrible to someone else. It’s still perfect, and it’s still flawed.

Image courtesy of Marcos Paulo Prado

You could fill a book with half of what’s to be said about perfection in the world of art alone. The problem with perfection is that it can become the standard, the expectation. At a certain point pointing out the flaws in someone’s artwork hurts more than it helps. All that’s to be said is this: write a poem, paint a picture, film a movie, sculpt a gargoyle, sing a song. Once you’re happy with yourself in your art, once you’ve reached your goal and are comfortable where you are, the words of others shouldn’t matter in the slightest. Unless constructive criticism is actively being sought out, art is not something that should be judged.

Nothing is perfect, and yet everything is.

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