Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Imperfect Art

Murray Bail, in his novel, The Voyage, has a pompous art critic say that the power of art doesn’t come from perfection, but from the effort of creation. That we want imperfection because it’s closer to human understanding.

Even though the rest of the critic’s comment is idiotic, that first clause is true. The power of art does not come from perfection. “Perfect” is a word we can apply to an exam paper or to the threading on a screw. “Perfect” is an end word, the end of effort. We’re done when we hit perfect.

But we never say, standing before a Selma Burke sculpture, “That’s perfect.” Burke wasn’t done with that sculpture. She stopped working on it when it was as close to her truth as she could bring it. That’s what we want when we spend time with it, walk around to see it from every angle. Not perfection. Nor do we want imperfection, so we can understand it. What we want is a truth that we respond to on all levels, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Nor does the power of art come from the effort of creation. Of course any activity requires effort - learning the craft, practicing it - but we fully respond to art only if it appears to be easy. So easy, so effortless, that we could do it ourselves. If we leave a concert in a state of awe at the technique of the guitarist, we have been listening to a craftsman. If we leave humming and strumming an air guitar, we’ve been listening to an artist.

What we do admire in artists is not effort, but the risks they take in presenting us with imperfect art. When they say, “I’m giving you the very best I can at this moment.” 

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