Oct 12, 2013

pursuing perfection in art... or not

Twenty years ago, I was conducting an interview with a well-known painter. I loved his work, as did many other people, and when I complimented him on the beauty and seeming perfection of his paintings, he told me that art was a process, not a product.

At the time, I found this very strange. So strange in fact, that these words have been stuck in my head ever since and clearly, I've had a lot time to try to reconcile these two halves.

The question I keep coming back to is this: the process is critical, no doubt, but isn't the product equally critical? Without the product, does the process matter?

It's only now, as I pursue my own ventures in art making, that these words begin to make sense.  What I love most about my quilts is making them. In fact, the most exciting time for a quilter is the beginning of a project. We love to think of all the possibilities, all the techniques to pursue our vision, all the fabric choices, the thread choices...

Then, we stand like proud parents over our product. And when people say nice things about it, the first thing we do is point out its flaws. We show the viewer where we screwed up this part and why that part didn't turn out like it was supposed to. We're painfully aware of every weakness in the product. And as these words flow out of my mouth, I keep reminding myself, art is the process, it is NOT the pursuit of a perfect product. And I vow that next time... I'll just say thank you.

Why are we so hell bent to point out why a product is not perfect? I think it's because we view the product as a validation of the process... if we spent this many hours on it, it ought to be perfect, right?  This idea of valuing the process over the product is a tough one.

I recently came across a quote written in Victorian England, around 1851, by John Ruskin. Ruskin was a visionary art critic and a relentless supporter of art and artists, and wrote extensively about architecture and the preservation of important buildings. His ideas are still relevant in art history and architecture today.

"Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it is imperfect..." He goes on to explain that the first fall of the arts in Europe (following the Renaissance) was the relentless pursuit of perfection.

While this may sound kind of high brow and old school... what this says to me is that perfection is not possible, and not even admirable, in art. And pursuing it can kill both the process and the product!

So, instead of dwelling on the mistakes, I will dwell on the joy of making it. I will take time to smell the roses along the way...

And I vow... next time... I will let the product speak for itself. Just say 'thank you.'

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