On Perfection

When I first came here and looked down into that lovely valley from the hill, the way the entire scene charmed me was a marvel.–That little wood!–Ah, if only you might walk in its shade!–That mountain-top!–Ah, to view this vast landscape from there!–And the chains of hills, and the gentle valleys!–Oh, to lose myself amongst them!–And I hastened there, and returned without having found what I was hoping for. Oh, distance is like the future: before our souls lies an entire and dusky vastness which overwhelms our feelings as it overwhelms our eyes, and ah! we long to surrender the whole of our being, and be filled with all the joy of one single, immense, magnificent emotion.–And then, ah! once we hasten onwards, and what lay ahead becomes the here and now, everything is just as it was, and there we are, as poor and confined as ever, our souls longing for the elusive balm.

Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

Perfection is a concept that is responsible for a lot of grief, a concept that sends artists chasing a goal that does not exist because it has never been defined, nor can ever be defined. The concept can of course be applied to simple things in our daily lives without much problem. I can say that the weather is “just perfect”. The use here is too casual, focusing on a few basic elements that have to be met. But when the concept is applied to something complex like art, it becomes harmful. An artist doesn’t want to create something that’s just good, they strive to reach greatness, and right up there at the top lies the beacon of perfection calling them closer.

But chasing perfection is asking yourself: “Can I do this better?”, to which the the answer is always “Yes”. It cannot be otherwise because the moment you’ve finished creating something, you analyze it with a critical eye. From this point you can now pick out things that can be improved. Even if your work is the best you could possible make, once made, you’ve grown in some capacity, and so now you will evaluate this work from a higher vantage point, not from the place you were when you were still creating the work.

But perfection is unattainable, simply because it cannot be defined–if it could, we would not be endlessly chasing it. It is an ideal–a product without flaws–but such a product can never exist because this ideal is always shifting in the eyes of the beholder. As you create better work, so will your critical eye evolve. It will grow in its capacity to see faults, and will constantly be fuelled by higher expectations, raising the bar just a little bit higher every time.

Notice how easy it is to create something when nobody is watching and nothing depends on it? Here, there’s no perfection, no pride, no expectation. Successful artists often feel an incredible weight on their shoulders when they set off to create new works. They’ve set a bar, and everybody expects them to go higher. Perfection starts feeding on their pride and fear, calling them towards an undefinable goal as they struggle to please their fans.

Instead of chasing perfection, we should be chasing completion. A work need not be prefect, but it has to be complete. Unlike perfection, completion is not about chasing an unattainable goal, it is about meeting a fixed one. There is no such thing as a perfect work, because everyone judges things differently, so there is no standard by which such a thing can be defined. There is however such a thing as great work–work that has been completed and deemed exceptional–either by others, or by you. But this can only happen when the work is done.

Erase the concept of perfection, and focus on creating a work that is unique and complete. Whether this work will be successful or not–in whatever sense you wish–doesn’t matter, it has already failed if all you do is hold it back.

August 2011