Art and Imperfection

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” -- David Foster Wallace.

This quote was in this week’s Brain Pickings newsletter and it really resonated. I have been thinking a lot recently about imperfection. What it means in a work of art. What it means for the artist. What it means for those of us who appreciate it, flaws and all. How it serves as a symbol of the imperfections we all carry within us, and of the imperfections of humans, society and the world in general.

I bought a silver necklace when I was in Costa Rica last fall. It is quite beautiful, with orange stones and silver links. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the two silver tubular beads near the pendant are two different lengths. Maybe by only an eighth of an inch, but there’s a difference. I didn’t notice it at first, of course. Only after studying it did it become apparent.

It made me wonder if the artist had done it intentionally, as a mark of individuality. Mapmakers insert intentional errors into their maps as a way to copyright them. They might change the spelling of a street, or leave off a tiny road altogether. That way if someone stole the map and tried to market it, they would know instantly if it was theirs. I doubt the necklace-maker did it for that reason. Perhaps she ran out of similar-sized beads, or – given the slight difference – didn’t notice it herself. At any rate, it doesn't diminish the beauty of the necklace, and I would be willing to bet that no one would ever notice it while I was wearing the piece.

Yet, we all seem to strive for perfection in our work. Our industries and businesses demand it, schools expect our children to work hard to reach it, our parents expect exemplary behavior. But art is not perfect. Art is necessarily imperfect, asymmetrical, atypical, individualistic. Unique. And it is art that makes our world – our lives – so rich.

Wallace was on to something. While I think the quote above was meant to encourage the perfectionists among us to chill out, what results from letting go of perfectionism is often art. It is the process of allowing what is emerging to do so without forcing it, without preconceived ideas of what it’s supposed to be, look like and act. It’s a philosophy we can apply to the art we create, as well as our lives and even our children (speaking to myself here). Let them become who and what they want to be, not what our perfectionist egos want them to be.

Write, sculpt, paint, play an instrument – create – in the way that feels right to you. It is all art, and it is all good.