Friday, April 22, 2022

Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold was speaking of perfection when he wrote “Not a having and a resting, but a growing and a becoming” in an essay that was part of the collection, Culture and Anarchy, which was published in 1869.  

There are several definitions of the word perfect and most are limiting: conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type; excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement; entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings; accurate, exact, or correct in every detail. This is the perfection I envision as a glass castle glimmering in the distance. When I come closer, I see that the walls are shiny and sheer and there are no windows or doors. There is no way in. Our work should be an open door—an invitation to think, to sing, to dance, to feel—to both ourselves and our viewers. 

The word perfect has one more definition: exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose. I use it often in this way. A student is set to fold a piece of paper and asks “Is this okay?” “Perfect.” My daughter is sautéeing onions and asks, “How are these?” “They’re perfect,” I answer. Do I mean that the paper or the onions have reached some ideal state of perfection, that they are the ultimate of all possibilities? No, but are they, for the moment at hand, exactly what is needed? Yes. We need to seek not the ideal but the real, using the materials that are in our hands, the experiences that have shaped our thinking, and the feelings that have affected our spirit. 

When I work, I don’t set out with a goal of making something beautiful, nor do I have a vision of what the piece will look like at the end. What I seek is harmony. I am trying to make something in which all the parts work together to form a pleasing and integrated whole. I think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Like the little bear’s porridge, I want it to be “just right.”

One of the gifts of artmaking is the opportunity to inhabit, at least some of the time, a place of our own. Even if we express the conflict and chaos we see around us in our work, we can still experience the peace of making harmony as we put pen to paper, brush to canvas, or fingers to keyboard.


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