Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Perfectly Mistaken

[This is a re-post of a blog previously published in the winter of 2014--more relevant to me and my work now than ever.]

Blog-reading accompanies the coffee most winter mornings. David Apatoff's blog posts enrich that experience. His cerebral writings provoke musings about art in general, and specifically reflections on my own beliefs about what I do. The comment threads are unusually edifying as well.

Apatoff's latest, That Knob on Mort Drucker's Lamp 
has been like getting one of those super-fine splinters in a finger--except this one's in my brain. His interesting post and ensuing comments provoked many philosophical/artistic digressions, but I want to discuss the principal (and maybe mistaken) question it provoked in me:
Should I--should any artist--be striving for Perfection?

Suddenly that topic is jumping out at me at every turn; in books, in documentaries, in conversation.
As in most things--art-related and otherwise--there is no exclusive truth for everyone. And there is no true perfection. There is sublimity, but that doesn't always occur with compulsive re-polishing.

On the album Diamonds and Rust, the amazing voice of Joan Baez cracks at one point (during Medley: I Dream of Jeannie/Oh Danny Boy). It's the part of the song I wait for, and it is an essential imperfection--I am very glad she didn't do another take. (I'd never dismiss the hard and continuous work Baez must have done to be such a force in the music world--not talking about work here, I'm talking about the quest for perfection.)

Perfectionism has never been a compulsion for me, and usually a concentrated attempt at it ruins the product because it ruins the process. In my art-life, if the experience isn't interesting and satisfying, the end result is usually a stinker. So why is that?

Ray Harryhausen's Skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts

Steve Johnson, in the documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, discusses Harryhausen's ability to do 98% of his filming with the first take. To paraphrase Johnson, that is part of what makes Harryhausen's art great. Johnson says,"If he had finessed it too much, the result wouldn't come from the heart. The more quickly you get your ideas out of your head and up on the screen, the more real."  Another commentator states, "Often, [this creates] artworks that resonate--because they are pure."

Medusa sketch. Ray Harryhausen

Can't help it--I completely agree with Johnson. When I create; over-thinking, fixing,
and re-drawing often disrupts the line from my heart and gut to the paper. If I think "make it perfect", it's nearly always because I've begun imagining a critic's response to the work, or my head is doing the comparison-thing http://tomsarmo.blogspot.com/2014/01/comparisons.html
Why does the process of picking away, tracing and re-tracing, result in a forced and lifeless work? Because all of a sudden I'm out to please people who, fundamentally, can never be pleased. That's a disservice to the vision heaving and rolling inside me.

Does this mean I don't work at being a better artist? Not at all--I am after that every minute of my life.  Does it mean I can't enjoy the works of more compulsive, perfection-driven artists? Not at all. I just don't see that particular quest as the only thing that separates great from mediocre.

David Hajdu, in Positively 4th Street, writes that Joan Baez once said "I have a primitive way of going about everything. I can't force myself to do something in which I'm not interested. Fundamentally, I'm lazy."
The words "primitive" and "lazy" are not usually in the vocabulary of a perfectionist, yet who would label Baez a mediocrity?

The great artist Ludek Tikovsky* wrote, "Sometimes I like more sketches than finished piece because of the spontaneity and--how to write it correctly--'airiness' of the lines..."
Me too, Ludek! I love to see spontaneous, real sketches--those done as thinking exercises and/or prelims. These are the things artists do when they are not consciously performing for an audience, or over-thinking some consummate product. (And by "real" I don't mean the newest trend in the art world--those suddenly ubiquitous "polished sketchbooks". Often wonderful, they are not true sketch books, as they are created as art pieces meant to be viewed as finished works.

It just might be that they who strive for perfection are the ones who'll make the big bucks or the history books. I won't research it for proof, but that's got to be fine with me. Nonetheless, I know that when a work is transcendent--makes my heart pound--it is seldom spot-free and flawless.

 "I like to make mistakes when I'm painting."
-Clive Barker

*Check out Ludek Tikovsky's thoughtful, unusual blog at http://art-is-jokken.blogspot.com/

(and thanks for reading--your comments are always welcome.)


  1. surprisingly I came across a similar name as mine on your blog ...;) ..... got red cheeks ....feel honoured.... thank you!!
    Well, what you write is very interesting and this type of thoughts is not unfamiliar to me. But today ,I am afraid , I can not contribute to this philosophical discussion seriously. But one thing I like to say: we, imperfect human beings can only strive for perfection. " Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." said Dali.
    In many hyper realistic paintings people see perfection. And here, I can fully understand what you wrote about "forced and lifeless work" It is so realistic painted that it is loosing "life" . Sometimes I think it is very good technically done but it is more craft than art.
    Well, Tom, such philosophical issues are best solved around table with bottle of good wine what make it a PERFECT evening :)

    "This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections. "

    1. No worries, Ludek--most days I can't talk seriously about anything--especially without wine. Would be great to share a bottle of good (or even bad) wine--and some art philosophy--with you!

  2. Hey Tom, have you ever seen the early 70s science fiction film, Silent Running"? The Joan Baez soundtrack is so beautiful. That's all I got, philosophically. :)

    1. Don't need philosophy--just a recommendation like that. Thanks, Ted!

  3. Excellent topic. I'm tilting in response toward the Japanese aesthetic of looking for that perfect imperfection ~ as you do in the Joan Baez song. And speaking of Silent Running -- Bruce Dern ! Nebraska~!

    1. Thanks for the Rec, Erik--Nebraska's now on my list. Reading up on Bruce Dern followed--never knew he got the "Oscar Curse". Or was he just bad at picking roles?


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