Thursday, March 22, 2012

The "Perfect" is the enemy of good.

"The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right, solely on the quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the 'quantity' group: fifty pounds of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B" and so on. Those being graded on 'quality' needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all being produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seemed that the 'quantity' group was busy churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the 'quality' group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."  - Excerpted from the book - Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland

I have been making art my whole life. Really...well maybe not my whole life but pretty much since I was 4 or 5 years old..or so my mother tells me. My father, a very sentimental saver of all things that he deems interesting or important, has alot of my childhood drawings to prove it. To look at those 'works' is to see pure joy. Joy in the process, joy in the creating and joy in discovering. If you are lucky, as I was as a child, your 'works' are received with joy and encouragement and you continue to explore and create until one day someone calls you an artist. Fast forward 40 plus years (okay, more than that!) and suddenly the joy is replaced by hesitation...and doubt. What is going on, I ask myself. How did this happen? And why? I was enjoying myself, or so I thought. I was getting somewhere - making headway. For Godsakes I am teaching fellow artists, how can this be happening to me?!  How can I encourage them when I am suddenly so unsure of myself?

I  KNOW that inner critic. I have been down that road as a student of the arts and I know how to listen to that inner voice and have trusted it to help make me better. It has always been my trusted friend, the thing that I could count on for balance and truth, when the world around you is full of nothing but warm praise or the flip side of that coin, harsh criticism. What, exactly, is my inner voice trying to say? Why is it stopping me in my tracks? And......what is UP with THAT??

"We have met the enemy and he is us" - Pogo

"If you think good work is somehow synonomous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble". " require perfection is to invite paralysis." "The patten is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do - away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes." - the authors write, in the book Art and Fear.

Hmmm. OK. I get that, I see myself in that story, as I see much of the book Art & Fear. I am very much like the student(s) in that second group, who fear not being able to produce that "perfect" piece. Not so much 'perfect', as in no mistakes, but my own version of perfect that is measured by the criteria I have set up for myself, in my mind's eye. Procrastinate though? Yes, if I'm to be honest I suppose I do to some extent (although I have been calling it 'busy').

As I read further comes this pearl of wisdom that somewhere deep down I already knew but had buried deep:

"The seed for your next work, lies imbedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you are feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides - valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgemental guides - to matters you need to reconsider or develop further."  (page 31, Art & Fear)

Imperfections are our guides to matters we need to develop further; they are our roadmap for development, for betterment as an artist, in honing our skills. I have always embraced this concept, and believed it to be true for all matter what you are doing in your life. We are human, we err; and if we are smart, we learn from our mistakes....we grow.  "That's why they put erasers on pencils", my husband loves to say! But I'd forgotten that and had become stiff and self-conscious, letting the door open, so that 'doubt' could walk in.

Self doubt -> Magic?

"There's a myth amoung amateurs, optimists and fools
that beyond a certain level of achievement,
famous artists retire to some kind of Elysium
where criticism no longer wounds
and work materializes without their effort."
- Mark Matousek
(page 33, Art & Fear)

Even as artists we buy into the misconception that art is Magic. And maybe, just maybe, that psyches us out just a little every now and again. We look around us and work seems to flow out of others. What is wrong with us, we think? Have we lost 'the magic'? But it is not magic. It is effort that draws on knowledge. Knowledge that is earned by doing, by experience. To believe that it is magic, is to invalidate the incredible accomplishments of the creative (and scientific) world, to invalidate what masters such as Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Bach & Beethoven have accomplished and to turn a blind eye to the hard work behind the theories of Einstein and the great inventions of Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers amoung others. Without failure, without mistakes, there would be no progress.

I begin to realize that the "Imperfect" is the ally of good. And the critic within me, can be again, a trusted friend.

Keep painting, friends, and keep making mistakes. Imperfect is the friend of good....

- Nancy

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