The arguments against perfectionism are well-established at this point. It’s easy to spend forever trying to make something better, to improve it by repeated half-strides towards some theoretical optimum. It’s easy to get trapped in that mindset and thereby never end up making anything, to end up with inferior skills because you didn’t practice because you were too afraid to fail in your creation. And, in the end, this perfection you’re chasing doesn’t exist, it’s a symbol without a reality behind it, and you’re just charging at windmills that look like giants.
Okay, but: Let’s forget about all that. Let’s say that thing you’re making, that thing you’ve been working on and care so much about and that thing that’s going to really show people what you’re going for this time and maybe make them understand: If you could make that thing perfect, would you?
The obvious answer here is yes what are you stupid of course. However, that’s only because our understanding of ‘perfect’ as a term is that it’s synonymous with good – well, better than good: great, excellent, transcendent, etc. However, I think a more useful definition of the term is ‘flawless’, where whatever the role and shape this object serves it is constructed to serve it perfectly, and improving it in this aspect is impossible. Thus perfection only exists within the context of the role which is perfected.
Under this understanding of perfection, the question asked above seems less trivial and obvious. First, what would that perfection look like? What purpose would be more perfectly served by the new shape of your creation? Second, it becomes more apparent that making a creation more perfect in one context actually hampers its suitability towards other contexts. By improving in ways that you are overtly aware of, you may be making it worse in ways you haven’t noticed – or, perhaps more accurately, by making it more suitable towards the artistic context you are fully aware of you’ve made it less suitable towards a possible artistic context you’re less aware of.
All of this is very heady when stated in the above terms, but we see it happen all the time. Who among us creators have not set out to polish a rough-edged work and ended up with something that’s technically smoother and more approachable but bereft of the ‘soul’ which originally compelled us to work on it? Who hasn’t carefully edited out extraneous words and asides only to find that the text is now limp and lifeless, abrupt and devoid of personality? We have sought perfection, and in so doing found a perfection which excludes important secondary facets of our work we weren’t aware of.
In effect, the pursuit of perfection is counterproductive to the pursuit of art – not only for the earlier mentioned pragmatic reasons of endless striving towards an unattainable optimum, but because in order to be interesting art needs to have a certain degree of complexity. In order to say something profound, it’s necessary to touch on many points and aspects at once, to capture small details that don’t seem important but add up to something more than themselves. Contradictions aren’t necessarily bad, unanswered questions don’t always need to be answered. Striving for some perfection, some erasure of all the flaws of a work, is likely to erase some vital component of the work itself in the process.
I’m not arguing against revision, against polish, against hard work and dedication to making something as good as it can be. I am, however, arguing against a mindset that views this work as eradicating flaws, as perfecting something that is imperfect. Polishing and finishing a work is as much detailing as it is smoothing, a process of curating flaws rather than eliminating them wholesale. That process of curation, of editing, of emphasis and subtlety and consonance and dissonance, is the domain of the artist.
Once we understand that each work of art’s role is to be itself, we can see each of them as perfect in their own way, perfectly suited to being the work of art that they are. Alas, that doesn’t necessarily make them good.
Good art is so much more difficult than perfect art. Perhaps that’s why so many of us merely strive for perfection.