Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Technical Perfection

2007- Antonio Canova's Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, Louvre, Paris
All the greatest and most ingenious artists were perfectionists.

Their quest for technical perfection would often be strongly criticized by their detractors and their art would take longer to reach global recognition as higher artistic craft.
The criticism often comes from the assumption that the artist is more concerned with formal virtuosity, while giving content little or no importance. Their works are then termed sterile, unemotional, artificial, void.

I am for perfection.
I admire whoever aims at it. The history of the arts and science has taught us that those who have aimed at perfection were the ones who reached up to the highest peaks of excellence. Yet, the value of their masterpieces was only acknowledged decades - if not centuries - later!
I often like to recall the urban legend according to which Paganini, probably the highest violin virtuoso in the history of music, was once violently criticized during a performance because of his search for technical complexity. In answer to that, he stripped his violin bare of all its chords except one, to then complete the concert on one chord only.
I don't know the percentage of truth in this anecdote, and I'm pretty sure it's never been officially confirmed. Yet, it makes a point: those who criticize a search for perfection are just envious of an ability they don't have - and will never have. The best way to spite them is to continue, unperturbed, on our path. Gain talent, and they'll chew their intestines off of it!

There's nothing wrong with a sane obsession for the minutest details, as long as the acting is not unemotional, the writing sterile, the music uninspiring, and the playing bleak.
Technical precision allows us to convey a meaning exactly the way we want to. We need an alembic for contents, or we'll just have a heap of meaningless material.  

I'd rather aim at perfection and miserably fail than produce mediocrity.

Are you a perfectionist?
What is perfection to you?


  1. Unachievable but worth striving for

  2. I've noted, in my search, that adopting new improvements can lead to sterility. But once the artist/actor/writer learns to wield the new technique, they then make it their own by infusing themselves into the technique. I guess we must learn to do it technically well before we can dance on its nuances.

  3. I am a perfectionist, but unfortunately striving for perfection can also lead to paralysis. If we think that what we can accomplish is bound to be less than perfect, we often hesitate to even try. A great example of this is presented in Mark Salzman's novel The Soloist.

  4. I sort of side with Julia Cameron (and other creative teachers) in that I believe the pursuit of perfection can have many pitfalls, including creative blockage. But I know you're being more specific with the pursuit of technical perfection, and this, yes, this I understand. I'm a jeweler after all! (My jewelry mentor has told me more than once, a successful jeweler must be a patient perfectionist). And technical precision is a must in writing, as well. I'm glad to hear that it also applies in other art forms.

  5. Every one is a perfect them. I strive for perfection. Sometimes it takes me a month to write an article, but...I strive also to look loose and sloppy and easily achievable so that someone reading me can say "I can do that." and relate. I cannot stand to read verbose drones. I can do that with the best of them, but why? No one reading me would accuse me of striving for perfection, but no one knows how much I agonize to strike a chord in everyone. Every good author knows that. My hero is PG Wodehouse. His characters are a vacant mess but he is as classic as War and Peace.

  6. Oh wow - just saw a documentary on Mstislav Rostropovich - cellist extraordinaire and a groundbreaking visionary of what the cello may achieve. Anyway ex-students from his famed masterclasses recalled many anecdotes of him and this was one of my favourite:

    A young cellist played a technically difficult piece for him - played it brilliantly and flawlessly and all in the class were just totally amazed. After this student finished, Rostropovich asked the student to visualise a piece of luggage - not just any old luggage but one made with the finest crocodile skin, with solid gold hinges and locks. He asked this student to pick up this precious gorgeous luggage and to admire how beautiful it looked. The student dutifully did so - pretended to pick up this luggage and admire how it looked. "Now open it," the master said. The student did. "Tell me what you see?" the teacher continued. When the student didn't reply, Rostropovich said, "There is nothing. This beautiful luggage is empty. That is how you played today. Like this luggage, all beautiful on the outside but nothing in the inside".


    Take care

  7. Mike,
    I agree!

    I do agree!

    Agree, do I!

    Bless you, and thanks for reading between the lines. I'm pretty sure not everyone did.

    The one you described, which you aim at, is exactly one aspect of the perfection I was talking about.

    Oh finally someone fell in the trap.
    I naturally didn't mean empty technique, if that is really what it sounded like. I hope you didn't imply that Paganini was an empty piece of golden luggage, because that would offend the intelligence of many violinists and musicians, Rostropovich included.
    Still, once feelings, deep feelings, drive our work, technique is what allows us to express them to the best in order to create connections, inter-connections, in order for meanings to intertwine for this one purpose: make a reader, an audience, a listener, a spectator come as close as possible to feeling what we felt and what we were trying to communicate.
    I personally believe that expressing a feeling is not art; expressing a feeling is simply expressing a feeling, however admirable that may be. Expressing a feeling through an analogy, still retaining all the intensity of the emotion that led one to express it, that is Art.
    But oh, how hard it is to draw a powerful analogy without making it sound void, empty, emotionless. This, I believe, requires high technical mastery.

    What I'm saying is: Picasso was not a Cubist because he couldn't draw.

    Thanks for stirring the debate. I was hoping someone would!

  8. Great post! We should all aim for perfection, and in doing so we will hopefully be that much closer. Otherwise, what's the point?

  9. I love your posts, Jay. They're so... thought provoking :)

    Perfection is definitely something I aim for... You have to set your goals high... so you don't end up in mediocrity... Some people are fine with mediocracy though... I'm not one of them ;) And I LOVE the violin story! I hadn't ever heard that!

  10. Heather,
    Aiming at perfection means working with an attitude other than "Whatever". If not, like you say, what's the point?

    Thank you!
    You're right, some people content themselves with mediocrity. Others never settle for less.
    I don't really know the degree of truth in the Paganini anecdote. I'll do some research. Regardless of it's being true or not, it really helped me make my point!