circles

February 16, 2014, by Stephen Mumford

Perfection

Knowing when to stop is one of the most difficult decisions of the creative process. It is not always easy to judge when a work is finished. Perhaps a painting needs one or two more brush strokes in a few places, a poem could do with an extra word added and a couple of them changing, and that song needs just one more verse. Is the piece perfect yet? If not, it could always benefit from more attention.

We have to admire any artist who strives for perfection. Not being content to produce something merely ‘good enough’ but instead pushing on beyond that point, seeking true excellence, into the region where truly great works of art are to be found: this is what inspires us. Yet perfection as a goal is most certainly least obtainable of all in the arts.

Plato introduced us to the idea of the forms, which were the perfect versions of things. No circle in reality is completely mathematically exact. Every thing we call circular has at least some minor imprecision that keeps it from perfect geometrical circularity. But the forms exist in a heavenly realm, Plato said, to be contemplated through pure thought rather than to be seen with the senses. It is here that a mathematician might find the perfect circle. And so too for all other objects and attributes; perhaps there an artist might discover the perfect painting, poem, symphony or novel.

Yet we don’t physically inhabit the world of the forms. Every piece we make will fall short of that ideal. There is no perfect book, play or film that we can make. And this presents a pleasing challenge. In the arts, it is always possible to improve and raise standards ever higher. What a delight that is for us because it means that infinite possibilities are before us. Some scientists speak of the possibility of a final, complete theory of physics. But art never will be complete.

The unobtainability of perfection in the arts impinges on academic life in at least two ways. It is meaningless ever to give 100% for an essay, for one thing, for it could always happen that the next essay is even better. Then what? There can be perfect answers in maths and science, and even in a logic paper, but it is perhaps definitive of the arts that there is always room for improvement.

Second, it poses a challenge for any academic writer in the arts. There have been many brilliant philosophers whose perfectionism has prevented them from completion of their work. The decision that a work is done is always a compromise as it must be taken in the knowledge that more time could make it better. Unless that compromise is made, however, a writer, artist or musician will still have produced nothing.

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