The Perfect Work of Art

“…accurately speaking, no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.

“This for two reasons….The first, that no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure; that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that, he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also…..

“The second reason is, that imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life.  It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change…..All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the[ir] imperfections…..

“Accept this then for a universal law, that neither architecture nor any other noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect; and let us be prepared for the otherwise strange fact, which we shall discern clearly as we approach the period of the Renaissance, that the first cause of the fall of the arts of Europe  was a relentless requirement of perfection…….”

from The Stones of Venice  by John Ruskin, nineteenth-century art critic

Ruskin was a famous defender of Gothic art, the one which preceded Renaissance art in Europe. To him, the great cathedrals, with all their surprising irregularities, their strangeness, their savageness, as he called it, were closer to the ideal of beautiful—or rather of artistic truth.   Renaissance art critics like Vasari, and most critics in Ruskin’s own time, despised Gothic art, considering it childish, disorganized, crude.

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7 Responses to The Perfect Work of Art

  1. wrjones says:

    John Ruskin explained it very clearly. I once had a drawing teacher who commented that when he started art school he felt he had “this much” distance to travel to arrive at drawing skills he admired. But when he had traveled that distance he could see that he had “this much more” to go for the necessary training to satsify himself. And, finally, he realized he would never get there. There is no perfection of skills or results.

  2. 100swallows says:

    You are right, Bill, but that damn slavedriver inside us will just never be be satisfied. He’s mean, he’s heartless. I’m sure Ruskin came to his conclusion after great suffering. It is resignation, a sort of giving up. Some are better at living with their perfectionism than others. It certainly handicapped Michelangelo and didn’t bother, say, Bernini nearly so much.

  3. Ion Danu says:

    More you cite and talk about Ruskin, more I like him… And it’s true about imperfections. Even if you don’t need to search for them.. tehy will come to you… A confirmation of Ruskin’s just opinion in another field: isn’t an imperfection of some sort which make so valuable some collection stamps?

    I don’t think what did Ruskin was “giving up”: it was rather acceptance…(resignation also sound about right)…

  4. 100swallows says:

    Ah, Danu, when Ruskin is good nobody can beat him! Only Nietzsche can equal him for originality. But I fear you wouldn’t stand his moralizing. Even just to quote him here I always have to do a lot of cutting so modern readers won’t get turned off.

  5. will says:

    Perfection is something that seems quite difficult to define in Art. It implies a complete harmony with an idea, or a seamless resemblance with a model, or perhaps an exact compliance with a definition. To me, if there is perfection in this world, it can only be found in mathematics – but even there it is an illusion because mathematics are grounded on tautology, and hence keep saying the same thing exactly, all the time. There is much beauty in mathematics, but it is so specific, and strange that it goes beyond this short post – let’s say that this beauty comes from the feeling that the mind gets fulfilment in recognizing itself and in reassuring itself in a mirror that extends endlessly.
    I suppose that Renaissance geniuses might have concieved their haunting idea of perfection from their wide culture in all segments including geometry and mathematics in general – so was perhaps also the case for the Ancient Greeks. Middle Age architects and artists had no way to access this analogy. Their view of perfection might have been religious, that is to say impossible to reach by definition…
    Just a few ideas from a dedicated follower

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: I’ve been waiting for time to answer this but now I won’t let another day go by without at least thanking you and telling you that I enjoyed it. I still want to give a few ideas of my own but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait some more. Sorry.

  6. will says:

    Thank you, Swallows. It is great to see a blog owner minding so much about responding to messages! I look forward to going further into this discussion – but please take your time.

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