People are drawn to beauty. There’s no denying it. The Greeks believed in perfection of form, a kind of harmony that had the power to objectively draw the eye and inspire people toward virtue.
Have you noticed that what attracts you to your significant other is often some kind of unique imperfection? Do you love your favorite book because it is ideally structured, with perfect characters, and impeccable style? Maybe. But then again, Dostoyevsky was no Tolstoy when it came to style. And I think it would be difficult to argue that Dostoyevsky’s visceral effect on people, his ability to actually change minds and hearts, trump Tolstoy’s fine stylings any day.
So which is it? What’s more important for us who create culture? Should we strive for perfection? What would that even look like? Or can we be satisfied with our imperfections, just hoping for the best?
Artistic Perfection by Way of Necessity
Recently I was reading Ivan Ilyin (as one does), and he has an interesting essay on the subject of “Artistic Perfection.” In it, he speaks of what he believes will be the coming new renaissance of art and culture. Seeing in modernism a kind of “stale creativity, praised by people with no roots,” he believed that mankind is on the cusp of the creation of a “healthy art,” free from any pointless striving after either originality or deconstruction:
The future, of course, will gift us a new art, but this new art will be created by true spirit and the depth of the heart, because these are the only ones capable of conceiving true art and bringing it to life. In fact, spiritual depth has its laws, which are dependent on one’s own will, which are not able to be supplanted by preconceived notions or contrived artifice. The New Art will give us a New Content… a new form, not the current formlessness. It will allow itself to do much, but only within the frame of spiritual necessity. This is the criterion–art allows only the absolutely necessary.
Ilyin often speaks about freedom of the spirit and the depth of the heart in his writings, only some of which have been translated into English (The Singing Heart and Foundations of Christian Culture). This idea is a fascinating one. Basically, he believes that the artist must give himself totally to the process of creation, but only after achieving the kind of authentic spiritual wholeness that is characteristic of healthy Christians.
This kind of art is created without any reference to existing genres or forms. It depends entirely on the artist, and the artist cannot create it until it becomes absolutely impossible for him not to create it. Writers often speak of ideas forcing themselves onto paper. Tolkien talked about “exorcizing” something after he finally finished The Lord of the Rings for publication. And yes, there is a good deal of artistic difficulty or even suffering in this process.
This new art will flow from the labors, deprivations, and calamities suffered by people, from renewed fountainheads, sources, and methods of creativity. Mankind is walking straight toward a renaissance of healthy creative action.
Its form, in essence, is free, and is a reflection of the creative potential of each artist. You can’t predict anything here; there are no requirements. But an attentive eye will be able to catch that necessary frame, which is necessary to prevent art from becoming decadent.
This creative act, no matter how it comes about in the mind of the creator, cannot receive its direction from outside, otherwise it will never be born. The artist must not follow the latest fad. The artist must overcome within himself, at the very beginning, any thought of “failure,” or “not being understood,” or of his art being “un-marketable.” He must not be afraid of that. Art should be a service oriented inward, and the artist, in his creative act, should be a kind of un-mercenary. After all, he is a free and un-bribable prophet of the most secret and significant content of the spirit.
This rather exalted view of the artist as someone who shouldn’t think of money might make some people wrinkle their noses in disapproval. Why must we cling to romantic notions of the starving artist, they might ask. And they’d be right. I think what Ilyin is saying here is that in the act of creating a work of art (whatever it might be), there shouldn’t be any thought of its possible marketability. That will ruin it for the audience, and eventually for the creator.
In fact, most professional writers, even of pulp fiction, consider this a truism, by the way. The writers who are still supporting themselves with their fiction after being in the business for decades always say that when you write, you should abandon all thought of money. You just let the creative process take you where it will. Only afterward do you worry about markets and things like that, because you have little idea what will sell and when.
Think about it. No one could ever have expected The Lord of the Rings to become one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century. Certainly Tolkien did not. He created it because he had to. He had an inner compulsion that would not let go until he finished.
A true artist always has a sense or even a conviction that he cannot do everything with his art, that his choice of materials or form is in no way dictated by his own willfulness or vanity. He just has to speak, he dares to speak. This “I dare-must” is the most important aspect of artistic creativity, and though it complicates the work itself tremendously, it puts it on the right level.
It is only a naive novice who thinks he can do whatever he sets his mind to. Any subjective idea that pops up in his head–he assumes this is “inspiration.” Anything that gives him pleasure–that he assumes to be “wonderful.” But the true artist knows that unless in his “I dare” there is also a final “I must,” he cannot create. That is, it’s not that he can choose whatever line, paint, modulation, or phrase he wishes, rather he simply must, he must bow to the necessity of the creative act.
Naturally, Ilyin speaks in Romantic language that can sometimes seem impractical. But when I read this particular section, it reminds me of the reality of something called “flow state.” There is much scientific literature on this being churned out right now, some of it bordering on the bizarre (shall we use hallucinogenics to help productivity maybe?). But anyone who has every created anything knows that sense when he or she stops being the creator and becomes a vessel for something coming very strongly from within the heart, refusing to be stopped.
I know for a fact that the scenes in my novels that seem to write themselves, that came about as a result of this exact artistic necessity that Ilyin talks about, are the ones that readers consistently remember as standing out.
And if we are concerned with creating the kind of art that can effect true change in people ‘s hearts, that can provide meaning amidst chaos, that can reorient the mind to a correct relationship with reality–all of which art is called to do–then Ilyin’s words are a clarion call to action.
The Cult of the Imperfect
Around the same time as I read this essay by Ilyin, I also read a wonderful essay by Umberto Ecco, titled “The Cult of the Imperfect.” He begins the essay thus:
The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most exciting novels ever written and on the other hand is one of the most badly written novels of all time and in any literature. The book is full of holes. Shameless in repeating the same adjective from one line to the next, incontinent in the accumulation of these same adjectives, capable of opening a sententious digression without managing to close it because the syntax cannot hold up, and panting along in this way for twenty lines, it is mechanical and clumsy in its portrayal of feelings: the characters either quiver, or turn pale, or they wipe away large drops of sweat that run down their brow, they gabble with a voice that no longer has anything human about it, they rise convulsively from a chair and fall back into it, while the author always takes care, obsessively, to repeat that the chair onto which they collapsed again was the same one on which they were sitting a second before.
And yet, Ecco argues that it is precisely the “badness” of the writing that makes this book immortal.
A new archetype grafted on to the others, the Count of Monte Cristo (the power of names) is also a Christ figure, and a duly diabolical one, who is cast into the tomb of the Château d’If, a sacrificial victim of human evil, only to arise from it to judge the living and the dead, amid the splendor of a treasure rediscovered after centuries, without ever forgetting that he is a son of man. You can be blasé or critically shrewd, and know a lot about intertextual pitfalls, but still you are drawn into the game, as in a Verdi melodrama. By dint of excess, melodrama and kitsch verge on the sublime, while excess tips over into genius.
If Ilyin had read this essay, he might have said, “This is because Dumas created out of artistic necessity, out of his own inner turmoil.” And hundreds of readers have rewarded Dumas’s “lack of style” with a devotion that has led to constant reprints and at least three movie versions of the novel.
So, ultimately, the search for artistic perfection does not actually involve an adherence to external standards of perfection, determined by critics or canons or English teachers. Nor can you ever guarantee that what you create will be perfect, or even achieve perfection. Nor should you wish to. Technical imperfection, sifted through a true creative process, can still result in masterpieces. I find that thought strangely liberating…
…Even as I hunker down for another battle with the blank page before me…