I enjoy a sandwich with an uneven crust. A pencil drawing where the lead has snapped and the line is left with a staccato gap. A visible seam. I like Marilyn Monroe’s face. And I like it even more because there’s a mole, a brown wart growing above her top lip. I like these things, because there is something wrong with them. Because there is something intrinsic to their form that tells me a little of how they were made, a small part of their history. I like them because they are incomplete, that they could have been, but haven’t been improved on. But don’t get me wrong; I do not like them because they are just a bit crap. Allow me to explain.
Someone clever once said that
all things are lovelier for their imperfections.
And aside from your doctor’s report, tax return or pay cheque, I think this is true. When it comes to matters of subjective appreciation, perfection is a state of imperfection. I’ve been thinking about this for a while in relation to making my own work and trying to understand, on a technical level, what it is about the work of others I particularly like. Content aside, it seems that the better something is made, the more I like it, in a straight upward correlation. And this makes sense, surely, that the mastery of craft should be the apex of achievement. But I've noticed there is a certain point where a paradox takes effect. A point where something is so good, so flawlessly produced, so sharp, tight and refined, the red velvet curtain behind it ironed so flat, every crease removed and spec of dust wiped away that I have to choke back a mouthful of sick.
I’m still trying to figure it out, but I put it down primarily to this. The world is awash with technically complex and unfathomable things. Mostly I forget about them and take them for granted but they are everywhere; cars, skyscrapers, computers, vaccines, mayonnaise and airplanes. All things that I will never begin to have the slightest idea of how they were conceived, how they function or how they were put together in the first place. They are an alien mystery to me. And that is part of the wonderfulness of it all. These things are so extraordinary they instil in me a sense of awe. But there is a flip side to awe, the potential to make me feel really, really small. Wow that’s so very big, expressed conversely is wow I’m so very tiny. I am surrounded by things I could never have made myself.
Consciously or unconsciously I don’t think I’m alone in this. Very few of us, certainly I expect very few readers of this particular piece of writing, are living in rural self sufficient wicker domes, at one with the land, gathering twigs for this evenings fire and hunting down a pig to roast upon it. In other words, very few of us are in control and full understanding of every element of our immediate lives. Instead we are part of a great big amazingly complex social machine; commuting on transport systems, paying taxes, wandering the interweb and taking exams. I do all these things and I’m happy to be part of it because it suits my needs, and on the whole it works pretty well. But it does serve to frequently remind me that I have very little control and influence and technical understanding of any of it. So when I see something so perfect that there is no seam, no edge, no mark of it’s making as if it were formed whole and complete from the first moment, something in me is reminded of this alien feeling, and the word that is the antonym of awe. And my liking plummets.
This occurrence, a steep dip at its peak in the graph of affection, can be seen in lots of places, not just fancy art and film. It was notably noticed by a Japanese roboticist, Dr. Masahiro Mori, in relation to how much people enjoyed increasingly realistic robot design. At the point where the design became almost completely lifelike and perfect, there was a sharp decline in affection, a dip he described as the now well known Uncanny Valley. I’m experiencing it now as I drink my morning coffee. I like this cappuccino. But I’d like it even more with a chocolate sprinkle face! But with added arms, legs and real hair… No thank you. That’s too much.
Perhaps the problem with perfection is that it can’t be improved upon. It has nowhere to go, no potential for development, to evolve and to grow. Change is a prerequisite of all living things, whereas perfection is like a full stop, The End, it represents a finality that’s closer to death. Empathy plays an important part in my enjoyment of most things, be it story, sculpture, another human being, a film or whatever. If I am able to see part of myself in it, something I can relate to, like when an idea is articulated that I feel I already knew but hadn’t quite yet been able to put into words, then I am instantly won over. By making this emphatic connection, I become involved, I want what ever it is to succeed. But when alienated I switch off, and there is nothing more alien than death.
Just as a good narrative arch cannot be a string of successes, in order to be satisfied I like to know that the outcome is the result of conflict and labor. I like my friends more deeply because of their flaws, their idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. It puts me on their side. If Superman were immune to kryptonite he would soon become an unbearable prick. It’s when we struggle that we are most endearing. It’s the difference between a flash in the pan pop song and something subtler that works on you and stays with you for years to come.
Ways of making things, tools and technologies are always getting better, and a perfected outcome is increasingly easier to reach with undo’s and eternal touchups. I get lulled into overworking, and then, in panic, I’m often tempted with the retrospective downgrade. When something comes out looking too clean it’s so tempting to rough it up, to inject a deliberate mistake. As well as feeling counter intuitive, it's just plain ineffective to work backwards, undoing hard work. To add a lens flare, to put super 8 filters over the footage, to crunch the paper a bit at the edge. Recreating this bygone aesthetic, mimicking what were once perhaps irritating mistakes, unavoidable by-products the original practitioner would have done anything to get rid of. We would be infuriating the past versions of ourselves. So these mistakes are pointless, the gesture is innately flawed by its lack of authenticity and the viewer comes away knowing even less about how you got to where you are.
So the flaw is something that can’t be applied in retrospect. It has to be a result of the process itself. I expect there is an optimum level, just enough to reveal the process through its mistakes and not to get in the way of the content or impact. Perhaps all that is needed is the smallest of admissions, an offering, a bridge between spectacle and spectator. Something that fools the viewer into thinking, in theory, I could have made that.
It’s the little mistake or parts of incompleteness that remind us of the person behind the product. These are the clues as to how it was made, a thumbprint on a pot, a brush stroke. It’s like an admission by the maker that they underwent a struggle to get here. By showing us what happens when something goes wrong we understand what has to happen every time it goes right. Some evidence of the journey to arrive at this amazing thing they’ve put before you. This slice, it is wonky. Indeed, it’s because I cut the loaf myself. Yeah there’s a smudge there, it’s because I was so into it that I broke the pencil. In frame 286 this character’s foot wobbles. That's right, and in every other frame the battle was won to keep it still. This lady, she is beautiful, but she is not perfect, and it's because of this that we love her more.