The Problem With Perfection

Tall Ship Closeup
Tall Ship Close Up

I don’t often wax philosophical in this blog, but as the demand for my carvings has grown so much I am left with the question of why that is so. Why do so many want to buy my carvings or commission me to make a unique carving for them or for a loved one? Why not buy a 3-D printed item? Why am I not in competition with the laser-cut, the CNC machined products? Why am I not afraid of the factory, the reproduced and infinitely replicateable and therefore cheap volume discount products?

The author of this article in the New York Times (re-tweeted on Twitter by @maxwellarm) said something very interesting, “We want to know where our free-range eggs come from, and where our coffee beans are grown and roasted. We also want the vessels we use to consume those things to embody a deeper story about craftsmanship and creativity.”

Carving Students Right
Letter Carving Seminar Students working hard.

In the article, potter David Reid made an insightful comment, “People are looking to have their humanity reflected back at them.” Marshall Mcluhan said that media or technology are extensions of ourselves. We have dreams of perfection, so it makes sense that we want a reflection of that around us. In my mind, this is the attraction of the perfectly linear designs we see in architecture and home decor. These are the brushed stainless or nickel hardware on cabinets, the perfectly flat, shiny, fake stone countertops, the square, linear trim.

But there is only so much perfection we can accept. Hence the creepy movies where the psycho bad guy lives in the hyper-perfect world, where everything is crisp white (so white it hurts the eyes) and nothing is ever out of place. I believe we are unsettled by this perfection because we know we are unable to attain it. We know this so well that we distrust any human or human made product that claims perfection. We know the perfect guy in the movie is going to have an evil side – somewhere, buried, so we look for it and we are ready when it appears. The problem with perfection is that it is impossible and when we find the inevitable flaw, it becomes all we can see. It stands out and laughs at our feeble attempts to be something we are not.

Mahogany Fruit Bowl
Mahogany Fruit Bowl

As I noted in a previous post, David Savage has some excellent points about perfection, quality, and the struggle of the maker. Perfection is cold. It is aloof. It is unhuman. If we want the things around us to reflect our humanity, then perhaps this explains the interest and growth in the handmade. In the article, Fashion designer Steven Alan said, “There is beauty in imperfection and having items that are really handmade.”I agree, to a point. We would not accept an imperfect factory made item. That means poor quality control and uncaring factory owners. No one accepts that. However, we see beauty in imperfection when we know the maker and the struggle he or she took to make something. We love the struggle because we can identify with it, unlike a machine-made product. We want to know that love, care, and attention has been part of the process.

P1020147

My carvings could be reproduced and even made perfect by a CNC machine. But they would cease to have that je ne sais quoi quality, and would have no soul. I believe that art reflects its maker and the viewer. I believe that we want to see the world through the eyes of the artist. I believe that we want to see evidence of love in the art. I believe we want to have a little piece of that love of the artist. This is the appeal of the human, handmade, art. This is the appeal of the craft market, the art studio, the public art, the commissioned piece of art and the craftsmanship we so enjoy. It makes a statement about the world and, perhaps more importantly, about we ourselves and who we are.

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Published by

Grant McMillan

I am the University Registrar at Trinity Western University, and I've been in the profession since 1997. I have an MA in Organizational Leadership, and have made a career of going into organizations that are in very difficult situations and leading them to a much better place. I teach Leadership to budding managers in the Adult Degree Completion program at Trinity Western University. I speak and consult, with organizations. Contact me at grant.mcmillan@twu.ca

2 thoughts on “The Problem With Perfection”

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