I have a new pop-culture drinking game. Do a shot whenever you hear the words "Well, it's not perfect, but ..."
I am going to ask — nay, demand — that we end, here, now, and forwith, all this meaningless talk of "perfection" in art.
I have hinted at such a notion before (most recently in my look at Miles Davis's Kind of Blue), but I suspect it's high time I came out and made a separate discussion out of it.
Perfection, especially in the arts, does not exist. It is a hopeless misconception. It is no more a reality than is the possibility of putting handcuffs on the number "8".
At the very least, perfection does not exist in the sense of some embodied attribute that in theory is plainly accessible to all of us. The only place it exists at all, if it exists, is in the mind of the creator, in the sense that his intentions have come as close as possible to being satisfied in an earthly fashion. "Perfect" for him means his job is done, not only because the work has attained a quality he strove for but because his own limits prevent him from refining the work any further.
The reason I get so annoyed about perfection being bandied about, even unintentionally, as some kind of ideal or trophy, is because it gets in the way of more genuine appreciations of things.
I don't mean to say that something is better appreciated through its flaws or shortcomings than through its successes, although those things certainly give you a more complete understanding of what you're dealing with. If I talk about 2001 being slow and ponderous, and the last stretch of the film being something of a chore to sit through, those are negatives I'm willing to set aside because other aspects of the film more than make up for it. And for the record, I actually think of those as some of the best parts of the film — but that doesn't mean I think someone else who imitates them (as Gaspar Noé did in Enter the Void) is automatically on to something.
Talk of perfection, even if only in a flip way, is distracting. It leads us to create hierarchies which do not exist anywhere except in our own heads, and which encourage the shirking of perfectly good works for reasons which are spurious. It leads us to doubt what we have done and why we have done it, for reasons that have nothing to do with what it strives for (which generally have nothing to do with someone else's idea of "perfect", let alone our own).
The reasons I find something "perfect" often have less to do with the work itself and more to do with my own communion with it. That connection, that communion, is absolutely worth talking about, but always from the proper point of view. It does someone else no good to be told that the last ten minutes of this movie or the last twelve pages of this book are perfect. You can illuminate how they are a reflection of your notion of perfect, but your odds of winning converts to your cause (which is what such arguments amount to) are minimal. You are talking more about yourself plus the work, not the work alone — but isn't that how many of these things are best approached, as a space where two things meet and become more than the sum total of their parts?
None of this is meant to say there aren't some works which are better than others. I still believe this, and I see plenty of evidence for it every day. I do not believe Fifty Shades of Grey is as good a book as Crime and Punishment except in the sense that the former is a better repository of kink fantasies than the latter. I also don't believe that you can give a reader of the former a copy of the latter and magically turn them into a lover of the classics — and I also don't believe the fact you can't do that is something worth getting hung up about.
We single out some works for distinction, but not because they are closer to the fulfillment of some ideal which is unapproachable anyway. It is because they are personally resonant, and the amount of personal resonance in a work is never predictable. A book which captivated society fifty years ago comes off as a curiosity today; a movie which was dismissed on its first release is now seen as groundbreaking. These things are the manifestation of something far more interesting than "perfection". It takes time to see which of those books still resonates as much with the man of today as it did with the man of once upon a time. Some argue that only happens because of the support (read: interference) of academics, but I'm not convinced that's the only reason, or even the most important one.
It's also been said that we find something all the more endearing because it's flawed, but the more I think about such a statement in the light of the above, the more I believe it's the reverse that's really true: we find something flawed because it's endearing, because what draws us to it in the first place also forces us to look that much more closely at it and see the cracks in it. But this is not a bad thing. If the cracks in everything are how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen once said, then to see those cracks all the more clearly is no disservice to ourselves or the works we love. The Foundation trilogy is dated; Dune has undertones of misogyny that are hard to ignore; War and Peace is sodden with the leaden philosophizing of its author; and Dickens was paid by the word. And yet none of that diminishes what those works mean to us, because their meaning has become about more than just putting their good and bad attributes on either side of a scale and holding our breath to see which way the pointer swings. Literature is not a zero-sum game.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind