Learning from Art’s Flaws

“Ars longa, vita brevis.” Quite often I’ve found myself unwilling to take risks with my writing because I’m afraid I simply have no time to write anything that’s flawed. Then fellow poet Marsha Truman Cooper gave me this invaluable little book, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The following words have become my touchstone:

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork….

The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. (pp. 5-6)
Further on, Bayles and Orland explain that even good art will be imperfect, because it’s made by flawed human beings:

[T]o require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing that artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the pattern itself achieves perfection — a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. (pp.30-31)

13 comments on “Learning from Art’s Flaws

  1. Ken says:

    Thank you! I, too, have experienced the chasm between intention and reality and it can be very discouraging. Bayles and Orland’s book is now on my short list.

  2. Mary says:

    I came across your blog because I am trying to find the contact info for Marsha Truman Cooper. I am a production editor at Sterling Publishing and am looking to use her poem, “Fearing Paris,” in a book and need to get permission from her. If there is anyway you could help me get in contact with her, I’d be much obliged.
    Thank you,

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