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06 JULY, 2015

The Aesthetics of Silence: Susan Sontag on Art as a Form of Spirituality and the Paradoxical Role of Silence in Creative Culture

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“The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway.”

“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Adrienne Rich asserted in her spectacular 1997 lecture Arts of the Possible. But it was exactly three decades earlier that another of humanity’s most incisive intellects made the finest — and timeliest today — case for the generative function of silence in a creative culture drowning in noise.

In The Aesthetics of Silence, the first essay from her altogether indispensable 1969 collection Styles of Radical Will (public library), Susan Sontag examines how silence mediates the role of art as a form of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

Shortly after she wrote in her diary that “art is a form of consciousness” and shortly before Pablo Neruda penned his beautiful ode to silence and Paul Goodman — who shared a mutual admiration with Sontag — enumerated the nine kinds of silence, she writes:

Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)

In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.” The activities of the painter, the musician, the poet, the dancer, once they were grouped together under that generic name (a relatively recent move), have proved a particularly adaptable site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness, each individual work of art being a more or less astute paradigm for regulating or reconciling these contradictions. Of course, the site needs continual refurbishing. Whatever goal is set for art eventually proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness. Art, itself a form of mystification, endures a succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are redrawn.

But modern art, Sontag argues, is as much a form of consciousness as an answer to our longing for anti-consciousness, speaking to what she calls “the mind’s need or capacity for self-estrangement”:

Art is no longer understood as consciousness expressing and therefore, implicitly, affirming itself. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote — evolved from within consciousness itself.

As such, art usurps the role religion and mysticism previously held in human life — something to satisfy our “craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” The spiritual satiation that arises from this dialogue between art and anti-art, Sontag points out, necessitates the pursuit of silence. For the serious artist, silence becomes “a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.”

In a counterpart to her later admonition that publicity is “a very destructive thing” for any artist, Sontag considers the zeal the artist must have in protecting that zone of silence — a notion of particular urgency in our age of tyrannical expectations regarding artists’ engagement with social media:

So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience… Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

And yet, in a sentiment that calls to mind Kierkegaard’s astute observation that expressing contempt is still a demonstration of dependence, Sontag recognizes that the gesture of silence in abdication from society is still “a highly social gesture.” She writes:

An exemplary decision of this sort can be made only after the artist has demonstrated that he possesses genius and exercised that genius authoritatively. Once he has surpassed his peers by the standards which he acknowledges, his pride has only one place left to go. For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, and that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.

Silence, then, is exercised not in the absolute but in degrees, mediating between art and anti-art, between consciousness and anti-consciousness:

The exemplary modern artist’s choice of silence is rarely carried to this point of final simplification, so that he becomes literally silent. More typically, he continues speaking, but in a manner that his audience can’t hear…

Modern art’s chronic habit of displeasing, provoking, or frustrating its audience can be regarded as a limited, vicarious participation in the ideal of silence which has been elevated as a major standard of “seriousness” in contemporary aesthetics.

But it is also a contradictory form of participation in the ideal of silence. It is contradictory not only because the artist continues making works of art, but also because the isolation of the work from its audience never lasts… Goethe accused Kleist of having written his plays for an “invisible theatre.” But eventually the invisible theatre becomes “visible.” The ugly and discordant and senseless become “beautiful.” The history of art is a sequence of successful transgressions.

[…]

Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence.

And yet, Sontag points out, silence is relational — while it may be the intention of the artist, it can never be the experience of the audience. (For a supreme example, we need not look further than John Cage, who even during his most forceful imposition of silence was in dynamic dialogue with the audience upon which silence was being imposed.)

Sontag, in fact, shined a sidewise gleam on this notion three years earlier in her masterwork Against Interpretation — for what is interpretation if not the act of filling the artist’s silence with the audience’s noise? She writes:

Silence doesn’t exist in a literal sense, however, as the experience of an audience. It would mean that the spectator was aware of no stimulus or that he was unable to make a response… As long as audiences, by definition, consist of sentient beings in a “situation,” it is impossible for them to have no response at all.

[…]

There is no neutral surface, no neutral discourse, no neutral theme, no neutral form. Something is neutral only with respect to something else — like an intention or an expectation. As a property of the work of art itself, silence can exist only in a cooked or non-literal sense. (Put otherwise: if a work exists at all, its silence is only one element in it.) Instead of raw or achieved silence, one finds various moves in the direction of an ever receding horizon of silence — moves which, by definition, can never be fully consummated.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord from a rare edition of 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for more.

She illustrates this with the classic scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where Alice encounters a shop “full of all manner of curious things,” and yet whenever she looks closely at any one shelf, it appears “quite empty, though the others round it were crowded full as they could hold.” Silence, similarly, is relational rather than absolute:

“Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence…

A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the artwork exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.

Silence, Sontag argues, is also a way of steering the attention. In a passage triply timely today, half a century of attention-mauling media later, she writes:

Art is a technique for focusing attention, for teaching skills of attention… Once the artist’s task seemed to be simply that of opening up new areas and objects of attention. That task is still acknowledged, but it has become problematic. The very faculty of attention has come into question, and been subjected to more rigorous standards…

Perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted), the less one is offered. Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with its inevitable distortions of experience. Ideally, one should be able to pay attention to everything.

Many years later, Sontag would advise aspiring writers to learn to “pay attention to the world” as the most important skill of storytelling. Silence, she argues here, invites us to pay selfless and unselfconscious attention to the world the artist is creating. In a sentiment that explains why there are no comments on Brain Pickings and captures today’s acute spiritual hunger for a space for unreactive contemplation amid a culture of reactive opinion-slinging, Sontag writes:

Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject… In principle, the audience may not even add its thought. All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.

[…]

The efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake. Silence, administered by the artist, is part of a program of perceptual and cultural therapy, often on the model of shock therapy rather than of persuasion. Even if the artist’s medium is words, he can share in this task: language can be employed to check language, to express muteness… Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.

Once again, Sontag’s extraordinary prescience shines its brilliant beam upon our time, across half a century of perfectly anticipated cultural shifts. Much like she presaged the downsides of the internet’s photo-fetishism in the 1970s and admonished against treating cultural material as “content” in the 1960s, she captures the entire ethos of our social media in 1967:

The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway. Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that.

The Aesthetics of Silence is an immeasurably rewarding read in its entirety, as is the remainder of Styles of Radical Will. Complement it with Sontag on love, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of visual culture, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, her diary meditations on art, and her advice to aspiring writers.

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03 JULY, 2015

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s First Tragic Poem, with a Touching Remembrance by Her Mother

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“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things,” Sylvia Plath observed in a BBC interview shortly before she took her own life. But the seed of those dark emotions started sprouting many years earlier, when Plath was still a teenager — quite a common life-stage for the first onset of depression.

In the introduction to Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us teenage Sylvia’s letters on the joy of living — her mother, Aurelia Plath, shares young Sylvia’s first poem marked by tragic undertones. The inspiration for it is a testament to the poet’s universal task of dramatizing the ordinary and transmuting it into the profound: One afternoon, Sylvia had just finished drawing a pastel still-life and was showing it to her grandmother when the doorbell rang; the grandmother took off her apron to greet the guest and tossed it on the table, accidentally sweeping the pastel drawing and blurring part of it.

That evening, Plath penned her first tragic poem. She was fourteen.

I THOUGHT THAT I COULD NOT BE HURT

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering —
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o’erhead, now seem to brush their whir-
ring wings against the blue roof
of the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-
ment.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Plath’s English teacher showed the poem to a colleague, who — unaware of the rather comically benign incident that inspired the poem — exclaimed: “Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating.” But even more precocious than the emotional richness of the poem was young Sylvia’s response when Aurelia relayed the teacher’s remark to her — the teenage poet “smiled impishly,” as her mother recalls, and said:

Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.

And yet those tragic undertones were more than mere dramatic flair — they would come to dominate both Plath’s poetry and her journals.

But the eclipse of her inner April sun was gradual. In letter to her mother from early 1955, also included in the volume, 23-year-old Plath dangles her feet over the precipice of the abyss that would eventually consume her — she is aware that the abyss exists but still regards it as a curious phenomenon rather than a mortal threat, a challenge that can be overcome with sufficient optimism and discipline:

I don’t know whether it is a hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.

But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy.

We now know, of course, that clinical depression is not something one can simply will away “with bravo and philosophy.” But Plath’s letter does intuit much of what scientists have since confirmed about depression: its hereditary nature and the role of rumination — that tendency to “lie awake at nights hating [oneself] for stupidities” — as a major cognitive vulnerability factor in depression.

Above all, Plath’s prolific creative output and her tragic end attest to what is perhaps the finest line in mental health: While ordinary melancholy enriches our capacity for creativity, depression — its severe clinical counterpart — crushes the creative spirit. And yet our cultural narrative about artists who lose their lives to mental illness is woefully devoid of nuance — to romanticize suicide is as fraught as to dismiss an entire body of work on account of the artist’s tragic end. It is possible — nay, necessary — to recognize that while suicide is indeed an unspeakable tragedy, without their creative restlessness, without their capacity for “the sharp, sweet pain that only joy can hold,” artists like Plath and Van Gogh and Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace would have likely succumbed to their tragic neurochemistry much sooner. To celebrate their art, then, is to celebrate not the malady that led to their deaths but the gift that enriched and extended their lives.

Complement the altogether revelatory Letters Home with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her little-known children’s book, and her reading of the breath-stopping poem “The Birthday Present” shortly after her last birthday.

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01 JULY, 2015

An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’

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“Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”

Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used Christian social ethics and the New Testament concept of “love” heavily in his writings and speeches, he was as influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions, Gandhi’s political writings, Buddhism’s notion of the interconnectedness of all beings, and Ancient Greek philosophy. His enduring ethos, at its core, is nonreligious — rather, it champions a set of moral, spiritual, and civic responsibilities that fortify our humanity, individually and collectively.

Nowhere does he transmute spiritual ideas from various traditions into secular principles more masterfully than in his extraordinary 1958 essay “An Experiment in Love,” in which he examines the six essential principles of his philosophy of nonviolence, debunks popular misconceptions about it, and considers how these basic tenets can be used in guiding any successful movement of nonviolent resistance. Penned five years before his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail and exactly a decade before his assassination, the essay was eventually included in the indispensable A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (public library) — required reading for every human being with a clicking mind and a ticking heart.

In the first of the six basic philosophies, Dr. King addresses the tendency to mistake nonviolence for passivity, pointing out that it is a form not of cowardice but of courage:

It must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight… The way of nonviolent resistance … is ultimately the way of the strong man. It is not a method of stagnant passivity… For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

He turns to the second tenet of nonviolence:

Nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperatoin or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from 'Waterloo and Trafalgar.' Click image for more.

In considering the third characteristic of nonviolence, Dr. King appeals to the conscientious recognition that those who perpetrate violence are often victims themselves:

The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by the evil. If he is opposing racial injustice, the nonviolent resister has the vision to see that the basic tension is not between the races… The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness…. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

Out of this recognition flows the fourth tenet:

Nonviolent resistance [requires] a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back… The nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it. He does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it “as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber.”

That, in fact, is precisely how Dr. King himself entered jail five years later. To those skeptical of the value of turning the other cheek, he offers:

Unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

The fifth basic philosophy turns the fourth inward and arrives at the most central point of the essay — the noblest use of what we call “love”:

Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Here, Dr. King turns to Ancient Greek philosophy, pointing out that the love he speaks of is not the sentimental or affectionate kind — “it would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense,” he readily acknowledges — but love in the sense of understanding and redemptive goodwill. The Greeks called this agape — a love distinctly different from the eros, reserved for our lovers, or philia, with which we love our friends and family. Dr. King explains:

Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object… Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friends and enemy; it is directed toward both. If one loves an individual merely on account of his friendliness, he loves him for the sake of the benefits to be gained from the friendship, rather than for the friend’s own sake. Consequently, the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.

This notion is nearly identical to one of Buddhism’s four brahmaviharas, or divine attitudes — the concept of Metta, often translated as lovingkindness or benevolence. The parallel speaks not only to Dr. King’s extraordinarily diverse intellectual toolkit of influences and inspirations — a high form of combinatorial creativity necessary for any meaningful contribution to humanity’s common record — but also to the core commonalities between the world’s major spiritual and philosophical traditions.

In a sentiment that Margaret Mead and James Baldwin would echo twelve years later in their spectacular conversation on race“In any oppressive situation both groups suffer, the oppressors and the oppressed,” Mead observed, asserting that the oppressors suffer morally with the recognition of what they’re committing, which Baldwin noted is “a worse kind of suffering” — Dr. King adds:

Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person — his need for belonging to the best in the human family… Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen for a vintage children's-book adaptation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Click image for more.

At the heart of agape, he argues, is the notion of forgiveness — something Mead and Baldwin also explored with great intellectual elegance. Dr. King writes:

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action… Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community…. If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.

With this, he turns to the sixth and final principle of nonviolence as a force of justice, undergirded by the nonreligious form of spirituality that Dani Shapiro elegantly termed “an animating presence” and Alan Lightman described as the transcendence of “this strange and shimmering world.” Dr. King writes:

Nonviolent resistance … is base don the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power of infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

A Testament of Hope is an absolutely essential read in its totality. Complement it with Dr. King on the two types of law, Albert Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on racial justice, and Tolstoy and Gandhi’s equally forgotten but immensely timely correspondence on why we hurt each other.

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01 JULY, 2015

Legendary Victorian Art Critic John Ruskin on the Value of Imperfection and How Manual Labor Confers Dignity Upon Creative Work

By:

“It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

Long before Anne Lamott admonished that perfectionism kills creativity, long before Joseph Campbell asserted that “what evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being,” the great English art critic, draughtsman, watercolorist, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) made history’s most beautiful and enlivening case for the value of imperfection in his 1853 book The Stones of Venice, eventually included in the altogether illuminating Ruskin anthology Unto This Last and Other Writings (public library).

Writing a generation after the Industrial Revolution had finished revolving society into a new era of manufacturing, Ruskin considers the dehumanizing effects of separating creative work from manual labor, arguing that any creatively fulfilling vocation must marry the two. He calls for “a right understanding … of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy” and a “determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.”

To put this “right understanding” into practice, he prescribes “the observance of three broad and simple rules”:

  1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

Ruskin adds:

The rule is simple: Always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as will help the invention, and as the inventor is capable of without painful effort, and no more. Above all, demand no refinement of execution where there is no thought, for that is slaves’ work, unredeemed.

Cautioning against the perilous separation of head and hand, Ruskin counters the common objection that those who are creatively gifted in the art of ideation shouldn’t be wasting their time with the execution of their brilliant ideas but should instead be delegating that work to mere laborers:

All ideas of this kind are founded upon two mistaken suppositions: the first, that one man’s thoughts can be, or ought to be, executed by another man’s hands; the second, that manual labour is a degradation, when it is governed by intellect… We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers… It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Art from 'Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times,' a visual history of Soviet children's book illustration. Click image for more.

This dialogue between thought and labor, Ruskin argues, is precisely what demands a necessary degree of imperfection in any healthy creative work, for unskillfulness is evidence that the mind “had room for expression.” Ruskin puts it unambiguously:

No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.

This, Ruskin asserts, happens for two reasons, “both based on everlasting laws.” The first — which Zadie Smith would eco a century and a half later in counseling aspiring writers to resign themselves to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” — has to do with the necessary discontentment that drives all artists to continue creating:

No great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

The second reason springs from life’s inherent cycles of growth and decay, from the notion that our mortality confers meaning upon our lives. Imperfection, Ruskin argues, is both a reminder that we are on a journey the final destination of which is total decay, and a celebration of the beauty of our impermanence:

Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent… And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that [no] noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.

Much more of Ruskin’s enduring wisdom on everything from art to morality can be found in Unto This Last and Other Writings. Complement this particular meditation with Simone Weil on how manual labor mediates creative work and discipline, Alan Lightman on why we long for permanence in a universe of constant change, and Anaïs Nin on the magic of bridging head and hand.

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