Perfection  

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"Perfection, one must conclude, is not actually perfect at all. In fact, it is almost the complete opposite. Perfection is bad. But bad is good. But bad perfection is not good, only good bad is good. It's all very simple." (David Byrne in Odemagazine.com)"

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Perfection is the quality or state of being perfect or complete, so that nothing requisite is wanting; entire development; consummate culture, skill, or moral excellence; the highest attainable state or degree of excellence; maturity; as, perfection in an art, in a science, or in a system; perfection in form or degree; fruits in perfection. It can also refer to a quality, endowment, or acquirement completely excellent; an ideal; faultlessness; especially, the divine attribute of complete excellence. The following text is based on O doskonałości (On Perfection, 1976) by Władysław Tatarkiewicz.

Contents

In aesthetics

The ancient world

The ancient Greeks viewed perfection as a requisite for beauty and high art. The Pythagoreans held that perfection was to be found in the right proportions and in a harmonious arrangement of parts. The idea that beauty and art were characterized by perfection, was subsequently embraced by Plato, who believed that art ought to be "apt, suitable, without deviations" — in short, "perfect."

From a conviction that perfection was a single quality, the Pythagoreans, Plato and their adherents held that beauty also was a single quality; hence, for every kind of art, there was but one perfect and proper form. Plutarch stated (De Musica) that, during the early Greek age, musical harmonies that were recognized as perfect were legally binding at public performances.

Similarly, in temple architecture from the 5th century BCE, there were established "orders." There were established proportions for Doric temples, and for Ionic temples. Likewise in sculpture, for centuries, it was a matter of dogma that certain proportions of the human body were perfect and obligatory.

There was also a prevalent belief that certain shapes and proportions were in themselves perfect. Plato felt that the perfect proportion was the ratio of the side to the diagonal of a square. His authority was so great that architects and other artists continued using this proportion, even when ignorant of its source, as late as the Middle Ages.

Another early idea — one that was to be espoused by many illustrious writers and artists of various periods — found perfection in the circle and the sphere. Aristotle wrote in the Physica that the circle was "the perfect, first, most beautiful form." Cicero wrote in De natura deorum (On the Nature of the Gods): "Two forms are the most distinctive: of solids, the sphere... and of plane figures, the circle... There is nothing more commensurate than these forms."

In a commentary to Aristotle's De coelo et mundo (On the Heavens and Earth), the medieval Pole, Jan of Słupcza, wrote: "The most perfect body ought to have the most perfect form, and such [a body] is heaven, while the most perfect form is the round form, for nothing can be added to it." In the famous illustrated Les très riches heures du duc de Berry, paradise is depicted as contained within an ideal sphere.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) stated: "the round form is the most perfect of all."

The most excellent of 16th-century architects, Andrea Palladio, held that "the most perfect and most excellent" form was "the round form, since of all forms it is the simplest, the most uniform, the strongest, the most capacious" and "is the most suitable for rendering the unity, infinity, uniformity and righteousness of God." This was the same thought as in Jan of Słupcza and in Serlio, and it was one of uncommon durability.

The Middle AgesRomanesque and Gothic alike — had been quite taken with the idea of perfection. But a true explosion of the imperative for perfection came with the Renaissance.

Renaissance aesthetics placed less emphasis than had classical aesthetics on the unity of things perfect. Baldassare Castiglione, in his Courtier, wrote, of Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Raphael, Michelangelo and Giorgione, that "each of them is unlike the others, but each is the most perfect [perfectissimus] in his style."

The great architect and polymath Leone Battista Alberti wrote (De architectura) that "the art of building... in Italy [had] achieved perfect maturity", that the Romans had "created such a perfect art of building that there was in it nothing mysterious, hidden or unclear." This was yet another formulation of the concept of perfection.

Daniele Barbaro, in his 1567 translation of Vitruvius, classically defined perfection as "that which lacks nothing and to which nothing can be added."

The Renaissance showed a marked concern with preeminence in perfection. Leonardo concluded that the most perfect of the arts was painting. In 1546 Benedetto Varchi compared great masters in the arts. Others compared art and science, art and nature, and perfection in the arts of the ancients with that in the modern masters. The 16th century saw comparisons of their music, the 17th — of their visual arts and especially of their poetry. These comparisons construed perfection fairly loosely; the concept was treated more strictly by architects.

The Renaissance distinguished a variety of properties to perfection. It was variously held to be:

  • an objective property (Petrarch, who opposed perfection to other esthetic qualities such as grace);
  • specific to art rather than to nature (Vasari);
  • a rare property (Alberti felt that not even Greek architecture had attained perfection);
  • a property of the whole work rather than of its parts (Alberti);
  • a conjunction of many values (Lodovico Dolce thought Raphael perfect because Raphael had manifold talent, as opposed to the one-sided Michelangelo);
  • something that required not merely talent but art, that is, skill (Vasari);
  • not the sole value in a work of art (Vasari differentiated perfection from grace; Renaissance Platonists such as Ficino viewed perfection as a divine attribute).

In the eclectic view of the late Renaissance, perfection would require uniting the talents of many artists.

The concept of perfection was harder to apply to Renaissance literature but became so common — often, linked to "eccelente" — as to become banal. Its frequent application brought about its relativization and even subjectivization.

Beginning with Serlio and Palladio, perfection in art had become less important, less definite, less objective. The striving for perfection no longer had the importance for men of letters that it did for the great architects. But the 17th century still revered perfection, as shown by the appearance of that word in book titles: De perfecta poesi by the Polish poet Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (1595-1640); Le peintre parfait (1767 by André Félibien; and Idée de la perfection de la peinture (1662) by Fréart de Chambray.

Sarbiewski offered several theses: poetry not only imitates things perfectissime ("most perfectly"), but imitates them as they ought perfectissime to be in nature; perfect art is recognized by its agreement with nature, as well as its universality; art is the more perfect, the nobler (nobilior) its manner of representing things; it is the more perfect, the more truths it contains; perfection has various degrees — it is higher in poetry than in prose.

In classicism, especially in French 17th-century classicism, from an ideal attainable by few, perfection became an obligation for every author. And inasmuch as the criterion of perfection had been lowered, "perfection" now meant only correctness. In the ensuing devaluation, it was not enough that art be perfecta, it should be perfectissima.

Perfection, formerly the supreme characterization for a work of art, now became but one of many positive characterizations. Cesare Ripa, in his Iconologia (published 1593, but typical for the 17th century), presented perfezione as a concept of equal status with grace (grazia), prettiness (venustà) and beauty (bellezza).

Leibniz's pupil, Christian Wolff, in his Psychology, wrote that beauty consists in perfection, and that this was why beauty was a source of pleasure. No such general esthetic theory, explicitly naming perfection, had ever been formulated by any of its devotees from Plato to Palladio.

Wolff's theory of beauty-as-perfection was developed by the school's chief aesthetician, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. This tradition remained active in Germany as late as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who considered both beauty and sublimity to be ideas of perfection; when unity prevailed, beauty emerged; when plurality — sublimity.

In the latter part of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant wrote much in his Critique of Judgment about perfection — inner and outer, objective and subjective, qualitative and quantitative, perceived clearly and obscurely, the perfection of nature and that of art. Nevertheless, in aesthetics Kant found that "The judgment of taste [i.e., aesthetic judgment] is entirely independent of the concept of perfection" — that is, beauty was something different from perfection.

Earlier in the 18th century, France's leading aesthetician, Denis Diderot, had questioned whether perfection was a more comprehensible idea than beauty. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had treated perfection as an unreal concept, and wrote Jean le Rond d'Alembert, "Let us not seek the chimera of perfection, but that which is the best possible."

In England, in 1757, the important aesthetician Edmund Burke denied that perfection was the cause of beauty. Quite the contrary, he argued that beauty nearly always involved an element of imperfection; for example, women, in order to heighten their attractiveness, emphasized their weakness and frailty, which is to say, their imperfection.

Modern times

The 18th century was the last for which perfection was a principal concept in aesthetics. In the 19th century, perfection survived only vestigially as a general expression of approval. Alfred de Musset held that "Perfection is no more attainable for us than is infinity. One ought not to seek it anywhere: not in love, nor beauty, nor happiness, nor virtue; but one should love it, in order to be virtuous, beautiful and happy, insofar as that is possible for man."

In the 20th century, Paul Valéry wrote: "To strive for perfection, to devote endless time to a work, to set oneself — like Goethe— an unattainable goal, are all intents that are precluded by the pattern of modern life."

The dismissal of the question concerning whether artists can achieve perfection, still left the question: Do artists want to achieve it? Is that their actual goal? Some artists, schools and epochs have aimed for perfection. Others have nurtured other goals: pluralism, novelty, powerful sensations, faithfulness to truth, self-expression and expression of the world, creativity and originality — all of which may roughly be summarized as "expression."

There have been ages of perfection, and ages of expression. The arts of ancient Greece, the Renaissance and neoclassicism were arts of perfection. In the mannerist, baroque and romantic periods, expression has prevailed.

See also




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