The Art of Imperfection

“Things, then, which are called “perfect” in themselves are so called in all these senses; either because in respect of excellence they have no deficiency and cannot be surpassed, and because no part of them can be found outside them; or because, in general, they are unsurpassed in each particular class, and have no part outside.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 5)

Over the last two millennia, the concept of perfection has been variously defined as that which is complete (from the Greek, teleos), unsurpassable (not able to be improved upon), and incomparable. In addition, the perfect is also that which has fully attained or served its purpose. 

In all cases above, there is the notion of perfection as an ideal – something or some state that is most desired, like the ultimate arrival of all arrivals from which there are no further journeys. 

But is this ideal of perfection real?

It is said that perfection does not exist – at least not in this life. Like infinity, one can only approach it but never reach it. 

The Platonic Ideal of perfect Forms only exists in the mind, in the realm of thought. All we are able to perceive are imperfect copies of that Ideal. 

If so, is pursuing perfection a futile endeavour? Are we all destined to never reach a state of perfection?

The Incomplete 

The paradox of perfection, as suggested by Lucilio Vanini, is that the greatest perfection is imperfection. This implies that there are stages of perfection (a paradox in itself), and true perfection depends on incompleteness (so as to enable progress and growth): perfectio propter imperfectionem

The notion of incompleteness seems to contradict Aristotle’s definition above (hence the paradox) but the idea of completeness implies a finality which is eternally stagnant – an ultimate arrival at a terminal destination so to speak – and that preludes further meaning in existence. There would be no future in a perfectly complete world. 

Perhaps a more useful way to think of perfection is to look at ways to savour its unattainability: to celebrate the imperfect.

Life is a journey, a continuous flow of ephemeral moments, transient joys, and meaningful experiences.

This journey is an ongoing one. We spend virtually all of our living years on journeys. As soon as we arrive somewhere that moment recedes into the past and a new journey begins. The experience of the flow of time means that nothing is ever stagnant: incompleteness defines our very existence.

But this state of “incompletion” is not a bad thing at all. On the contrary, it invites us to actively participate in the experience by aesthetically or intellectually responding to it. Many works of minimalist art (for example, a Samuel Beckett play) engage us through their seeming state of incompleteness in which what is absent or unwritten draws us in to “fill in the gaps”. In doing so, we participate in the creation of meaning, and the experience becomes all the more enriching. 

We’re invited to fill in the gaps using our imagination, memories, knowledge, emotional or aesthetic sensibilities, and become active participants in defining our realities as we engage with life through our dreams, ideas, and ideals.

Shakespeare writes:

“Nature wants stuff

To vie strange forms with fancy…” 

(Antony and Cleopatra)

Fancy is the ideal in our minds, but the real world lacks the substance to match it: it is incomplete. It is up to us to bridge this gap. And though we may never fully attain that ideal, we are invited to take that imaginative leap (as Cleopatra does when she idealises Antony with heroic, larger-than-life virtues) by engaging directly with the world around us.

We live in a world obsessed with outcomes – productivity, achievement, objectives, goals etc. – and measuring them. We talk of GNPs, GDPs, KPIs, and ROIs. So focused are we on destinations and end results that we forget to savour the journey, to appreciate the experiences along the way, and to be grateful for the memories, the relationships, the little but meaningful encounters along the road of life.

There is yet another sense to appreciating the incomplete: the worlds of possibilities it holds within, and the potentialities to look forward to.

A blank journal or canvas, a rough uncut gemstone, a block of wood, or a chunk of unformed clay – when artists look at them, they often feel a rush of excitement within as they imagine the infinitude of what could be done, and what hidden beauty lies to be explored, revealed, or articulated.

Things that are incomplete or uncompletable often hold a sense of mystery. They offer a peek into another world to explore, and invite us to engage with that mystery and imagine possible futures. One of the most famous examples of this is Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Perhaps it is never ever meant to be truly complete, for much of its fascination lies in its organic, fluid, and ever-evolving form suggestive of the continuity of life reaching out to the Divine. 

To celebrate the incomplete is to celebrate life’s journey: the mystery of the past, the vitality of the present, and the possibilities of the future. 

The Flawed

As someone who suffers from acute obsessive-compulsive disorder, I’m prone to anxiety attacks and fears. To cope, one often resorts to fixed ways of doing things, habits, and routines, for these provide a sense of security in the face of the uncertainties of life. Imperfection can cause great stress, especially interruptions to those obsessive impulses, which have to be done exactly just right. 

I have had to learn to accept that one cannot be in control all the time and that it is futile to expect to be able to do everything perfectly all the time.

More than that, I realise that it is necessary to embrace my disorder by embracing imperfection (for disorders are by definition imperfect).

Flaws are a ubiquitous nature of human existence. It is pointless to try to fix everything, and it is just too exhausting to be obsessive about it all day long anyway.

Why not embrace and celebrate flaws instead?

There are two ways of looking at this:

For one, the presence of flaws only heightens our appreciation of the less flawed. The juxtaposition of the two brings out the qualities of the latter in greater relief, and our understanding of what is good or beautiful is enriched by the contrast.

A person is much more inclined to notice the little details that make a rare flower beautiful and appreciate it more if it is not often encountered than someone who takes it for granted because of its availability. 

In some cases the only way to know one thing is to know its opposite. We take our health for granted – our ability to breathe normally, the regular beating of our heart – and do not fully appreciate good health until we experience problems.

And then, there is the fact that the flawed in itself can often be beautiful, precious, and special.

Examples abound in nature. Some of the most beautiful and precious coloured diamonds are caused by defects in the crystal lattice or the presence of impurities. Emeralds get their precious green hue from trace amounts of chromium without which it would be colourless. Likewise chromium replacement gives ruby its prized red colour; otherwise it is just common aluminium oxide. And pearls are formed when an irritant is introduced into the mantle inside molluscs.

Flaws give rise to variety and diversity, without which the world would be homogeneous and bland. Another way to look at flaws is to see them less as defects and more as variants, and as we well know, variety is essential to evolution and survival. 

The Broken

As opposed to something that is flawed to begin with, something broken, at some point in its past, was once whole. 

When something is broken, our first impulse is to fix it. If that is not possible, we discard it. 

But can we choose to celebrate the broken just as we do with the flawed and the incomplete? 

The Japanese have been doing it for centuries. They have even raised it to an art form.

Known as kintsugi (broken joinery) or kintsukuroi (golden repair), it is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with precious metal (usually gold). The aim is to highlight the breakage rather than conceal it.

It is more than an aesthetic; it is very much a philosophy, a way of perceiving life. It exemplifies the concept of wabi-sabi by embracing the imperfect. (Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic paradigm that celebrates the impermanence of all things. More on this below.)

Kintsugi celebrates an object’s broken past by highlighting it. The damage is brought into prominence with gold or other precious metals and made valuable in its own right. In fact, many kintsugi repaired objects become more beautiful and desirable because of the golden repair.

By highlighting its broken past, kintsugi celebrates the special memories an object holds and its meanings, which even though may be personal to the owner attain a kind of transcendence as it is transfigured by the repair into something that is greater than what it once was.

Likewise, when we celebrate the broken, not just of physical objects but of lives and memories that constitute our past, our present is enriched and even transfigured by that “golden repair” which seeks not to hide the flaws but highlight their beauty and meaning. 

Kintsugi is a metaphor for the celebration of all things broken in the world. It shows us that beauty and transcendence do not rely on perfection. On the contrary, they thrive on imperfection to reveal the true essence of what lies within. 

Because, despite our foibles and seeming inability to attain perfection, our dreams – and the true meaning of all our endeavours – are precisely what defines our humanity:

“Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?”

(Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto)

While it is easy to recognise Browning’s romantic vision of humanity striving for transcendence, we are also reminded of our limited “grasp”; yet, we strive for heaven, for something greater than what we are: incomplete, flawed, and broken, as we may be.

There is another sense to celebrating the broken: to simply and humbly accept and cherish it in its unrepaired state. No attempts at golden repairs, no striving to change anything. Just a pure appreciation of things for what they are, as they are.

There is a profound honesty and pathos to brokenness. The memories associated with it can have a cathartic effect. 

It’s true that some memories might be so painful that one cannot bear to look at, let alone keep, the broken object, but whether it is physically present or not, it does not do good to suppress the pain. 

Such denial can have unhealthy consequences. A broken heart may never heal, but denying it will only make it worse. By accepting it, one is able to move forward, and although the past can never be mended, the future holds so much hope for happiness and love.

Brokenness also holds within it memories of what it once was when it was whole. Those memories will always be a part of us – our past – that we can draw upon for strength and inspiration, and it is up to us to interpret and reinterpret them in constructing our realities.

Rather than choosing to regret, we can treasure our past, accept the transience of things, learn from our experiences, and cherish the moment – the present that we live in.

The Impermanent 

If there is one theme that is shared across all cultures – in one form or another – since the dawn of human history, it is the impermanence of things: the transience of life and human mortality.

The notion that everything – all of existence – is in a state of flux and that life is transient either directly or indirectly shapes our philosophies and religions; it is but a reflection of the way we experience time.

We may seek to transcend time, from ways to attain immortality either through resurrection, rebirth, reincarnation, or transcendence of corporeality, but at the end of the day, we are bound by time, or at least the experience of the flow of time.

Some of us choose to recognise the temporality of life, from the fascination with memento moris, to the urge to seize the moment: carpe diem.

Impermanence obviously need not – or should not – be viewed with pessimism; on the contrary, many cultures celebrate it by urging us to “seize the day” (Horace), “gather, girl, the roses” (Ausonius or Virgil), “so let us rejoice” (enjoy life for it is short – medieval Latin, Gaudeamus igitur, c. 1287).

The concept of embracing transience pervades much of Eastern philosophy, from Hinduism to Buddhism, in particular through the mark of existence known as anicca (impermanence), which Phyrro translates to Greek as anepikrita. Heraclitus had a similar doctrine – phanta rei (everything flows) or phanta chorei (everything moves) – which takes on the metaphor of an ever-flowing river. 

From Japanese art forms – such as ikebana or kadō (flower arrangement) and chadō (tea ceremony) – to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of sand mandalas, impermanence is not merely  appreciated but celebrated as a key underlying philosophy. 

Sand mandalas are especially dramatic as they involve a ritualistic destruction of the mandala after weeks of painstaking creation. The sand is collected in a bottle then released into flowing water symbolising the transitory nature of existence.

In her book Phosphorescence, Julia Baird devotes a whole chapter to “Honour the Temporary”, in which she quotes Australian street artist Tyrone Wright, who paints murals on buildings about to be destroyed. He says that “the temporariness is what makes it contemporary, of the moment, and more important or special… (as) you know it will not be there next time you visit, so you have to appreciate it in that moment”.

It’s like a flower that only blooms once in many many years, or the brief fall of cherry blossoms before they float away and surrender themselves to the elements: their transience heightens our appreciation.

As Ms. Baird puts it, “if we accept impermanence, we are far more likely to live in the present, to relish the beauty in front of us, and the almost infinite possibilities contained in every hour, or a single breath.”

Once we fully accept that we live in time – in the ebb and flow of its current – and recognise how our experiences are part of that current, we will be freed of the need to try to control time, and the ephemeral nature of life only makes each passing moment all the more precious and meaningful. 

In a way, the experience of time “flowing” is but an illusion: we are, in a sense, always in the present, a present that recedes into the past and becomes a memory as soon as that moment is experienced. 

Paradoxically, the present never stays still as our reality is in a continuous state of flux, defined by memories of shifting moments, which in turn are defined by memories of those memories.

But memories are very much alive because they exist in the realm of imagination; the act of remembering involves interpretation and reinterpretation, and each reinterpretation adds new layers or meaning, enriching the past, and redefining the present. 

This interaction of memory and imagination is what enables us to cherish the past, savour the present, and look forward to the future.

How else will we be able to hold “infinity in the palm of (our) hand, (and) eternity in an hour”? Memory and imagination enable us to transcend time.

The Aesthetics of Imperfection 

Referenced above, the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi embraces imperfection: the transient, incomplete, flawed, and broken.

Western ideals of perfection view it as a state that is independent in itself, existing on its own terms. It is by definition whole and complete, with virtues that are intrinsic to its nature. Plato’s Ideal Form does not rely on an observer to appreciate or evaluate its perfection; it is just perfect to begin with, and it it beyond compare.

The aesthetic of wabi-sabi, on the other hand, places more emphasis on the relationship between observer-participant and the thing being appreciated. An object is meaningless on its own; its properties and virtues are only realised when there is someone to appreciate it.

This point is made all the more clear when we look at the two principles of wabi and sabi: wabi relates to the inner human experience, whereas sabi relates to the outer imperfections of things. There is, of course, a lot more to them but what I wish to call attention to is the intimate relationship between human experience and the outer material world: wabi-sabi is an aesthetic of relativity – between observer and observed; between participant and the external world. 

I have yet to come across a complete, satisfactory definition of wabi-sabi in English. Perhaps it is simply not translatable. Perhaps it is because the concept it relates to is by definition elusive, incomplete, transient, and cannot be pinned down but simply embraced.

The important point is that wabi-sabi invites the participant to engage with imperfection in the creation of meaning: a space that is incomplete invites us to fill in the blanks, to actively take part in the aesthetic process of artistic fulfilment. A broken or flawed object invites us to savour its inner beauty, or to cherish its pathos, its emotional energy. A fleeting but beautiful moment of cherry blossoms drifting into oblivion invites us to focus on the transcendental beauty of transient moments.

The aesthetics of wabi-sabi translate into a paradigm – a way of looking at life and the world around us – that affects us on so many levels: 

Instead of always expecting perfection, which sets us up for disappointment, we make the best of things, and appreciate what we have. It is like managing expectations; rather than wish for the greener grass on the other side, savour what is already within your reach. Expectations are relative: a roll of plain bread is everything to someone with no food, but nothing to someone who always has four-course meals. And if you strive to dream for something to aspire towards, to look forward to, make sure that it is realistic. Unattainable goals do not motivate but deflate.

The beauty of wabi-sabi is that it encourages us to accept the reality we live in, and more than that, it looks at the hidden blessings that are right in front of us. We recognise that the potential for true happiness is already within us, here and now.

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