A Russian commentator on the Solomonic wisdom of the two-gold solution to ice skatingís latest cause celebre maintained, and I paraphrase: One virtuoso attempts to play the fiendishly difficult Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto and does it excellently, but makes a few minor technical errors. A second plays the much easier Claire de Lune and does it perfectly. And the prize, goes to?
Who is more deserving, the climber who attempts Everest and fails, short of the peak, or the climber who settles for some lesser peak in Darien?
Leaving aside the specifics of the case--the particular merits of the skaterís performances, the possible subornation of a French judge, and any other factual consideration, real or imagined, the furor raises a fundamental question of aesthetic theory. This is especially so since ice skating is a sport in which aesthetics claim a lionís share of the appeal.
What is worthier, to fall just short of something truly spectacular or to succeed perfectly at something less? Technical perfection or flawed brilliance.
Whether the nineteenth century British poet Robert Browning was a devotee of ice skating is open to debate; his poems never mention the subject. That he was concerned with the question of technical perfection as a measure of value is certain. ďAndrea Del SartoĒ the faultless painter who many of us first met in surveys of English Literature in high school or college complains that despite his own technical superiority, there are painters less skilled in whom ďthere burns a truer light of God. . . .Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know, reach many a time a heaven thatís shut to me.Ē
ďA manís reach must exceed his grasp, or whatís a heaven for,Ē he concludes with a sound byte.
If an artist, read skater, does not fall short of what he tries to do, fail, how will he ever know that he has pushed himself to his limits. Perfection is a sign that the artist has stopped short, has not taken that extra step that he might have gone had he tried. Imperfection, then, is a sign of an artist striving, in the words of another set of strivers, to be everything he can be.
Moreover, Browning argues through Andrea, because the passion of striving is absent from technically perfect art it is pale and mechanical, while great art that has slight imperfections, in spite of these imperfections, perhaps even because of these imperfections, is often ablaze with the passion of the artistís soul.
John Ruskin, the nineteenth centuryís leading art critic, no mean prose stylist himself, and another advocate of imperfection as a measure of excellence, looked to the imperfections of the great Gothic cathedrals, and their characteristic asymmetry of facade, and saw there a sign of mankind reaching out for a greatness beyond his grasp, and it was this reaching, this refusal to accept what was at hand that made them great.
Writers in the nineteenth century were worried about perfection. It was the age of the machine. Things that men had done were now being done by machines and the machines were doing them better, if better is defined a more technically perfect. Machines could make glass more perfectly, stitch clothes more perfectly, set type more perfectly. Machines would be putting imperfect humans out of work.
Except that there was one thing that machines didnít, and more importantly couldnít do. They didnít take pride in their work; they didnít love what they did. It was this very lack of emotion and passion that made their perfection possible. Thatís why the argyle sweater your mother knits for you, the one with the ever so slightly irregular sleeves is so much better than any sweater you could every buy in a department store: that argyle sweater, in my case itís a knitted ski cap with a tassel, was knit with love.
Grandeur in art demands that the artist challenge herself, take chances, and the artist that takes chances is likely to fall short. What she accomplishes in the trying however may well be worth more, than had she not taken the chance, and settled for what she knew she could do.
One can almost hear the Olympic announcer: Robert Browning, the British judge: The Russian Pair--5.9. The Canadians--6.
And the winner is. . . .