I still think of Edinburgh with a fondness, having spent my formative years there. The city was an important place during a period known as ‘the Enlightenment’, when many of the old restrictive norms were being cast aside. A leading light in that movement was the philosopher David Hume, who lived, thought and was buried in Edinburgh.
In 1742, he wrote: ”When the arts come into perfection in any state, from that moment they naturally, or rather, necessarily decline or seldom revive in that nation where they formerly flourished.
Once perfection has been reached further advance being impossible, art must go backwards.”
In this age of the web, I can see images of paintings by all the greats of the past. I also see hundreds of paintings by people working today. I have stood in front of paintings in real-life (as opposed to on-screen), from an enormous range of artists.
I know that many of these have spent their lives in pursuit of ‘perfection’ as they saw it, while others have used their work to push the boundaries.
Kandinsky - amazing to look at, beautiful and highly original. A long way from what went before and completely different from his contemporaries.
It is hard to imagine how he could have done any better - so - ‘perfection’ for him.
The same can be said about so many others, each achieved their own version of perfection in their own unique way.
Turner versus Cezanne? NO. It is not ‘either / or’ - my test is the question: Could this have been made any better?
Which is to ask - Did this artist achieve perfection?
Can there ever be greater originality than Picasso? Or Riley?
This approach, testing perfection from the point of view of the artist, would mean there can be as many versions of perfection as there are artists!
Which is clearly not how Hume intended it in 1742.
To him, perfection lay in the collective judgement of the audience, and in particular, the judgement of the chattering classes. Back then, only the elite would see a picture. And this test continues to flourish today in that the artists’ attempts to present their perfection is then judged by the viewers, who, naturally, use their own eyes, their own values, to decide, and those are influenced to some extent by trends.
Having attended classes and arty groups, I am aware of the existence of ‘rules’ about art, where people have studied great art and have analysed the layout, composition, use of colour - more or less everything - and have distilled these examinations down to common patterns which are then presented as guidance - if you want your picture to succeed, you should do this. No doubt these are helpful to people starting out, but maybe it is my personality, I just don’t like being told what to do or how to do it so I throw the impressionists back in any conversation about rules in art - if they had followed the rules as they stood in 1863, there would have been no ‘Salon de refusees’. Cezanne might have produced even more paintings, but they would all have looked just like those accepted by The Academy, and we would certainly have not seen the explosion of creativity which happened in the first half of the 20th century.
Which is to say that as the achievement of a single definition of ‘perfection’ must rely on a clear set of rules which set that out, there cannot be such a thing.
This is why the words which accompany any artwork are vital - to set the context of the artist’s intentions which then help the viewers to arrive at their judgement.
But are the people who scroll through the thousands of images of art today really concerned about ‘perfection’?
Yes. I believe some are.
People look at art for various reasons which have been explained to me over and again at my exhibitions. Two big ones: (a) to enjoy looking at art, and (b) to find something to buy.
This second group must be concerned about perfection. They surely seek an ideal painting which will enhance their space, which will give pleasure when anyone looks at it, and which can be the subject of joyous conversations with friends.
The first group look at a lot of art in their pursuit of pleasure. ’Wow, look at that!’
But, as Forrest Gump might have said - think of the box of chocolates. Some of us love the crunchy solid toffee ones, others the gooey soft centres. Some people love listening to opera, others RAP. We are all different.
Which means that there are infinite ideas of what ‘perfection’ in art will look like, and it is completely impossible for the artist to anticipate what those might be.
I just hope you find yours here.
A final comment about David Hume. He was a master logician and it is clearly true that something that is perfect cannot be improved. And, his comment was directed at ‘the arts’, so might have been inspired by Bach rather than any painting.