If anyone was going to quote Shakespeare, I’m glad that it came from today’s guest blogger. She certainly has the credentials. As the Editor and Content Director of Popular Woodworking Magazine, Megan Fitzpatrick brings not only her love of craft to the table, but also an expertise about culture at large and a teaching spirit.
By asking others to write about “perfection” in such an open-ended way, I’ve found that the simplicity of this question has been both liberating and challenging. Ironically, that’s the same tension most of us encounter in our work as craftspeople and Megan captures it perfectly in her response below.
Until recently at All Souls College, Oxford, Prize Fellow candidates were required as part of their applications to write on “the fifth question” – an essay in response to a single word. I would never have been invited to sit that exam; this brief essay on “perfection” is as close as I’m ever likely to get – and while I won’t win an academic fellowship for it, perhaps I can convince a fellowship of makers that “perfection” exists – if at all – for but a moment.
The only truly perfect things I’ve encountered are on a plate and meant to be eaten (the short rib cappellacci at Sotto comes to mind). But to fully judge and experience that brief taste of perfection, one has to chew it up and swallow – without that, you don’t know it’s perfect. And once you do, it no longer is. While it can be experienced again (place another order), its perfection will again be fleeting. The pleasure comes not from the perfection of the food on the plate, but in consuming it.
The same is true of objects we make in wood, or any medium. The moment a thing is experienced as a tangible object, it becomes less than perfect (if it was ever so). But what is the point of making if not to in some way use the thing, and in doing so add fingerprints, a scratch from a child’s toy, a spill from an excellent bottle of wine. One makes things imperfect through use –but also so much better.
I’ve never been enamored of “l’art pour l’art.” My mother collects antique furniture and objets d’art. While she has nothing the world might consider “perfect” (a Roentgen secretary, perhaps, or a Fabergé egg – and who among us can afford those?!), she has some nice pieces. When I was child, all the best stuff was in our living room, from which my brother and I were forbidden entry. And the stuff that wasn’t on display in the living room was stashed behind the doors of a 19th-century cherry jelly cupboard we weren’t supposed to open (though no doubt we did).
That is, I’m sure, where my decided preference for use value was born; exchange value matters to me only when I need to pay for a new roof. (Anyone want to buy a less-than-perfect wall cabinet?)
Almost everything in my house is meant to be used, and nothing in my house cannot be touched (go ahead – feel the impasto on my one oil painting). I don’t encourage my friends’ kids to scratch up my sugar pine dining room table, but it happens. What is a scratch or two compared to gathering with my friends (and years after the tradition started, their kids) around that table for the annual Thanksgiving dinner I so enjoy making? The scratches – and splotch of cranberry that stained one of those scratches – add to my satisfaction in the thing. It is not perfect, but it is perfectly suited to its function. And that is more that good enough for me.
That is not to say I don’t love beautiful and beautifully made things; I do – and I strive for that in my work. But beautiful and useful should co-exist. And I will never achieve perfection for more than a fleeting moment…and that’s in my Thanksgiving trifle, not in my woodworking.
As is the case on many subjects, Shakespeare said it best. So I leave you with Sonnet 15, in which the memory of perfection – as captured in the poem –remains. The perfection itself is effable but fleeting.
When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the selfsame sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.