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Vincent van Gogh: Self-Portrait (1887)

"Will we poison ourselves with critical mediocrity or with generous perfection?"

I ordinarily cannot countenance mention of perfection, for as the owner of both an aging home and body, I see little day-to-day evidence of its existence. I'd come to think of perfection as a poisonous notion. As an objective it seemed to guarantee frustration and failure. As a representation, it seemed falsely overbearing, a transparently misleading characterization. Few experiences greater frustrated me than a shopgirl mindlessly parroting everything I'd mention with a "Perfect!" exclamation. She'd ask me if she could help me with anything. I'd decline her offer and she'd declare our encounter somehow "Perfect!" I'd pray that she might somehow pull her faux enthusiasm to the curb and join the rest of us down here on the surface of the planet Earth rather than continue inhabiting her alien-seeming stratosphere above. I found her realm annoying in the extremis.

But I think I might have groused a tad too much.
I mean, what could she possibly have been hurting by paving her experience with such hyperbole? Her "Perfects" certainly did no damage to me. There seems to be more than a little evidence of the wounded optimist in my response to her exuberance. In truth, she did not wound me with her language. It might be that she reminded me of something I've tried too hard to forget but couldn't quite, something of non-obvious importance to me, but lately absent. Life can tax without the consent of the taxed. It can take tolls without necessarily holding the authority to do so. A disappointment here, a shortfall somewhere else, and expectations might suffer most. One might come to construct a buffer against future discouragement by excising courage and acceptance, and thereby come to focus away and into a pervasive mediocrity, and come to no longer expect to experience perfection, not even the kind which had reliably appeared featuring a small 'p' and no headline. Everyday perfection too easily comes to fade into some background and to no longer register.

Beyond a certain uncertain point, it might require Herculean attention to notice the remaining remnants of perfection still clinging to experience. I suspect that some always remains, often in deep disguise and unaccustomed colors, for each self portrait anyone produces probably qualifies for some shopgirl's unbridled enthusiasm. To any properly jaded critic, its shortcomings will seem most prominent. The palette might seem too garish, the brushstrokes too crude. For the focused critic, every object seems best described by what it isn't quite, as if it should have been something different to become what the artist intended. It might be that Van Gogh's self portrait, certainly unlike any other self portrait ever produced before that moment, must have seemed far from perfect to most of his critical public, the very few that even existed then. Few believed that even with practice, he might one day ever even dream of redeeming himself, so far from perfect seemed his production. Now, of course, he's a household name, creator of his own genre, remembered as a genius from whose fingers flowed only perfection.

There's a lesson in that example. None of us creators seem very much like Van Gogh, I guess. Most of us reman suspicious of our gifts, not completely convinced that we entered the correct profession for us, and a little haunted at the tenacious absence of perfections in our lives. We know shortfalls much better than any elevations. We might have better nurtured our critics than our benefactors. We might take a lesson from frivolous shopgirls and learn to genuinely perceive perfection surrounding us. Of course that would mean toppling to accepting living imbedded within a self-imposed delusion. This might require accepting that there's really no viable alternative to living within a self-imposed delusion and that our job must then primarily be to pick our own poison. Will we poison ourselves with critical mediocrity or with generous perfection? There's a question worth asking ourselves! Those who obsess about lowering their lofty standards might have already achieved becoming their own perfect critics.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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