Good, gooder, goodest.

Way back in 1770 the French philosopher, historian, and poet Voltaire wrote that “Perfect is the Enemy of Good.”1 He was quoting an Italian proverb, which was itself probably derived from the Greeks or the Etruscans or somebody, but we’ll go with Voltaire because he said so many wonderful things and deserves all the credit he can get.

This statement, “Perfect is the Enemy of Good,” seems troubling at first glance. Shouldn’t we strive for perfection, even if we know that we — flawed beasts that we are — can never achieve it? According to yet another poet, Robert Browning, “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”2

So which way do we roll? Browning is telling us that we should try to do impossible things because even when we fail we will have pushed ourselves higher than we would normally go. Voltaire is saying that by insisting on an impossible perfection we miss out on doing things that might not be perfect but are nonetheless good, both doable and worth doing. It’s not hard to agree with both of these statements, even though they seem mutually exclusive.

What if we accept the idea that both can be true, both valid, but in an imperfect way?

Aiming higher than we can realistically go is about aspiration rather than actual achievement. After all, the whole point of Browning’s statement is that you’re making an attempt that is destined to fail, knowing that it’s going to fail, but trying it anyway, in the hope of benefiting from the mere attempt. Voltaire’s contribution here is telling us to look at what we do manage to achieve, even when we fail to reach perfection, and to recognize the value of that accomplishment.

As is so often the case, I’m sure by now you’re all listening to what I’m saying and thinking: “Is he going somewhere with this?” Well, yes. I am.

We’re there now, in fact.

Unless you’ve been on Mars for the last few weeks, you know that I’ve just self-published my second novel. Over the last few months, this epic has been edited and proofread by two trained human beings (not including myself) and has been chewed over thoroughly by Grammarly’s AI. Whether or not you think that what I’ve written is any good, I can, at least, assert that this text is free of errors.3

Yesterday, ten copies of the paperback arrived on my doorstep. I won’t try to tell you that this is anything like seeing your newborn child for the first time — but that’s exactly what it was like. I opened the box and pulled out one of the precious books. The text, the formatting… every page was perfect.

Unfortunately, this perfect work of art was wrapped in a cover whose lettering was slightly off-center.

Cue the heavy music in a minor key, the roaring of the storm, the crashing of the waves as the ship strikes the rocks. Cue the massive depression, waiting in the wings just for moments like this.

Mind you, the books weren’t hideous. Just because the baby’s ears stick out doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy of love. They just weren’t perfect. My reach had exceeded my grasp, and I had achieved something good, but not perfect, and I was devastated.

During the course of the evening, I corrected the problem — which may or may not have ever been visible to anyone but me in the first place — and arranged to send that first batch of books away to the great pulping machine in the sky. By this time tomorrow, everything will be fine. Probably still not perfect, but good.

I could say that the crisis has been averted, but there never really was a crisis except in my own overheated imagination. My desire to create something perfect had blinded me to the fact that I’d made something good. Now it will even be more good, but still not perfect, because if there wasn’t a visible flaw, I’d imagine one anyway. I wouldn’t know perfection if it ran up and bit me.

The moral of this story? If you can’t get to perfect — and none of us can, not really — then learn to accept good when the delivery guy drops it on your doorstep. Lighten up, for Pete’s sake!

. . .

1 M. de Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, 1770-1772

2 Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”, from the collection Men and Women, 1855

3 A nod to the readers of my first novel, The Bone Doll, whose first printing was chock full of typos. That situation has since been remedied, but it still makes my stomach hurt whenever I think about it.

In the Mood

Way back during my turbulent twenties – about the time Nancy Reagan was tossing out Rosalynn’s White House china, and Mount St Helens was tossing its summit into low earth orbit – I had a friend.

We’re going to call this friend “Carl,” mainly because that’s his name, and when I try to use pseudonyms I lose track of who’s who from one paragraph to the next. Carl was a director of theatrical productions, and possessed a wealth of interesting – if occasionally impenetrable – epigrams with which he informed and edified his actors. In the course of a friendship that lasted many years (and continues to this day, thanks to the internet) I managed to retain two important and enduring lessons from Carl’s store of wisdom:

A) that cultural sophistication is something you evolve over time, not something you can pick up by watching a lot of public television, and

B) that “mood” spelled backwards is “doom”.

Continue reading “In the Mood”

Bonfire of the Vanities

During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art. The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it. Instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire.

Continue reading “Bonfire of the Vanities”

Seeing it all in black and white.

For much of my childhood (up through, I believe, about 1970) all of my family’s television viewing was on an RCA portable of late 1950s vintage, a clunky plastic thing with an extensible antenna on top and a wood-grain panel on the front decorated with dials and knobs that read “On/Off”, “VHF”, “UHF”, and “Fine Tune”. Inside the unit’s scorched yellowy-beige backside brooded a clutch of humming, glowing vacuum tubes, and its strangely convex twelve-inch screen delivered the Kennedy funeral and I Love Lucy reruns alike in a palette consisting entirely of gentle, hazy grays.

Continue reading “Seeing it all in black and white.”

Nothing if not critical …

The death of writer and television personality Robert Hughes in 2012 was an event that did not exactly shake western civilization to its roots. His television shows “The Shock of the New” (1980) and “American Visions” (1997) had brought him some fame in the rarefied air of the BBC/PBS universe, but despite a long and wide-ranging career – he penned an  overview of the early European colonization of his native Australia, he contributed to an array of newspapers and magazines, and he even hosted (for one week, before being replaced by Hugh Downs) the ABC television news magazine “20/20” – to most people outside the art world he was almost unknown at the time of his death.

With or without fame, in his views on art Robert Hughes was passionate, pompous, often obnoxious, but he was also unfailingly erudite and articulate, and he left us more aware and better-informed than he found us.

Continue reading “Nothing if not critical …”


It always amazes and amuses me to see how a whole nest of unconnected obsessions can manage to circle around and overlap when you least expect it.

I finished a painting a couple of days ago to which I gave the title “Orithyia”. The name refers to an incident in classical Greek myth in which Boreas, the god of the north wind, takes a shine to a woman (or possibly a nymph, depending on your source) named Orithyia. When his courtship — admittedly clumsy, as Boreas is the rough north wind, not the suave west wind — does not win her over, he simply carries her off in a whirlwind and has his way with her anyway.

Continue reading “Links”

Beginning a Painting

“Notes to myself on beginning a painting”
by Richard Diebenkorn

  1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. DO search.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

* * *

The Bird and the Fish

My painting “Dialogue Between the Bird and the Fish” will be finding a new home this weekend, and I thought this might be a nice time to tell the story that the picture illustrates. So, without further ado …

A fly, hovering near the surface of a pond, finds itself suddenly the target of not one, but two predators: a bird who darts down from the nearby cattails and a fish who rises up unexpectedly from the depths of the water. Fortunately for the fly, his attackers are so startled that he has the opportunity to dart out of reach of either (only to be eaten later by a dragonfly — such is life).

Continue reading “The Bird and the Fish”

Taking a line for a walk

I just completed a piece of artwork that is both a departure and a return to basics for me. It’s essentially a drawing, scribbles of glue and black ink in layers, each layer painted over with off-white gesso and sanded, then elaborated with textural passages in black ink and red, sepia, and brown watercolor, accented by areas covered in pure white acrylic.

Continue reading “Taking a line for a walk”