Sarah Johnston delves into why perfection in creativity is overrated, and mistakes can benefit us all
Creating unique art is terrifying.
You unwittingly become a representative for your art form and find yourself feeling like the sole representative of a genre. You want to do your best, show off the wonder of your creation, and impress people, but often, we go beyond wanting to share what is ours to demanding perfection from our forms.
Speaking as a highly imperfect person, the amount of desire and almost necessity for perfection in the arts today scares me. I remember when I was a child -and even though I sang off-pitch and my dancing looked like someone being attacked by bees – I was proud of my performances. However, as I’ve gotten older and grown up in the arts, I’ve realized that the sheer amount of perfect performances expected from you can be soul-crushing. In my opinion, art is not about achieving perfection – it is about embracing humanity, and that means it is about embracing failure.
It is well-known that achieving a career in the arts is incredibly difficult; it comes with years of training and auditions, rejections and intensives, heartbreak and defeat. It is never something that I could do and I have known that for many years now. In the world of art and performance, you need to not only be good, but be the best. If you’re not a triple-threat in musical theatre why even bother, if hand-painted work is not your forte why try, if your manuscripts don’t make it past the length of a novella what’s the point in trying to publish? The answer is, of course, because you love it, but passion alone doesn’t seem to cut it in the world of arts anymore.
Reviews and critics have always been part of the process as a creative, but in an age filled with social media where you can turn a generation off a show with only 280 characters it’s a lot harder to show off the things that don’t impress people. Are we being too harsh on the arts?
Anyone nowadays with a mobile phone and an internet connection can start a blog, or an Instagram, or a news site. It’s very easy to become a critic in our online society. Critics are often praised for their controversial takes, unorthodox opinions, and for not glossing over the gory details. Their worth as a critic is how many pieces of art they can tear apart while keeping people interested. I think the bravest critics these days are those who aren’t afraid to say that things are bad, but are also willing to admit that they still liked them.
We notice mistakes a lot: celebrities falling at awards shows, Broadway spectacles going bust, music that fails to hit the charts when it should. We see them, we post them, we obsess over them, but we never appreciate the things that are imperfect in the way I think we should. As performers, it is easy to be annoyed with a bad performance because you know whether it is the best you could have done or not, but what do you do when your best still isn’t good enough?
Every artist has a deeply personal connection to their own piece – people don’t put time and effort into things they don’t think are worth it. Regardless of whether it’s a complex cabaret of intricate metaphors or some simple splashes on a canvas, to that creator their work means the world. It is difficult to take something that you’ve worked so hard on and present it to other people, knowing that their first instinct will be to find faults in it – and because we are mere mortals, faults will always be present. Even worse is the culture of self-loathing artists have created with our intensity of perfection; the people who will never show their work, never quote their poems, or perform their pieces because they are so afraid of the reaction that they shut it down themselves.
I remember when I was younger everyone used to be obsessed with the quote “dance like no one’s watching”. It was tacked to the wall of our girls P.E. changing room in sparkly pink letters to remind us when we were doing our lessons to not be self-conscious. It’s a nice message but the problem with it is that it doesn’t matter how many or few people are watching if you’re still critical of yourself. I’ve tried dancing like nobody’s watching and I still end up stopping and berating myself for looking like an idiot.
Everyone tells you as someone in the arts that your first review will be the thing that makes you or breaks you, but I have never cared what other people said about my performances. For me, my make or break moment was the first time I was ever asked to sit down after I sang in a show and my theatre teacher asked me how I thought my performance had gone. I remember staring at her for a minute to make sure she was being serious, and then I started to spill it out – I was pitchy, my emotion sounded fake, I sounded nasal, I squeaked my top note, my hands had flopped limply by my side and I had been so nervous I had stayed glued to the spot staring blankly at the audience the whole song. I remember crying and her hugging me and telling me I was being too hard on myself, that I had done a great job. I vividly remember laughing in her face; the other girls had been so much better than me. And then she asked a question that made me stop and think: why did it matter how everyone else had done? Our performances were all stand-alone, unrelated songs. We all had different voices and different ranges, we all liked different genres. Why was I judging the worth of my performance off of the other performers?
The reason we strive for perfectionism so much is that the arts world has turned into a competition. It’s a battle to secure a leading role, a fight for a spot in a gallery, a challenge to make it onto the shelves of bookshops. But that's a war between professionals. Amateur arts shouldn’t be a competition, we shouldn’t be ranking ourselves. We love to put ourselves against others on ridiculous qualities: who sold the most tickets? Who got the bigger budget? Who had the nicer theatre? This is not what the arts are about. We have become obsessed with the idea that to produce good art we must produce perfect art.
There is something wonderful and magical about imperfect art. There is something so loveable about performances where someone forgets a line, or a dancer misses a move, or a comedian gets an unexpected heckle. These are the times when art lives and breathes. Art is in the moments where we create because we can. If you are creating something and you enjoy it, it makes you proud, it makes you feel, or it just makes your day a bit better, then you deserve to be praised for that. It may not be perfect, it may not be the most amazing thing, but it is wholly and completely one hundred percent you in that moment.
So my advice to all creatives out there, whether amateur or professional, would be to embrace your flaws, your failures, and your mistakes. Belt those bum notes like you’ll never sing again, try for that triple pirouette and fall on the floor then dust yourself off and try again, write that book with the plotline that a thousand people have done before because no one will have done it quite like you. We began in the arts because we love it, and we shouldn’t give up because other people don’t like the way we do things. Art only progresses with innovation, with people who are brave enough to be different and show it. Sometimes art is a leap of faith and sometimes that leap is a swan dive and sometimes it is a belly flop. But the most important thing is that whatever you do, you do it with passion and love.
And in case anyone is wondering about that oh-so-awful performance of mine I talked about earlier, my theatre teacher recorded it and burned it onto a CD for me. I still have it, and every time I get stressed that I am not good enough at what I do when I perform I put it on and sing along. I still sound as bad, but the difference is now I own it.