Portrait of the Artist's Wife
Sydney Earnshaw Greenwood (1887–1947)
University of Hull Art Collection
"Arguably, an unfinished or incomplete work holds a unique kind of beauty, one which can feel more painterly or raw, even authentic. For example, Sydney Earnshaw Greenwood's Portrait of the Artist's Wife is fleeting and sketchy, though it captures a sense of movement, character and the inner essence of the sitter."
"The cult of the unfinished artwork has re-emerged at different points in history and is arguably a reflection of changing tastes and aesthetics, but also the mindset of artists. Though many artists never intended for us to see an incomplete product of their oeuvre, we can still appreciate these incomplete and imperfect visual forms, which tell us so much about the inner psyche of their creator."
"It is therefore surprising that Renaissance Masters such as Donatello, Leonardo, and, above all, Michelangelo with his Slaves – only partially sculpted and appearing to both emerge from and recede into the marble block from which they are hewn – have left us some of the most iconic examples of unfinished art.
"These works, though unintentionally, manifested their incompleteness in such a powerful way that they created the cult of unfinishedness, leading other artists to embrace an unresolved look as a deliberate choice. From the effect of incompletion imparted by sculptors like Rodin, Medardo Rosso, and, more recently, Bruce Nauman, to Turner’s sublime depictions of the sea, this style that has come to be known as ‘non-finito‘, intentionally finding in unfinishedness a particular means of expression that is reliant upon the contemplative viewer to infer and complete the picture."
The universe, Dr. Haught proposes, is "unfinished business," its hierarchies still emerging. Life, mind—these were not levels of creation present at the start; indeed, Dr. Haught notes, the emergence of life of any kind, let alone thought, is incredibly recent. “The universe was not anxious to produce life,” he remarks. Given this, who can really say where it’s headed?
Our capacity to understand the universe, he notes, is likewise constantly growing. Just as animals have no way of understanding human writing, so our own capacity to comprehend what’s really going on all around us—in particular the spiritual aspect of our existence—is asymptotic: always evolving, never fully there.
So to those who would say the universe is a dead thing, just a physical set of systems with no life or spirit within it, Dr. Haught replies that materialism is just a step in the bigger intellectual and ultimately spiritual journey. And the move of faith to speak in terms of story or analogy does not disqualify it from the conversation, rather it is “the sign of the enormity of what we’re involved with.”
"Or, he notes, if the 13.8 billion years of the universe thus far was a set of 30 volumes of 450 pages each, humanity would rate a couple chapters, maybe, at the end of the set. This offers a rich perspective our own place in history. Rather than the stage on which our story is unfolding, the universe becomes the crux of the story, and we just a part. His ideas call forth a humility that is thrilling rather than enervating."
- Jim McDermott, in Dispatches from America: the Jesuit Review, recounting a talk by Dr. John Haught called "Science, Faith, and the Cosmic Future in 2015 at Georgetown University.
Gratitude for the Imperfect
At Home in the Unfinished
I write this essay for a friend who thought his life was finished. He recently committed suicide. It is painful for his family and friends to consider his circumstances at the end of his life. I attended a memorial service afterwards that presented him in such a loving and beautiful way that I realized that nothing whatsoever, including ending your own life, can finish you. The memorial service unfinished him. It occurred to me then that the very idea of "being finished" can be an enemy to human well-being. Even God is not finished. There is always a creative advance into novelty; there is always the next moment, there is always the Unfinished. I hope that my friend is now resting in the deeper home of the Unfinished, free from whatever tyrannies possessed him.
"In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly. (Whitehead, Process and Reality)
Why are we drawn to the unfinished, the imperfect, the incomplete in art? It partly depends on the work, but here are some possible answers: unfinished are leaves room for the imagination; it takes us closer to the artistic process; it reminds us that there is more to all things than is seen with the eye; it allows us to embrace our own imperfections. (See the essay by Patricia Adams Farmer below.) And perhaps, for some, there's still another reason: The Unfinished is a window into the fact that, after all, the Unfinished is an ultimate reality.
There are many ultimate realities. Some people think God is an ultimate reality, some think each moment of experience is an ultimate reality; some think ethical ideals such as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are ultimate; some think mathematical entities are ultimate; some think the interconnectedness of all things is an ultimate; some think Energy is ultimate; and some think Love is ultimate. .
Process philosophers say that each of these is ultimate in its way. There are multiple ultimates; each of the above-mentioned realities is ultimate relative to the question being asked. If we ask "What is the stuff of which all things are expressions?," we can say Energy. If we ask "In what may we place our deepest trust?," we can say God or Love. If we ask, "How and why are things together in their differences?," we might say Interconnectedness.
To these ultimates we can one more: The Unfinished. This ultimate answers the question: Is anything fixed and final, such that nothing comes after it. The answer is No. There is always the next moment.
At least this is how process philosophers such as John Haught see things. For them, the universe is an unfinished process or, in Haught's words, an unfinished journey. The phrase could suggest that, sometime in the distant future, where will be an absolute End to the journey, after which all process (becoming, fluidity, passage) ceases. But process philosopher disagree. For them there is no absolute end after which becoming ceases. There is always a next moment.
This absence of an absolute end is the "Un" in the phrase The Unfinished. Whitehead speaks of the Unfished as Creativity, because it is an endless "production of novel togetherness." Every moment in the Unfinished is a new gathering, a new concrescence, of inherited influences.
Looking Forward and Letting Go
Both words - The Unfinished and Creativity - are helpful. The word Creativity emphasizes the novelty of each new event, the word Unfinished emphasizes the non-finality. The word Creativity invites us to be open to novelty, to welcome the new, to understand that life is an adventure, to avoid clinging to the past as if were an absolute anchor. The word Unfinished invites us to relinquish the idea that the goals toward which we strive, or accomplishments and failures of our lives, are Ends with an upper-case T. The ends are never the final story. Creativity invites us to look forward, Unfinished reminds us to let go.
Cosmic Consciousness and Gratitude for the Incomplete
There is a special kind of mysticism, of religious experience, in holding these two intuitions together: in letting go of the illusion of finality while welcoming the new. It involves a kind of cosmic consciousness, an awareness of the Unfinished which, so says Whitehead, is the ground of God and the World. But this cosmic consciousness is itself insufficient if not complemented by gratitude for the incomplete, for the finite, for the provisional, for the particular things which in their finitude, come into existence and pass away as moments in the ongoing history of the Unfinished. There is a kind of beauty in the partial, the incomplete, that makes it even more beautiful than things that seem complete. It is "the thrilling beauty of the incomplete."
In Western art, the tradition of Non-Finito (not finished) offers a special opportunity for seeing, for realizing, the beauty of the incomplete and the ostensibly imperfect. The word imperfect can have many meanings. For some it refers to a fixed ideal to which finite things should conform and aspects of which they can imperfectly embody. But I use the phrase to name the end of a process called The Completely Finished.
The Past is in Process
There is nothing in the universe or in life that is Completely Finished. The most likely candidate might be everything that has existed in the past, the immediacy of which has perished. A leaf falls to the ground, a loved one perishes, a star dies. They are in a profound sense over. And yet they influence everything that comes after them and, if remembered by conscious beings, can be interpreted in ever changing ways after they have passed away. In this sense their own story is not completely over. They are what they were, but also what they are becoming by virtue of their influences and subsequent interpretations. They, too, are in process.
God is in Process
In process theology God and love are closely connected. There is more to God than love; there is also wisdom, for example, and creativity. And there is more to Love than God. Humans and other living beings on our planet can and do embody love. We listen to others on their own terms and for their own sakes, and we act in ways that nurture their well-being and, for that matter, the well-being of God.
Still, when it comes to defining characteristics of God as understood in process theology, love has an extremely important place. It is easy to say God is Love and that when we love others, we are participating in God's lovingkindness.
Here God can be imagined as a sky-like Mind in whose consciousness the unfinished universe is unfolding. The universe is not outside God but rather inside God, albeit with agency of its own. God loves or nurtures the world in two ways: by being a companion to the world's joys and sufferings and by providing fresh possibilities for happiness, understanding and vitality for each living being.
This provision is powerful but not coercive. Many things happen in the universe, by virtue of the creativity of finite creatures, than are not and cannot be controlled by God. And while God knows what is possible in the future, God does not know what is actual until it is actual. This is part of what Whitehead means when he says that both God and the World are in the grip of creativity, and each is an instrument for the other. The Unfinished is the ultimate ground of God and the Word. The universe is not finished and thus open, even for God.
The Grace of the Unfinished
It is because the universe is unfished that God can love us so deeply. God loves us for who we are and who we can become, given who we are. Our becoming includes what we ourselves may become in our own right and also how we influence others. We can become more loving and wiser, we can grow. God can also forgive us our sins, and this forgiveness adds something to the meaning of our lives. In relation to us, God is never finished.
Nor ought we be finished with one another. We can and should welcome other people into our lives amid their incompleteness and do the same with ourselves. We need not hope for them that they become complete in the future, but can indeed hope for them, and for ourselves, that we grow wiser, more compassionate, and more creative than we are in the present, knowing that we are never finished.
- Jay McDaniel
“Neither God nor the World reach static completion. Both of are in grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty. Either of them, God and the World, is the instrument of novelty for the other. (Whitehead, Process and Reality)
The Beauty of Imperfection
Patricia Adams Farmer
The Elusive Quest for Perfection
Typos are the bane of my existence. Maybe I’m just a singularly neurotic writer, but I doubt that I’m alone in this. Trying to rid a manuscript of typos is like guerrilla warfare in the jungle. The brutality never ends—never. Just when you start to feel safe, the misplaced comma, the missing quotation mark, the glaring absence of a preposition, or worst of all, the misspelled word ambush you. Typos are sinister; they taunt and mock and jeer for the sport of it—it’s what they do. It’s their raison d’etre. That’s why writers have someone else proof their work, but even then, some particularly devious typos sneak by the editor into publication, like stowaways on a ship waiting with evil relish to emerge, brazenly, just after the boat sails.
Would I have it any other way? Would it be better to half-heartedly glance over my work and pronounce it “good enough”? Of course not. I think it’s good to struggle with something you love—to do some serious suffering, even while knowing that perfection is elusive. Striving for perfection has its moments—think of great pianists or Olympic athletes—and it can even save lives. I fervently hope that people who dismantle bombs are perfectionists—obsessively so—as well as doctors who perform delicate surgery. And heaven help us if our dentists declare a botched root canal, “good enough.”
We need to strive for excellence, of course we do—but we need to be wary of perfectionism, for as we climb that steep mountain on our way to our ideal, we might just lose our footing and go crashing down in a heap. Perfectionism has a dark and dangerous side.
Perfectionism: The Dark Side
Perfectionism, a fairly innocuous word, can in fact make us miserable and neurotic and play heinous tricks on our psyche. It can make us sick. Perfectionism is a dangerous game and, if not watched carefully, can turn tragic. For example, women are inundated from an early age with magazine ads showing gaunt, curve-less bodies as if they are the “ideal.” Anything outside the perimeters of that ultra-thin, half-emaciated ideal is to be stamped INFERIOR, and thus most of us go around feeling quite dissatisfied with—or even ashamed of—our bodies. Thanks to the Tyranny of Thin, eating disorders continue to take their toll on—even kill—bright, talented young women.
Remember Karen Carpenter. Listen to her voice and weep for all that was lost. She died of complications from anorexia nervosa at age 32, a complex illness, but one in which a driving force is perfectionism-gone-mad. And for the anorexic, perfectionism does not stop with body image, but infiltrates the whole personality. One's entire life-orientation becomes hostage to elusive ideals of perfection.
On the socio-political level, radical idealists strive, sometimes violently, for their version of the perfect political system or perfect religion. Worse still—maybe worst of all—are those who believe in an ideal skin color or “race.” History breaks our hearts with its testimony of such madness.
Granted, these are extreme examples, but even in our everyday lives we are besieged by this vague, unspoken notion that there are “ideals” out there that we have to live up to, or else we are simply inferior beings that might as well be wiped off the page like dangling modifiers. We feel we need the perfect house, the perfect spouse, the perfect job, the perfect nose—even perfect happiness.
Tracking Down the Source . . .
Chasing after elusive ideals: Where does it come from? Who can we blame for the tormenting power of perfectionism to blight our peace of mind? Our parents? Our culture? Our “super-egos”? Maybe. But in this essay, I’m going to blame Plato. Yes, Plato. He was the philosopher who came up with the whole idea of perfection in the first place. Of course, Plato pretty much laid the foundations for Western Civilization, so it’s best not to be too hard on him. Can you imagine a world without, say, The Republic? Socrates himself? Never. Plato taught us through Socrates how to think critically, how to examine our lives. Plato had his moments. Yet, there is a downside to the great philosopher. Yes, it’s true—and I say this with relish: Plato was NOT PERFECT.
Truth is, Plato left to his own devices can cause a great deal of mischief. He believed that every imperfect thing has a perfect ideal in some heavenly realm—and that only those perfect “forms” are truly, truly real. Everything else—actual people, trees, and monkeys are mere shadows of their perfect counterpart ideals. It’s as if there are perfect Greek statues lined up in the heavens—perfect body, perfect tree, perfect monkey—looking down on us in judgment.
And the more divergent something is from the perfect ideal, the less value it has. You can see the disturbing moral implications piling up here. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson explains this particularly well in his book God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theologywhere he takes on Plato’s perfect forms. He says, “A view that elevates the ideal is profoundly mistrustful of any individuality, of people being stubbornly not the ideal, of being irreducibly unique and different. It is also important to point out that if the ideal is perfect and if the physical is denigrated, then how much more so are people who are physically disabled or socially degraded: how inferior are they!” Rabbi Artson gives a compelling argument for both process theology and Jewish thought as remedies for this huge flaw in Plato.
Thinking of Jesus may be another remedy for Plato’s obsession with abstract perfectionism and ideal forms. Jesus much preferred real, earthy, imperfect people—sinners, tax collectors and the “least of these”—to the “perfect” Pharisees. Perfect people don’t have the capacity for love like imperfect people. Jesus knew that; he knew only love is the answer to the mystery of life—not perfection.
The Consolation of Wabi Sabi
Yet another remedy for getting Mr. Perfect, aka Plato, off our backs comes from Japan. The Japanese do not revere Plato like we Westerners do. Thank goodness. When the tyranny of perfectionism hits, we can turn to the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi for consolation. What is wabi-sabi? To me, it is a bed of flowers in which to rest after typos have taken their exhausting, demoralizing toll on the spirit. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic, a view of beauty that actually embraces imperfection.
Richard Powell, in his book Wabi Sabi Simple, explains that wabi-sabi “nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” This is a Buddhist way of thinking, and the Japanese prefer this as a standard for beauty rather than Plato’s ideal forms. In a spiritual sense, wabi-sabi says to us: Perfectionists, step aside! Bring in the rustic tea pot, chipped and scarred with use; the fallen leaf, brown and withered; the old woman, wrinkled and full of history and stories. All these are beautiful, my friends, if only you could see.
As a process thinker, I am drawn to wabi-sabi. I have recently created a wabi-sabi rock garden—a simple, earthy affair of collected rocks washed in by the tide, set in the form of a spiral so it can go on and on as I find more rocks. Not only is it forever unfinished, it is also filled with diverse, rough, oddly shaped rocks of various colors and sizes—all of which somehow create a more intense harmony. This is a process view of beauty: the beauty is in the differences, like the different notes of a chord of music, each note with its own integrity—together spilling out into the air in clusters of intense harmony that further the creative advance of the universe.
"I live my life in widening circles," says the poet Rilke. My wabi-sabi garden will grow in size to make room for more rocks, yet keep its integrity as a spiral. It is a rock garden in process—a widening beauty—an unfinished becoming rather than a static being. So it is with our very souls; they are not static “things.” We are not perfect, self-enclosed billiard balls bumping up against each other. We are created out of our relatedness to one another—and to the past and possible future. We are hurt by our relationships and we are healed by our relationships. And we are forever free to choose a more healing path, a more beautiful path that the one we are on.
Our souls or psyches constantly erupt into fresh becomings and can, despite the pressure of the past, re-imagine the world in widening circles. The beautiful soul, the wide soul--or what I like to call the fat soul—does not subscribe to the narrow ideals thrust upon it by the Tyranny of Thin mentality. The fat soul is one that, for the sake of love and beauty and intensity of feeling, expands to include the so-called imperfect, the not-quite-right, and the sweet but sad melancholy of “perpetual perishing.”
And so, Dear Plato . . .
Thus, beauty in terms of process thought and wabi-sabi bears scant resemblance to the Platonic ideals of abstract perfection to which we must aspire or be counted inferior. We “subversives” who stand up against the Tyranny of Thin and all the trouble perfectionism has wrought in the world, choose instead to fatten our vision, our psyches, our souls. Rather than hold ourselves up to a static, abstract perfection, we choose to embrace the warts-and-all diversity and contrasts in the real world of fresh becomings. We choose to love our unfinished selves, our bodies, our work, our relationships—all in their natural “imperfections” and unique differences. We throw out our scales and give ourselves over to a worldview with wide hips—one that can make room for all the variegated colors and shapes and striking contrasts that make life beautiful.
And so, dear Plato, father of Western Civilization, I apologize for being so hard on you. You are part of us—we Westerners, religious and secular alike, who have been raised on your static ideas of perfection. We will not abandon you. You have given us so much. After all, Whitehead said that the whole tradition of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to you. You are simply unfinished and imperfect like the rest of us. But cheer up, Plato. Even as we declare you to be flawed as an ancient Greek statue missing an arm, in the spirit of process and wabi-sabi, we also pronounce you beautiful.
THERE IS A FLAW in the above essay, and it has nothing to do with typos—although there are probably several of those. After writing and re-writing and writing again, I couldn't quite get a handle on the problem. It was too deep and elusive—and subconsciously troubling. Something was wrong. In frustration, I played the video above and listened once again to Karen Carpenter sing, and I suddenly realized the problem with a jolt. Her beautiful, rich, contralto voice was the very lure I needed to say something I never dreamed of saying out-loud in public—and certainly never in writing! But her voice from "long ago and oh, so far away" insisted that what I needed to add, if I was to be true to the words above, is this: I am not merely a distant observer. I am a survivor of anorexia nervosa.
In the late 1970s (in my early-twenties) I developed the disease even while Karen Carpenter was losing her battle. She was an icon for me, someone I adored, a fellow musician. She was perfect. I wanted to be. She died and I lived. It could have been me, as we weighed exactly the same: 91 lbs. And yet, even in that emaciated state, I felt that if I just lost another pound or two, I would be perfect. It took an intervention and a stern doctor's warning that I had to choose life or die. I chose life. I was lucky to get the help I needed, but it was a long, long road to recovery. My weight eventually became normal, but I learned that you don't ever quite shake off the demons. They are always there, lurking in the shadows, but the difference is that they lose their power over your life.
Although there are many new theories about the disease, including many biological and genetic factors that doctors were not aware of in the 1970s, perfectionism and the need for control over one's life, two central features of the illness, are not only treatable but can also be transformed. I am living proof. Treatment is one thing, but transformation takes years. I'm not sure that I would have made it even to age thirty-two, the age Karen Carpenter's heart gave out, if I had not learned how to slowly transform my entire world view.
Through the years, process thought—especially process theology—helped expand my narrow, severe, impoverished view of myself, God, and the world into a lovely, widening landscape of beauty, love, and letting go. The psychological effect of process theology helped me slowly regain my health and, eventually, flourish. Yet when, as a professional minister and teacher, I encountered anorexic girls, I related to them only as an objective professional, keeping my own "imperfect" past to myself. But now I am too old and life is too short for such distance and pretense. At least that's what Karen Carpenter was telling me with her voice from somewhere in heaven.
I realize now that my essay was not so much imperfect as it was too perfect. It lacked the embodiment of my own imperfect authenticity—a personal story that might help someone who is suffering. Now, with this added postscript, the essay feels authentic, wabi-sabi—an imperfect offering.
From a process perspective, there is much more to life than "completeness." There is also the creativity and beauty of the unfinished, the incomplete, the partial.
This doesn't mean that artists, philosophers, architects, poets, engineers, homemakers and college students can't finish things: works of art, books, building, poems, streets, freshly made beds, washed dishes, and final exams.
Still, we live in a universe that is a creative advance into novelty. Once something has come into existence - physically, emotionally, intellectually or otherwise - it is not the end of things. Something new comes after it. The universe, says Whitehead, is the endless production of novel togetherness. He calls it Creativity and says that it is more ultimate even than God.
Is there not, then, an opportunity for Peace of mind? Yes, thinks Whitehead. But it must be within, not apart from, the ultimacy of the unfinished. We may well sense that, including within the process, there is an encompassing something, perhaps even an encompassing love, that weaves what has happened into a beauty that includes tragedy. Whitehead speaks of this as the Harmony of Harmonies. But it, too, is in process. It, too, is incomplete. It, too, is in the grip of the creative advance.