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Aesthetics, Value, and the Joy of Imperfections
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Aesthetics, Value, and the Joy of Imperfections

When I Was Originally Invited to think about imperfections for the accute session, I told a friend about the focus of the panel. Her immediate thought was that I should have a look at the current scholarly work that is being done on failure. My initial response was one of recognition and agreement because I know that there is a lot of interesting work being done on failure … but after a moment I started to really think about that unhesitating move from imperfection to failure and what it means. And that is what I want to discuss here.

Failure, however interesting, is not, I think, the same as imperfection. But the connection between the two terms says a lot, I would like to suggest, about digital and mechanical reproduction, aesthetics and value in contemporary cultural discourse. How are we constructing flaws—something fundamental to the creation of art, to conceptions of beauty, to the normal—as failures? What does that say about our expectations of ourselves, our art, our thinking?

I had all of this in mind the other day—and was going to try to wax philosophical about it—when a morning television show was all a twitter about a supermodel (Gisele Bündchen) who had published a photo spread [End Page 9] of herself without makeup: displaying, as one of the anchors of the show repeated a number of times, “her imperfections for all to see.”

What is so odd … or interesting (if I‘m being generous) … or just plain annoying about this moment is that these very television shows spend a lot of time talking about the evils of the beauty industry’s insistence on air- brushing and digitally reworking models into impossible—perfect—shapes. This sudden kerfuffle about Gisele’s freckles and other flaws overrode the model’s own statement about the presumed/constructed perfection of her image and what she understands to be the point of her publication of the unretouched images: “Our imperfections make us unique and beautiful.”

As the discussion on this morning show suggests, unique isn’t exactly what the North American public wants from its supermodels and imperfection is, in this case, tantamount to failure. So maybe my friend’s reaction was not as far off the mark as I thought. Giselle’s connection between the imperfect and the unique is borne out in philosophical and aesthetic discussions of imperfection. Most often, these seem to be the focus of discussions of improvisation in music, specifically jazz. I cannot claim to have any real knowledge of music theory, but what I find interesting for my purposes in the discussions that I have encountered around the question of imperfection in music is the clear division that exists between the unpredictability and the “unrepeatable” nature of the live performance (whether or not there is improvisation) and the infinitely repeatable, generally polished, altered product that is a recording. Andy Hamilton has suggested that an aesthetics of imperfection “finds virtues … which transcend the errors in form and execution” (171) generally associated with the rough edges and near misses that are inherent parts of the moment of performance. Errors, for Hamilton, can in fact be “an unintentional rightness” (178). So in discussions of musical improvisation, at least, the energy, the flaws, the unpredictability of the moment of performance are, indeed, potential failures, but they are valued precisely because they are “subject to contingencies” (Brown 121) that lead to an unpredictable, often very successful, result that cannot be reproduced precisely because of its imperfections. The contingencies, roughness, or errors in improvised performances are, indeed, imperfections, but for both Hamilton and Brown (and others) they are decidedly not failures.

Thinking about this distinction in music takes us to the ways in which contemporary Western culture has come to have such a conflicted relationship with imperfection that it allows the easy, uninterrogated slip into an equation with failure. Perhaps this relation is connected to the ways in which manufactured goods have created a particular—and particularly [End Page 10] odd—set of expectations around not so much perfection but, rather, a kind of uniformity. The leap from imperfection to failure...