Saturday, February 5, 2011

"The only thing standing in your way...

is yourself."

This is a line from BLACK SWAN which I recently saw and which blew me away. It's kind of like THE SHINING for dance. A wonderful, brilliant, disturbing film. But it got me thinking about the burden of perfection. Something that I think all creative people struggle with. I know I have.

We want approval. We want everything to be just right. Alice Miller writes about this in "The Drama of the Gifted Child." We give up when we think we can't. Instead of just loving the thing for itself, we love it because of how others see us. And in the end, as every Buddhist knows, this can only lead to suffering and misery. One of the things I loved about BLACK SWAN was how Nina's counterpoint just loved to dance for the sake of it. Not caring if she was a solo artist or in the choir. She did it for th sheer pleasure of doing it.

And then there's perfection's other side. Doubt. I think doubt is good for the artist. As are flaws. Auden once asked what was the point of a perfect poem. There'd be no reason to write any more. Everything must be flawed. That's the whole point. You must give yourself over to your art - even if it's not perfect.

The other day I was standing in front of an amazing Jackson Pollock at MOMA. I read that after he finished this painting, he asked Lee Krasner, his wife, "Is this art?" He was the most famous painter in America at that time and he was plagued with self-doubt.

My childhood friend, David Lauderstein, just wrote to me and shared this anecdote. He's a musician and was working on a composition, but he was filled with doubts about where to begin. So his teacher said, "Include your doubts."

As I've mentioned before in this blog, the Tahitians have no word for art. The closest they come is something that translates to "I'm doing the best I can." Isn't that all we can do or be expected of us? It is only then that we feel free to make mistakes and go out of our comfort zone.

This photo is a blury picture of a tiger that I took while sitting on a moving elephant's back. It's not a good picture, obviously, but I rather liked its abstract quality. It's kind of dreamy. And, under the circumstances, it was the best that I could do.

As the artistic director of the ballet in BLACK SWAN says, "Perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go."

But perhaps no one has ever expressed this sentiment better than Henry James when he wrote in The Middle Years (1893): We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.


  1. Thanks, Mary. I know just what you're talking about. When I was once working on a piece for winds and was stymied by doubts as to how it should begin, my composition teacher said to me, "Include your doubts!" And that did it. I wrote a piece that started with a series of beginning each of which I doubted was the best way to begin. It worked great. :)

  2. David, this is a great anecdote!!! I'm going to add it to this post if I may. I am always filled with doubt. But I guess that's the place to begin!

  3. What a great photo!! I'm not a big movie-watcher, but I've heard so many good things about Black Swan that I've got to see it.

  4. Alexis, you like this photo??? Wow...I can't believe it. but thank you, as always. And go see Black Swan.

  5. what a great post, and comments too. thanks, mary. will share it with a writing workshop i'm teaching this weekend. your blog is lovely and wise.

  6. Hey MMorris. Beautiful words. This movie line brought me here directly to your blog.

    I´m writing down a few words bout melancholy and art in my blog(the trigger was also the Black Swan). I believe the greatest thing about the movie was the projection of the contradiction and unbalance. Artists usually are a bit more sensitive and sad than other people. I consider myself a bit of that.. There must be uncomfortable situations for the true great artists to come out and show their inner beauty. There´s a price to be paid, of course. We´re taught to hide our feelings and be strong at all times. That´s not how art is produced. Art needs weakness, an artist must know his weak spots and work them through, exploring it as well as its best features, even losing control, as in the movie.

    So, the anguish we (or the artists) feel is rewarded at the end (hopefully). The last quote of the movie was "it was perfect". Beautiful words. I guess that whole perfection was felt by Nina ONLY. It was a personal perfection. No one else could possibly feel as she did.

    Congrats. Sorry bout possible text mistakes (im from brazil)

  7. I watched Black Swan and that film blew my mind away too, I understood why Natalie Portman was nominated, her performance was excellent!