Prof. Stefano D'Anna's Official Web Site

Turn Your Life Into A Masterpiece

Riace Bronzes 2

Each man is an artist
 who has only to constantly create 
 one perfect masterpiece -
The Concept of Perfection
The concept of perfection is an asymptote in mankind’s existence – a chimerical aspiration that will never be fulfilled. Poets, artists, philosophers, and ascetics throughout time have chased after it in vain. The line of our lives continually approachs the curve of perfection without any chance of ever meeting it. Nevertheless, no ideal has been more practical or important for the development of our civilization than the concept of perfection. It is a universal value and a sacred task. It could well be considered the very engine of our civilization. I have explored it for you – my readers of Tempo. Just follow me.
The term perfection has its root in the Latin word ‘perfectus’, which in turn derives from the verb ‘perficere’ which breaks down into ‘per’ (completely) and ‘facere’ (to do). Therefore, for the ancient Romans the intrinsic meaning of the word ‘perfect’ describes an action, or something that has been done in a complete way. According to this etymology, something incomplete cannot, by definition, be perfect.
Nevertheless, the concept of perfection reaches back beyond its Latin roots. And the Greek equivalent of the Latin ‘perfectus’ is ‘teleos’ which defines a more practical shade of this concept. The definition of perfection as “something so good that nothing of the kind could be better” was not satisfactory for the ancient Greeks. According to them something, or an action is perfect if has attained its purpose. Therefore, it can only have concrete referents, such as a perfect musician, a perfect meal or a perfect social system.
Right at the beginning of our research, tackling perfection and trying to penetrate deeper into our understanding of it, we have found ourselves facing a duality with this term, a twofold meaning of perfection, or rather, two shades of the same concept:
a) That which is perfect is complete, meaning that it contains all the requisite parts, and nothing is missing, and nothing can be added or taken away. This brings with it the concept of integrity.
b) That which is perfect has attained its purpose.
Perfection as Completeness
When I came across the idea of perfection as completeness or integrity I became a tireless hunter of the essence of this concept.
I sought it out relentlessly and found its traces everywhere: etymologically carved into the immortal characters of the word “universe” (versus unum), in the meaning of the term “monk” (monos), in the Latin root of the word “religion” (re-legere – to unite, to link, to tie together). The very word “university” (versus unitatem) brings hidden within its etymology its forgotten mission: to be a school of integrity. In one of my many visits to Turkey, delving into the depths of the Turkish traditions, I discovered that the ancient appellation for “university” at the time of the Ottoman Empire was the word “Kulliyet” which means integrity, or completeness. What a reminder would it be to go back to calling universities “Kulliyet”, and to remember their mission to be schools of perfection, and schools of completeness. I would like to see a large plate affixed to the pediment of all universities in the world, on which would  be inscribed the words that I saw surmounting the stone arch at  Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya:
This is the house of lovers.
The one who arrives here incomplete, finds his integrity
For years, I have shared my findings on integrity with my students. In speeches, articles, scholarly papers, and through conferences and seminars, I have explored the link between integrity and perfection. My intuition found confirmation and concrete expression only when I discovered that all the sacred texts: The Bible, the Holy Qur’an, the Tibetan Book of the dead, Bhagavad Gita and the greatest spiritual books of humanity were, in reality, books about integrity, and how a man can reach this condition of wholeness, and of unity in oneself that the Bhagavad Gita poetically defines as ‘singleness of soul’. These books hold descriptions of the ways in which ways one can regain integrity whenever it is lost. Perfection intended as integrity is our birthright and, as such, cannot be created. It is already there. In order to turn our life into a masterpiece, it must simply be reclaimed.
Function and Purpose of Perfection
For centuries – generation after generation – Greek sculptors refined their art in the direction of creating the most realistic reproduction of the human body. This was something that had never been done before in all of the history of humankind. The Greeks pursued the ideal of perfection in art through the efforts to get closer and closer to creating perfect replicas of man, reaching a complete understanding of how the different parts of the human body act together as a system, studying the most minute details of the body and reproducing these elements in their marble statues.  The Kritios Boy (ephebos) which is now on display in the New Acropolis Museum, is the apex of the Greek art of creating something more human than human. This marble sculpture has been defined as the first perfect nude ever produced in art. The extraordinary thing is that when Greek artists reached perfection in the imitation of life, and could have continued to produce perfect statues until infinity, in one generation, they stopped. This cannot be understood without remembering what the Greek culture intended by perfection: something which attains its purpose. And the purpose of perfection was for them, the effect that it had on the viewer: the sense of wonder, atonement and redemption that beauty and perfection were able to deeply convey into the souls and minds of the Greeks, and the ability of beauty and perfection to act as a remedy to the chaos and sufferings of life.  When that perfection could not create wonder – a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration – but, rather, created boredom, it meant that the task had lost its function and art must  transcend itself by moving to a perfection of a higher order.
The Exaggeration Effect
That is how they started producing pieces of art far removed from a supine reproduction of life, and masterpieces like the Riace bronzes started to appear. In these sculptures, muscles, posture, the length of the body and legs, is all brought to the extreme of a perfection that you will never see in a real human. They represent unrealistic bodies. The Greek civilization, the first one capable of realism used exaggeration to go even further. I have taken all possible occasions to be in Reggio Calabria to see them. They are simply overwhelming.  Starting from the Riace bronzes, Greek Art regained its function and purpose, resuming its place by the side of the Greek theatre and the cathartic power of tragedy, and after 2.500 years these unique masterpieces still infuse unforgettable impressions of proud warrior spirit, and of physical and moral strength. From there, art began its long journey, travelling farther and farther from the aims of realism and beauty to arrive finally to the XX century when beauty and perfection in music, poetry, visual arts, fashion and even in architecture are not artistic values anymore. ‘Artists’ pursue originality, and their aim is still to overwhelm the viewer but through disturbing him, shocking him and breaking moral taboos. We are losing beauty, and with the loss of beauty we are risking the loss of the sense of life.
Imperfection is Perfect
After the Greeks, the Renaissance furthered the idea that perfection cannot be static, but must continually transcend itself. The baroque aesthetic gave rise to the postulation that true perfection must possess a potential for development, and must have the capacity to evolve, and to be improved. This view leads to the singular paradox that the greatest perfection is imperfection. The implication is that the perfection of an art work consists in being intentionally incomplete, thereby, forcing the viewer to be active and to integrate it mentally – to complement the art work by co-creating it with the artist – contributing to its completeness by inducing an effort of the imagination.
The unfinished sculpture of Michelangelo’s Atlas, part of a series of six sculptures of slaves all left unfinished, could appear to be the contradiction of the idea of perfection as completeness. In reality, it has become a world icon, representing humanity trapped in its own existence.
Perfection in a Cup of Tea
Perfection has no size, and no time. It is not too small or old, or out of fashion. It is unique, and does not compare with anything else. We can find it in the David of Michelangelo as in the Way of Tea, the millennia old Japanese ceremonial preparation and presentation of green tea. In my FLW Program for Future Leaders I try to induce an appreciation of perfection in the participants, finding a way for them to experience, and to physically touch perfection. My idea is that if you learn how to do something in an impeccable way – even making and serving a cup of tea – its perfection radiates in every corner of your existence. If you meet perfection you will never forget it. Its scent and taste will harbour forever in your soul.