Arete as an Artistic Philosophy

Some artists are perfectionists—or try to be. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable, and attempting to reach it will cause the artist to be non-productive. Additionally, attempting perfection in art just makes the artist more frustrated in a business that is filled with frustration to begin with.

From a productivity point of view it would be far better to take a “good enough” attitude toward making art. To produce art that is “good enough,” the artist must know the audience really well to know what they will and will not accept. “Good enough” is a practical goal when productivity is key to the artist’s success. Does this approach prevent artists from doing their best work? Not necessarily, but  it does ensure artists’ success in that their audience is always satisfied with the work presented, and will keep coming back for more.

There is, however, a third alternative, and that is to approach one’s work with a sense of arete. Arete is a Greek philosophy and is referred to by Plato, Homer, and Aristotle. Essentially, it means the pursuit of excellence or living up to one’s full potential. A person practicing arete uses “all of their faculties” to reach their highest effectiveness. This philosophy has a good deal to offer the artist. It avoids the frustration that results from attempting perfection, and it circumvents the mediocrity that can be associated with the “good enough” approach. It assures that the artist’s work is as good as it can be at any given time with the resources available at that time.

Does this mean that an artist’s work will all be of the same level? Probably not. As an artist moves through time they gain experience, this adds to the artist’s capabilities and will likely result in better work as time goes by. The artist may gain additional resources as time goes by and they acquire new skills and additional knowledge. Again, the artist’s work may benefit and become better as the artist matures.

Does this mean that the artist’s early work is without merit? Far from it. The youthful artist is likely to bring a sense of newness and discovery to the work that the more mature artist lacks. The early work will be different, but neither better nor worse, merely different.

No matter what the age of the artist or where they are on their artistic journey, they will have something new and different to offer the work. And they will always know that whatever they have produced, they will have done their best possible work. It’s just that the meaning of “best possible” varies over time. However, there will never be the sense that they “phoned it in” because in practicing arete, they will know that they produced the best work they possibly could, given where they were in their artistic journey, and that can be a great satisfaction, even if the work fails to gain an audience.

The downside to arete is that in practice—making every piece the very best it can be— it can be intense. This is particularly true for the ultra-talented among us, who are used to being able to dash off a piece with no discernable effort. It seems to me, however, that the intensity is worth it, because “good enough” is not good enough—unless it’s the very best we can possibly do. Those of us who have not, might want to consider the arete approach; it will make a difference in our art.

Date: Sunday, 3. December 2023 22:37
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