The Promise of Broken

Perfection is your enemy; your enemy is a phantom.

Untitled (2014). Glitch art by Antonio Roberts. Check out more of his work and theories at hellocatfood.com.

Have you heard of the centuries-old Japanese art of Kintsugi (“golden joinery”)? Also called Kintsukuroi (“golden repair”), it’s the art of mending broken pottery with gold dust–infused lacquer.

My wife told me about it a while back. She’s a psychologist, so the idea of finding beauty in damaged things resonated with her in relation to her work with troubled people — it made her think of scar tissue, both literal and the metaphorical emotional kind. But you don’t have to be a therapist to recognize the empowering grace in the ideas underlying the art form, or to appreciate the wisdom and perspective of a person who can embrace and cherish imperfection.

Who called it “Golden Joinery” instead of “Flashy Cracks”?

Kintsugi (learn more about it from this excellent write-up on My Modern Met) is reminiscent of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which directs adherents to seek out the beauty in anything flawed, fractured, or otherwise imperfect (and isn’t everything imperfect?). Similar ideas are echoed in the Japanese idea of mottainai, which means “regret when something is wasted,” and mushin, which is “resignation in the face of change.” The key to Kintsugi is that the object’s breaks are more than just repaired; they are emphasized and afforded extra worth. The foundation of Kintsugi is the attitude that “celebrates each artifact’s unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks,” instead of whitewashing them.

This perspective requires wisdom, and an openness to the understanding that something repaired could become more beautiful and pleasing than its purest original state, even infusing it with new vitality. And of course, no two objects break in the same way, so each mended object is absolutely one-of-a-kind, and a sort of transcendent celebration of its unique history.

It’s not hard to extend these ideas beyond Kintsugi pottery. In fact, what got me thinking about Kintsugi this time was David Lynch.

Bend With the Breaks

In an early chapter of Lynch On Lynch, an edition of Faber & Faber’s Director On Director book series, David Lynch recounts two of his failures.

The first happened while he was at art school in the late ’60s. At the time he had made just one film, Six Figures Getting Sick (Six Times) — more of a multimedia installation really, made with stop-motion animated painting combined with a projection of images onto a sculpture. He rigged a projector to play the final piece on a loop, resulting in a ten-second film that repeated over and over — a proto-gif, if you will. Based on that work, a fellow student commissioned a similarly styled project from him for $1,000, at that time and in Lynch’s situation a hefty sum and a true godsend.

Lynch immediately used part of that stipend to buy a used Bolex 16mm camera, and he was off to the races. The project moved along well enough, until he submitted the film for development and received a shock. The entire film was one long blurred streak. As Lynch recounts, “The camera had a broken take-up spool so the film was just moving through the gate freely, instead of frame by frame.” Nothing he had worked on was captured. It was a total failure. And yet, he remembers accepting it all pretty peacefully: “You’d think that a person who had this happen to them would be distraught. But I was almost kind of happy. I didn’t know why.”

Lynch was completely upfront with his friend about what happened, and soon enough thought up another project to work on. That turned out to be The Alphabet, the quirky short film that gained him entry into the then newly formed American Film Institute, truly setting him off to make the blazing, inimitable output of work we know.

Funny enough, the second failure happened during the making of that very film. To pull some sound to use for The Alphabet, he recorded his newborn daughter crying with a Uher tape recorder. He didn’t realize it till he played back the sounds later, but that recorder was busted. And that was perfectly fine with him. As Lynch recounts it, “The frosting on the cake was that I loved the sounds that it made, primarily because the machine was broken. And the lab didn’t make me pay for it, because it was broken, so I had the best of both worlds.”

The faulty recorder had found a way to make sounds that didn’t exist anywhere else, and they felt perfect for what he was after. Their very weirdness gave them their value.

It requires patience and wisdom to go with the flow and turn disadvantages into opportunities like that. For anyone else, such setbacks might have proved career-ending calamities. This wisdom is the magic ingredient elevating his knowledge, artistry, and originality, allowing his ineffable ideas to manifest themselves and flourish before our eyes.

Crack Your Own Tube

That reminds me of the Kinks. Specifically, about the guitar sound on their breakout hits, “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night”. Depending on which Kinks brother you talk to, that unmistakable crunchy sound — all sandpapery gain and distortion—was the result of either a knitting needle stabbed through their amp (according to lead singer-songwriter Ray Davies) or a razor blade scratched violently across its speaker cone (according to Ray’s brother, lead guitarist Dave Davies).

Whoever and whatever was responsible, the amp appeared to be trashed — except the resulting sound was spectacular and changed the course of music history. Those 1964 songs captivated the world (even further inspiring the Beatles) and are now considered proto-heavy metal. In Lynchian fashion, the Davies brothers recognized the singular awesomeness of a broken amp and ran with it. And again, it’s no guarantee that any lesser artists would.

Stay Twisted

It might not come naturally to seek out flaws and dial them up, but it can be rewarding. Three separate creative directors I’ve worked with have given a similar line of feedback on vastly different projects — in each case, it was something along the lines of “fuck it up a little bit” (in one case that was a direct quote). A script felt too proper and linear, the tone of another piece was too transparently careful, the visuals on something else looked too set, too sterile, too flawless.

I’ve internalized that advice now to think of it while working — how can I mess this up a little, add something weird or unexpected that people can latch on to? Advertising is not The New Yorker and it’s not about making journalistic, reality-based work. It’s about subjective style choices. You can mess with type, with language, with visual effects, with story, with lighting and textures and sound and anything you like.

The purpose of advertising is to make something get noticed, to make something memorable. Expressing the “benefits” and/or personality of your brand should be a secondary concern. Because if nobody notices the work, you’ve wasted all your time and money anyway. And sometimes the way to get something noticed is to get a bit messy.

The inability to take risks and do stuff that will be noticed is usually a symptom of the large amounts of money at stake and the fear of loss, as well as the nervous nature of people who want to protect their established positions (which they often attained by taking risks in the first place earlier in their careers). It’s one reason (there are others) so much advertising is just not that good, or often eye-rollingly bad. This should further encourage the rising trend of fusing independent art into the world of advertising, and letting commerce provide a bigger platform for avant-garde ideas and styles from that more free-ranging, high-minded world.

“What Would Be Error Could Be Art”

Speaking of art, what the hell is it again? The fantastic essay linked in that subtitle above explores complex questions about art, taste, and how the two are being affected by algorithms. Some artists are reacting to the sterility of algorithmic discovery and the ceaseless striving for pixel perfection by seeking out and even forcing glitches to occur. It’s called Glitch Art. (Check out this amazing Glitch Art manifesto for a taste).

Obviously it’s hard to define and impossible to quantify art. But in its broadest definition, maybe it’s just a celebration of our world’s and our own imperfections — reflecting our flaws back at us through media that are themselves inherently flawed. Maybe it’s just a slash in a canvas that opens up a window to infinity. Maybe it started as a doodle — or a broken pot.

9o0oe3u* As David Lynch put it, “Creations are an extension of yourself, and you go out on a limb whenever you create anything. It’s a risk.”

So take those risks! Never be too precious with your own ideas for fear that they will fall short. Embrace your mistakes. Cherish the unique flaws in everything — including yourself. Treat others’ ideas, and the people sharing them, gently and respectfully. Nothing is perfect, nobody is flawless, and we’re all well too aware of that fact. And ideas are so fragile.

If you think about it, every valley is uncanny, you know? Try to find beauty in the glitches — there is no shortage of them, and there never will be.

Besides, breaking is fun

*I swear one of our cats typed “9o0oe3u” by walking across my keyboard. In a post about appreciating flaws and rolling with mistakes, how could I not leave that in?

Originally posted on alwaysotherwise.com on June 8, 2018.