Photo: Alice Neel’s James Hunter: Black Draftee. The subject never returned for a second sitting.
There’s a moment when you simply must declare it done. You want to move on. You need to move on. Your chef d’oeuvre is done. You’ve said all you have to say. Or if you happen to be an artist of the visual kind you’ve looked at your work and said to yourself that if you apply one more brushstroke it will in fact be ruined.
While working on your masterpiece you may have even worried that you were going to die before finishing it. Then all the time you put in would have been for naught, right? (In our time-centric, achievement-oriented culture it seems there are few things worse than sacrificing large amounts of time for little or no tangible gain.)
After almost five years I recently declared the memoir I’ve been working on “done.” (Or at least “good enough.”) I’d spent months writing and editing and then even more months making all the changes that my editor wanted me to make. And yes, thanks largely to the existence of the computer, I will almost certainly continue giving it a few more tweaks here and there, plus maybe even a little trimming (again thanks to the computer, which unfortunately makes endless revision a true—and truly terrifying—possibility.) But basically the heavy lifting is over. The manuscript is finished because as the author I’ve decided (perhaps somewhat arrogantly?) that this particular piece of writing is as good as I can reasonably make it.
And yet what does “finishing” actually mean? In other words, how does an author or an artist know for sure when it’s time to put down the pen or the paintbrush and declare a particular work done? And what about when something, such as boredom or illness or even death, intervenes? Or what if the artist or his or her subject simply walks away?
Such intriguing questions are currently being explored in an exhibit entitled “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” currently on display at the Met Breuer Museum in New York. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2016/unfinishedThe exhibit includes a wide range of unfinished paintings and drawings covering a period of more than six hundred years. Whether by accident or design, the works in this show, which were created by a pantheon of luminaries from Rembrandt to Warhol, were clearly left unfinished by the legendary artists who created them.
There appear to have been a number of reasons (or in some cases no reason at all) for why these works were not completed and yet the fact that they weren’t in no way takes away from their status as masterpieces. Indeed it can even be argued that their unfinished state only serves to enhance their allure. In other words, is “finishing” always necessary or even desirable?
The show at the Met Breuer suggests not.
Still, the mystery remains: Why did artists from Van Eyck to Rembrandt to Manet fail to finish certain paintings?
According to a report on the exhibit by National Public Radio, centuries ago even Rembrandt himself weighed in on the subject. Asked why so many of his works appear half-finished the master replied that a work of art is complete “when in it the artist has realized his intention.” In other words it’s up to the artist rather than the critics—or anyone else, for that matter—to decide when a work is complete.
(And yet finishing can be hugely important, especially in the case of a written work since a manuscript that either trails off or stops abruptly rarely holds much appeal for the majority of readers.)
According to NPR’s report on the exhibition, http://www.npr.org/2016/05/31/479584758/you-gonna-finish-that-what-we-can-learn-from-artworks-in-progressthe painter Cezanne once wrote that people who are hell-bent on “finishing” are imbeciles. And yet how many of us were taught from an early age that there’s virtually nothing worse than failing to finish something?
(After all, finishing, and within a certain, reasonable amount of time, is often seen as the goal, isn’t it? For example, when people find out that you’re writing a book their first question, usually much to the consternation of the author, is, “When will it be finished?”)
Nevertheless, as the exhibit currently on display at the Met Breuer demonstrates there can be, and quite often is, incomparable mystery, as well as beauty, in a work that’s been left incomplete.
As far as my memoir is concerned, couldn’t I have declared it “finished” a year or two or even six months ago? Probably since the product as it stands right now isn’t really all that different from what it was a year ago. But the truth is that until now I simply wasn’t ready to let it out into the world.
Growing up were you taught to always finish whatever it was you’d started and that to do otherwise was nothing less than a disgrace? Do you believe that “finishing” is always a good thing or might there be times when it’s desirable, or even necessary, to cut your losses and walk away or otherwise leave a project or artistic endeavor unfinished? Can you remember how you felt when you finally finished an extremely challenging assignment or project? If you have an observation or opinion or a story to tell that has to do with “finishing” I’d love to hear from you.