I’m not great at painting, but this semester I spent about six hours a week in Tjaden trying to paint anyways. On somewhat of a whim, I took a friend’s advice and signed up for an introductory art class. I was definitely the least experienced in the class. And still, the environment it created — where I had room to mess up and get better, where I was out of my element and felt no pressure to make anything perfect — brought me a kind of peace that I haven’t found in many other spaces here at Cornell.
I painted everything from a portrait of a stranger to an exterior of the Cornell Sun building (that I ultimately had to call “abstract” because it was unforgivingly unrealistic.)
Every few weeks, we would have class-wide critiques where I’d nervously hang my attempts on the wall next to perfect, often photo-like pieces done by freshman Fine Arts students. And every so often, one would wander over to my side of the room and ask me questions that got funnier over the course of the semester, like, “did you intend for this painting to look like a cartoon?” (I did not) and, the ever-quotable, “at least you’re having fun.” But they weren’t wrong. One of my still lifes did look intentionally cartoonish and I was having a really great time navigating my new hobby, even if I was doing so clumsily.
I’m approaching my last semester at Cornell, and still, every so often I’m struck by the pervasiveness of perfectionism here.
A study published by the American Psychological Association shows that perfectionism has been increasing over time, citing socially prescribed perfectionism as a large influence on this trend. And if you look around at our peers, the examples are everywhere but explanations are trickier to pin down. Social media definitely exacerbates this. Want to compare your social life? Your professional trajectory? Look no further than Instagram, LinkedIn, or your peers for titles and images that are ripe for comparison.
A quick search of other student newspapers, from The Harvard Crimson to The Daily Californian to The Columbia Spectator, reveals a widespread interest in perfectionism among people our age: whether we’re identifying it, dismissing it or problematizing it. Exactly what I’m doing right here. But perfectionism, in its most extreme forms, can extend beyond an annoying trend and can actually be hazardous to our health and has been linked to various disorders, according to a publication from Harvard Medical School.
This is not to say that me taking, and being mediocre at, one painting class has allowed me to “rise above” this, but it has helped in a lot of small ways. Because my painting class happened to fall right after one of my most difficult classes of the semester, it was always a nice escape, a therapeutic routine. I’d take an exam, and then head into the studio, put headphones in and focus on a canvas that I couldn’t make perfect, but could make okay, or kind of good, with a few hours and earnest effort. And by the time I left, I felt oriented. And that counts for something, even if the only things I was consistently good at in that class were learning and relaxing.
It’s tempting to put a romantic spin on the clumsiness of these attempts and of trying new things in general. But in my case, that wouldn’t be entirely honest. I would definitely prefer that my paintings look more like those of my classmates, but sometimes, no matter how much extra time you spend in the studio, correcting parts of a painting, messing them up, and making them okay again, your skill level just kind of is what it is. And that’s fine. We all have some version of the painting class.
But in a place where it feels like there’s an almost constant preoccupation with perfection in the areas where we do excel, it’s nice to hide, even if just for six hours a week, in the ones where we unabashedly do not. Because at least we’re having fun.