The mercy of quality

Soooo…. I’ve just extracted myself from the clutches of the couch, watching the academy awards. And there was a small discussion between the couch-spuds regarding how the best actor, actress, movie etc are chosen. Sure there are politics involved, it’s all so secret and hidden, this process… and there are ‘fashions’ and trends. One year it’s gay issues, then it’s people living with handicaps. Or perhaps it’s onlookers trying to find some rhyme or reason why this and not that one. ‘Well it must be because this is the year of ‘… whatever.

By and large I think quality is something people recognise for what it is. It’s indefinable, and yet instantly recognisable, like beauty, which we all agree is subjective. But — through and beyond all that subjectivity, with the different ‘glasses’ we wear, with all the diverse backgrounds, prejudices and different education levels that we bring to what we’re looking at and experiencing: beautiful is beautiful. Quality is quality.

I first came across this concept of quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and found it deeply fascinating; it’s been a subplot in my life ever since. There was a little class at the local Technikon in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, about fifteen years ago which involved students from ‘The Bridge’ as well as established illustrators. The Bridge was so called because it filled the gap for prospective illustration students between Matric and Technikon, to bring the drawing skills up to speed where kids who’d been disadvantaged in their education (read: art was not considered worth teaching in black schools and nothing much has changed). Professional illustrators and students who were not going to let a lack of art education stop them, contributed to a drive to produce books for adults who were learning to read for the first time. All the work was put together and there was a crit session, with feedback from the proposed end users, so we could fix problematic areas and resubmit it. These newly literate adults didn’t want to be sitting around reading primary school readers, so the stories were short but with an adult contemporary feel, and heavily illustrated.

One of the books was illustrated by an artist whom I’d met at some UNISA Fine Art workshops, a delightful woman who was really passionate about art. But she wasn’t an illustrator. (For the record, the lecturer had told me to go away and become an illustrator. So I did.) Back to the crit session: our future customers rejected her book because the people were ugly, they said. The lecturer murmured something about the line not being very sensitive and it needed more work.

My attention was seized by this: that all of the testing group liked or disliked the same books, by and large. Where something was not ‘well’ drawn, as in realistically and accurately, they saw it, even if they didn’t have the lecturer’s terminology to express what was wrong, and they didn’t need an art degree to do that. Having said that, people do tend to note when humans are badly drawn, rather more than other subjects. They will say – ‘That hand is funny, it doesn’t look like a hand.’ Or whatever.

Scientists somewhere or other have also discovered that a huge part of our brains is dedicated to face recognition. So portraits are looked at especially closely. Normally if the man in the street says the sculpture is not a good likeness then you can be sure it isn’t. Speaking of which, how hard is it to get Nelson Mandela’s face right? Whether it’s on a coin, a statue or a painting, it very seldom resembles the great man. I suspect it’s because he looks so distinctive, the artists are not all that careful perhaps, because what I’m seeing is almost a short-hand version – oriental eyes, deep grooves down to the mouth, you get the picture. Except that you don’t really, when you look at public artworks of our Madiba.

ZANews gets Mandela totally right, but it’s a brilliant caricature. Their Tutu is also magnificent! Oh dear the exclamation marks are creeping in. I can’t help it, the whole man is an exclamation mark.

Love this - click on the pic to read more on WebEcoist.

Back to quality. When I’m shopping, what I notice about so-called upmarket spaces is that the more nature is featured somehow and the more simplicity there is, the more we’re going to pay.  If it’s artificial greenery, and there is over-the-top fake Romanesque architecture, as in the Canal Walk Shopping Mall, I feel faintly insulted. Their tenants certainly pay enough rent and all those elaborate plaster mouldings cost a lot too – what’s with the plastic trees?

For my soul to be satisfied, it needs a whole lot more. It’s the difference between the grand and great malls and public spaces that fob us off with impact, size and grandiose conceits (but cutting corners wherever they can) and the attention paid to spaces like the rooms and gardens of an English stately home or a castle in Europe – huge old trees, gardens that have been cultivated for centuries, or even better – the temples in Kyoto. In Kyoto, the gardens are planned over thousands of years. There, if they plan to grow moss, the trees are planted in such a way that water and shade will combine thus and thus, and in five thousand years…. Yes, I know the developers (a word that is as ugly as the monstrosities they produce) don’t have thousands of years. And yet – something as relatively recent as the Empire State Building is a work of art. It is a building people love and will continue to love as much as cathedrals are admired and revered for their beauty and craftsmanship.

Long-term thinking is not limited to Japan. I read somewhere that the beams in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University were made of a certain type of oak, and when they started to need repairs after hundreds of years, (the link is all about general repairs, not the beams specifically) the experts they called in had to do some in-depth research for quite a while to find wood that would match those beams. Then they discovered an ancient grove of oaks on the grounds of the University. The gardeners said ‘Oh yes, well, these were planted specifically to replace those beams when it became necessary – they’ve been waiting for you to pitch up and ask about that.’ (Or words to that effect.) To me, this story is deeply satisfying; it speaks of adherence to a very high standard, of love and joy in what one is doing. Something in me just loves the fact that the original craftsmen cared enough to ensure that the quality of their workmanship would not only survive them but continue for several centuries. The oldest building there was built in 1320.

They would perhaps appreciate the standard of modern workmanship I encountered some years ago when I was working at an ad agency and we’d devised a concept which demanded the screenprinting of cartoon characters onto Elastoplast adhesive strips. The designs were chosen and specified, but the screenprinting had to be done in Japan; we didn’t have the technology here in this country. So black and white line drawings went off together with colour specs for each little section. After some time the plasters came back and we marveled at the fine attention to detail through our magnifying glass. In the tiny spaces, minute islands between the black lines, the dot pattern of the colours was visible, even down to a space that could only accommodate two dots — they were there.

These are the spiritual and perhaps the physical descendants of the Kyoto gardeners. There will always be people like this, who care a little more, who go the extra mile. Usually, they don’t have to, and that’s why we appreciate it so much, because we respond to their love and passion for the work. It’s a kindness to the world outside, and to individuals they will never meet. They remind me of flowers blooming in hidden and remote places, whether they are seen or not. They bloom because that is what they do.


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