Calder, Art, & Engineers

To an engineer, good enough means perfect. With an artist, there\’s no such thing as perfect.
Alexander Calder

This quote has bothered me for a while. It does not fit my experience of really good engineers. Part of it may be my misunderstanding. The first part of the quote is semi-ambiguous. My understanding is that for an engineer, when a creation meets all its constraints: quality, cost to sell, cost to develop, visual appeal, etc., then it is good enough and therefor perfect. My wife pointed out that it could also be understood as when a creation is a perfect fit for its constraints, only then is it good enough. My experience working in engineer in industry leads to the former understanding. And my experience of really good engineers, inclines toward the latter understanding.

Really good engineers often have a side project where there are not cost or time constraints. Only perfect is good enough. In some supportive commercial environments, perfection is the goal and time and money are secondary.

But what I think Calder is talking about is different. Engineers largely deal with the known, the possible. How to find the balance between the constraints may be difficult or even unknown, but they aren\’t scientists trying to move knowledge from the unknown to the known. Engineers practice turning ideas into reality, scientists discover new ideas of reality. And artists (as opposed to crafts people) venture into the unknown, trying to bring the unknown to consciousness. And in this realm, there is no hard and fast criteria for judging the value of a creation. So perfect is meaningless. Only time will tell.

The art student adding highlights to a manufactured painting is not doing art, any more than a mediocre engineer cranking out a conventional solution to a routine problem is. For example, the Software Factory approach to programming. But great engineers do border on the art Calder is talking about. This is where beauty comes in. The Golden Gate bridge is beautiful, the old San Francisco Bay Bridge is not. Both have competent engineering and are still standing. The new Bay Bridge is beautiful, but the implementation has problems, mostly poor welds. Only time will tell whether it is great or not.

At the time of creation, the artist\’s inner guide is the best criteria. Evaluation by external authorities is a creativity killer, because it usually enforces the status quo and that is what the artiest is trying to go beyond. See Carl Roger \”Towards a Theory of Creativity.\” ETC: A Review of General Semantics 11 (1954): pages 249-260 for more details.

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