Who marks up their art on purpose?
May 7, 2010 8:50 PM   Subscribe

Is there an Asian practice of placing dots in the corner of paintings to show imperfection / humility?

When I was in the 4th grade, an art teacher told me that it is common practice in some Asian culture(s) to put a dot in the corner of a painting to "show that the painting is not perfect, because only God is perfect."

I'm fairly sure that the "only God is perfect" part is her interpretation. Still, I have never heard of this since. For whom, if anyone, is this a common practice, and why? Bonus points if you can link it to an East or South Asian religion.
posted by reverend cuttle to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You're thinking of Persian rugs, which often include an imperfection as a reminder that only God creates perfect things.
posted by klangklangston at 8:57 PM on May 7, 2010

This is also true with furniture made by Quakers. They incorporate deliberate flaws in their furniture with the same "only God is perfect" notion in mind. I have a minor in art history, and I don't think I've ever heard of any Asian culture deliberately flawing their work. It'd be interesting to find out if it's true or not!
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 9:06 PM on May 7, 2010

For what it's worth, I was told the same thing by someone or other growing up about Amish quilts. A quick Google search is suggesting that that version isn't true, at least.
posted by heyforfour at 9:21 PM on May 7, 2010

I was taught in an art history class that medieval scribes and/or illustrators always introduced a deliberate error into illuminated manuscripts for the same reason - perfection being the sole domain of God, not of man.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 9:23 PM on May 7, 2010

In India, parents often place a spot of kohl on their children's faces, which makes them "imperfect" and so protects them from the evil eye. I'm not sure whether artists do the same with their art, but maybe the motivation is similar?
posted by embrangled at 9:32 PM on May 7, 2010

In one of William Gibson's books, a Japanese sculpture character -- who made small figurines, I think -- always added an imperfection when he had completed it. There was an explanation similar to yours (i.e., nothing can/should be perfect), but I don't remember it.
posted by whiskeyspider at 10:12 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: I learned this as the "zen flaw," the idea that painters would leave an error in a painting to free themselves from the burden of trying to make it perfect. Of course, the fact that we've all heard about this second-hand from far-away cultures, and that one person here is telling a version of it that references a culture I'm part of so I know it's not true, suggests that it's made up. It's a good story though.

(Quakers don't make furniture. I mean, OK, some individual Quakers must but furniture-making is not a Quaker thing. Are you thinking of the Amish? Shakers?)
posted by not that girl at 10:25 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sounds like wabi-sabi.
posted by domographer at 10:29 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is true of American pioneer quilts actually. You will often find one square turned sideways or some other obvious imperfection. It's called the humility square because of the idea only God is perfect. Google the term humility square.
posted by tamitang at 10:43 PM on May 7, 2010

It sounds like bs to me. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought most traditional "Asian" cultures didn't really believe in a "God" so-to-speak, but more Buddha/Ancestors/Spirits/etc. (I'm referring to Pacific Asian cultures, specifically China and Japan--which I imagine you're referring to).
posted by 1000monkeys at 11:46 PM on May 7, 2010

If the dot's red, the painting is sold.
posted by Wolof at 3:35 AM on May 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Uninvestigated claim from a friend who studied Japanese art history in college: some Japanese potters in some periods in history put a nick in an unobtrusive place on every piece they made except the pieces they supplied to extremely powerful people.

The message being not so much "only God is perfect" as "only the Shogun deserves perfect things."
posted by No-sword at 6:13 AM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like wabi-sabi.
posted by domographer

posted by blue funk at 9:18 AM on May 8, 2010

Sounds like wabi-sabi.
posted by domographer

posted by blue funk


wabi-sabi is not about a dot in the corner to say "this can never be perfect" it's about celebrating transience with the entire piece. look at the pieces in the wikipedia article linked. i don't see how you can draw a connection between dots in the corners of paintings and these aesthetics.

from the article:

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the suggestion of natural processes.

nothing about putting a dot in the corner of the painting suggests any of these qualities.
posted by johnnybeggs at 9:58 AM on May 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I wish I could cite references on this for all interested parties. Some colleagues of mine are researchers in the field of material rhetoric, especially as it relates to native American beadwork--wampum & the like. These colleagues are also weavers & beaders as relaxation/craftwork. I recall them talking about the Navajo tradition & also the Iroquis wampum beaders making sure to include a random error or more so to recognize that only the divine creator creates perfectly. They related that to other traditions globally in weaving & beading, so it seems likely that it is an early foundational sort of recognition of human imperfection.

I recall some stern looks the first time I asked that if the error is intentional, is that still not a form of perfection? Jesuit sophistry was always a sideline for me.
posted by beelzbubba at 5:16 PM on May 11, 2010

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