Do you recall the story about the almost perfect carving with one obvious flaw?
April 14, 2011 8:17 AM   Subscribe

Does anybody have a link to an old story (or fable) about a great artist or craftsman who intentionally introduced an obvious flaw into each of his works (or maybe it was his greatest work) so as to avoid invoking jealousy in the gods?

The version I remember was it was Chinese and the work was an ornately carved gate. If this is a general folklore trope I would also appreciate information about that.

Thank You!
posted by bukvich to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There's this, about Islamic art.. If it's helpful, it seems like there are a few more possibly useful references if you Google for artist imperfection "only god is perfect"
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:20 AM on April 14, 2011

Definitely a common trope: I remember reading from several sources that Persian/Oriental rugs will have at least one deliberate flaw in them, because their god of choice is the only perfect thing in the world.
posted by Stephanie Duy at 8:22 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've also heard this about Persian rugs. Closest thing I can find to an authoritative source online after some quick googling is this quote from a rug gallery website:

It is a common belief among Persians that only God creates perfection. It is therefore common that slight imperfections can be found in Persian rugs. Usually these can be seen as perhaps an extra flower or one flower being of a different color than the rest.
posted by Vectorcon Systems at 8:25 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remember as a kid hearing about Amish humility blocks in quilts, however a quick google shows that it is considered a myth by most quilt historians. This site indicates rug historians might consider the similar practice in rugs a myth as well.
posted by HMSSM at 8:46 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Native American beadwork must have one intentional flaw to show that the artist was only human. The spirit bead, the "mistake" bead, is a gate through which the Great Spirit/God can enter the art.
posted by pluot at 8:54 AM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Greek myth of Ariadne comes to mind.
posted by pentagoet at 9:03 AM on April 14, 2011

In the same vein, I read once that Saint Francis of Assisi used to fast for 39 days or eat half a piece of bread on a 40-day fast to avoid pridefully mimicking Christ's forty days in the desert.
posted by milk white peacock at 9:03 AM on April 14, 2011

I think in Islam this comes down to proscriptions made by Allah through Muhammad against attempts to create perfection. The idea is that creation of the perfect is achievable only by Allah, and not men. Smackfu's comment in this ask thread quotes one of the key texts. I also think the concept ties in fairly closely to the many Koranic proscriptions against idolatry. They create a context in which it's considered inappropriate (at best) to create something that people might worship before or over Allah.
posted by Ahab at 9:23 AM on April 14, 2011

I have heard that including an asymmetry was a common thing to do in gothic or romaesque revival architecture for this reason. Royce Hall at UCLA, has 3 windows at the top of the left tower and two on the right.
posted by Killick at 9:31 AM on April 14, 2011

I remember reading a Chinese folk story, of the magic paintbrush variety but not the story that keeps coming up when I google for magic paintbrushes... There's a boy, and he has a magic paintbrush where the thing he draws comes to life, and he can only use it for good things, and nobody can know about it or trouble will ensue. So he draws a few things he needs, and a few gifts that he leaves by needy villagers doors in the night, but the rest of the time he just sells drawings a the market, except he has to leave the very last detail off, or else the drawing will be "finished" and come to life (why he didn't have a spare paintbrush, don't ask me). So life goes on, and one day he's just not-finished a drawing (of a cat?) when a drop of ink falls off his brush into the place where the last spot needed to go (the cat's eye?), and the (cat) leaps off the page. And of course important people find out about this and misuse of power and trouble ensues, and the god (being?) who granted this gift gets very upset and takes it back. Or something like that. Heck, I dunno.

I bring this up not because it was directly the wrath of the gods, but because it's Chinese, not Islamic.
posted by aimedwander at 10:43 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Telling prospective buyers of your Persian carpet that it has only one deliberate imperfection (look sir, here! an extra leaf on this flower!)- which was put in to placate Allah- is probably a fine technique for passing off an indifferent product at a high price.
posted by rongorongo at 11:18 AM on April 14, 2011

In Japanese stuff it goes by the name wabi-sabi.
posted by whatzit at 12:10 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Someone mentioned the Amish - my understanding is that Amish quilters purposefully include flaws in their quilts (none that you would ever notice) because only God can be perfect and it would be sinfully prideful to try to make anything else perfect.
posted by jander03 at 1:02 PM on April 14, 2011

Wabi-sabi does not prescribe intentional errors.
posted by rhizome at 2:08 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also called "the humble stitch" by the Shakers (?), have heard the same about Turkish carpets.

Supposedly, when Scorsese was nearly finished with the editing of Raging Bull he looked at it over and over but wasn't satisfied. Finally he removed one random frame of film and declared it finished.
posted by minkll at 2:58 PM on April 14, 2011

I've also heard it said about Native American art (not just beadwork) and Middle-Eastern carpets.
posted by deborah at 4:50 PM on April 14, 2011

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