When is a Work of Art Finished?

I’m in between books.

I’ve just finished a string of them. Books are easy to finish. You know when you are done because you’ve run out of pages.

What I’ve been reading lately: The Ugly American (William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick — excellent, very readable, semi-satirical, startlingly relevant classic from 1958 about American foreign policy); The Ten-Year Nap (Meg Wolitzer — very enjoyable read about a group of women friends, and could qualify as “summer reading”); Reading My Father: A Memoir (Alexandra Styron — disappointing in that it is interesting when she discusses William Styron, her father; but dull, when she doesn’t); The Emperor of All Maladies (Sidhartha Murkerjee — fascinating, informative labor of love about the history of cancer); and Drop City (T.C. Boyle — I’m a Boyle fan and loved this one: the inevitable decline of a hippy commune circa late 1970s in northern CA).

At any rate, with three books on my library queue languishing in “pending” limbo, I quickly scoured my bookshelf this morning for something to read on the commute.

I will not ride the subway without burying my face in a book and hiding my eyes behind sunglasses. Why? What if something like this happens?

This occurred the other day on the train I normally take to work, at the Lexington Ave. 53rd St. stop. Thank God I wasn’t on it.

(Just so you understand why I need to divorce myself from the MTA environment I travel in, daily.)

On my bookshelf this morning, I located an old favorite: And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos by the brilliant John Berger (who also authored the astoundingly perceptive Ways of Seeing —  a staple for artists and art lovers alike.)

Half-way into Manhattan this morning, I read and re-read this long-forgotten passage by Berger.

When is a painting finished? Not when it finally corresponds to something already existing — like the second shoe of a pair — but when the foreseen ideal moment of its being looked at is filled, as the painter feels or calculates it ought to be. …Of course, the painting’s moment-of-being-looked-at cannot be entirely foreseen and thus completely filled by the painting. Nevertheless every painting is, by its very nature, addressed to such a moment.

Is it finished? is a question I asked often of my professors in school. I also asked it in writing workshops when presenting an essay or story. It has taken years of experience for me to trust my instincts and figure out the answer on my own.

Sometimes, the answer is simple: You just know. 

For profundity and perspicacity, you need not look further than John Berger.

But I suggest reading him in a quieter place than on the F train.

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