In poetry reviews and blurbs, the terms "precise" and "precision" are commonly seen though their use is often vague. They seem to be terms of praise hinting at 2 main concepts -
- Accuracy - The ability to judge this rather depends on shared understandings and mimetic intent. Is Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" accurate? When Gerard Woodward writes "a toilet cistern refills like an old lady pouring tea" is he accurate? If you see a fuzzy painting of a landscape, it could be the result of the artist's lack of attention to detail or an accurate depiction of a foggy day. How is one supposed to know?
- Economy - "Precise" often means "small" or "clipped" - a small but significant detail. When an artist captures a face with a few brushstrokes we admire the precision. Economy in poetry tends to involve word-count rather than line-count. 10 words spread over 5 lines is more likely to be considered "precise" than a 10-word sentence. Neither is the time taken by the reader taken into account. If twice as many words mean that a reader understands in half the time, there's a case for saying that the longer version is more efficient, more economic if the reader's time is taken into account.
I think the economy of the image, more than its exactness, is what provokes the use of "precision". It's like "precision bombing" - a single, well-aimed striking image can be more effective than carpet bombing. Though many an image can be made to look significant by being isolated.
When I began researching to complete this article I discovered (not for the first time) that Jim Murdoch had already dealt with the topic in more depth than I can manage. As he points out, people often meant "concise" when they use "precise". The term was perhaps imported into literature when there was a trend for borrowing from technology - Futurism, Bauhaus, etc - but without the extremism of Minimalism. He also quotes Marianne Moore's "What is more precise than precision? Illusion". I think that even fuzziness has its uses -
- One way to make something into art is to remove its purpose. A potter makes a cup so that someone may drink from it. Take away that use and viewers will look for other types of meaning. An instruction manual or a recipe can have its purpose blurred so that only the rhetoric remains.
- A blurred image can be more potent that a "precise" one because the details may be irrelevant to the effect, and the audience can fill in details themselves if they need to, personalised. A black object at night is more scary if you can't see that it's a bush rather than a hunched figure. A photograph of Christopher Lee playing Dracula may be more effective if blurred so that you can't identify the actor, only the identifying characteristics of Dracula.