What Makes a Masterpiece?
What do we mean when we call an artwork a MASTERPIECE? Who decides which art becomes one? And what artists make them?
When the word "masterpiece" is used to describe something,
there are a few assumptions I make about whatever
it is, whether it's painting, sculpture, photography,
architecture, performance, opera, dance, literature,
film, a video game, a meal, or what have you.
Like, I'm probably going to think
it demonstrates some serious skill on the part of whomever
made it, that it's exceptional in some way,
and that it's widely acclaimed.
But what do we really mean when we call something
Who gets to decide what becomes one?
Who makes them?
And is it still a constructive label
to dole out when we talk about art?
In its original use, a masterpiece
was a thing you made to demonstrate mastery.
Starting in late 13th century France,
artisans in a variety of fields would create a chef d'oeuvre,
or a work that proved their competence
in the eyes of a guild and allowed
them to take on apprentices.
It didn't need to be amazing, though.
That idea seemed to come along at some point
in the 1500s in Europe during the Italian Renaissance,
when guilds started placing more emphasis on virtuosity.
A masterpiece now needed to show not just quality,
but extraordinary quality.
The term was often applied to architecture,
but it served a number of fields.
In England, guilds referred to some works as proof-pieces,
and reserved masterpiece mostly for painting and sculpture.
In some Christian cultures, the concept of a masterpiece
became entwined with the divine.
Like if God's masterpiece was the creation of man,
by depicting humans as the beautiful phenomenon they are,
artists have, in their way, served and honored God.
But masterpiece also evolved to mean
the top moment of one's career
or the best thing you ever made.
Magnum opus, Latin for "great work,"
entered English usage in the late 1700s
and meant this exactly.
A thing you made might not be a masterpiece when you
compare it to, let's say, Rembrandt's The Night Watch,
but it might be your masterpiece when
compared to all the other stuff you've made.
It's when we think about the relativity of masterpieces,
though, that the topic gets interesting,
because who decides this stuff?
Well, at first, it was the guilds
that made the call about what work was good enough,
but then we really have the field of art history to blame.
The person often considered art history's founder was
Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the 1550 book,
The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors,
and Architects, which as you might guess,
is a compilation of biographies of the Italian artists
and architects whom Vasari considered the most important.
Vasari's intention was, in a translation
of his words, "to distinguish the better from the good
and the best from the better."
And that book was hugely influential,
creating a blueprint for how art and artists would
be talked about for some time.
Vasari was an artist and writer steeped in the Italian art world
of the time, employed by the powerful Medici family,
who did his research, and, happily,
we have him to learn from and trust, right?
Yes and no.
Vasari made errors and loved to embellish stories.
He described the years between ancient Greece and Rome
and his day, the Italian Renaissance,
as the dark ages, when very little happened
of note artistically, which we know just isn't true.
He also had favorites among the artists,
as anybody would, that colored his view.
Vasari's book formed what's been called a canon of artists
of his time, that is, a best of or greatest-hits list
of the artists and artworks and movements
that have been vetted by experts,
and according to those experts, deserve
to be preserved in history.
The idea of a canon in our history
or in literature or in many fields
has been heavily critiqued, and for good reason.
Canons leave people out.
They're created by those with the power
to publish and distribute and influence.
The word "canon" comes from Latin and means
standard or measuring rod.
The ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos
made a figure of a spear bearer considered so perfectly
proportioned that it earned the alternate title
canon, because it was the standard against which
all other sculptures were to be compared.
A lot of artists tried to live up to Polykleitos's legacy,
including the Italian Renaissance artists that Vasari
venerated, and then a lot of artists
tried to live up to the legacies of those artists,
and so on, and so forth.
Which brings up a peculiar aspect of the masterpiece.
It represents the best of a given something,
but it also has to set itself apart in some way.
Some social psychologists recently
observed that masterpieces represent
what standard products are not, unique and exceptional
relative to everything else.
Their nature is paradoxical.
Standing for the best of a genre or an oeuvre,
they are celebrated for their uniqueness.
So if you take, for example, The Mona Lisa,
you have a work that is a pretty basic portrait
of a woman for the time.
Yes, it was made by the very gifted Leonardo da Vinci,
but objectively, it conforms to expectations
within its own category.
If you look at the painting that conservators
say was made side by side with the original
by one of Leonardo's main assistants,
there does seem to be something about the real Mona Lisa
that defies expectation, that deviates enough from the norm
to be innovative, special, that has a kind of mystery or magic
that the copies do not.
Or does it?
How much is what we've been trained
to recognize as masterpiece, and how much
is our objective assessment?
Which brings us to another feature of the masterpiece:
its assumed universality.
Baked into the idea is that it doesn't
matter who's looking at it, the masterpiece
transcends geographic and cultural boundaries
and should be recognizable as being of superb quality
by pretty much any human being.
Calling something a masterpiece is
a way of validating it, saying that it's not
a matter of opinion.
It's good, case closed.
We can all accept this and move on.
And that's part of what we love about art, right?
It brings us together, allows us to like something
as a group of people who may disagree
about a lot of other things.
Just as people from around the world, of different religions
and belief systems, can get together
to admire, say, Liverpool Football Club,
an artwork that we can mutually accept as a masterpiece
is something in this fractured world that we can share.
But tastes change.
A masterpiece has an air of timelessness about it,
but there are indeed works that have
been celebrated in their day, but then fade from glory.
A crucifix at a French cathedral was singled out
as a masterpiece in 1595, but today, no longer even exists.
Rosa Bonheur's 1853 painting The Horse Fair drew enormous praise
and was heralded as a masterpiece,
but it doesn't really do anything for me.
As tastes change, can something that was a masterpiece
cease to be one?
Likewise, can a work that might have once
been viewed as rudimentary or primitive
become a masterpiece from the perspective of its onlookers
from the future?
How do we begin to differentiate popularity from true quality?
To be a masterpiece, it seems an artwork needs
to receive both popular as well as critical attention,
but how long do each or either of those need to be sustained?
It needs to be written about and agreed upon for a long time,
but what about when its influence fades,
when people stop recognizing it or writing about it,
or when artists stop making work inspired by it?
It's worth thinking about how a work of art
becomes a masterpiece.
Is it so from the moment of its creation,
when the final dob of paint is applied
to just the right location?
Or is it dependent on its reception, an honor bestowed
when other people, or the right people,
recognize its greatness?
Some of the works generally understood
as masterpieces were indeed conceived to be such,
ambitious in scale and content and technique,
pushing a medium or genre in new directions.
But other times, it's not something
the artist sets out to do.
It's just a painting of your bedroom,
not dissimilar from a lot of other paintings you've made,
that falls into the right hands after you die,
that takes hold in the public imagination.
To a large extent, what becomes a masterpiece is unpredictable,
and so is how long a masterpiece remains one.
If you spend any time on YouTube,
you know people are contrary.
These days, as soon as anything is
proposed to be a masterpiece, there are naysayers.
It's in our nature.
The cycle of acceptance and rejection
may happen faster today, but the impulse to question old norms
and propose new ones has been around for a long time.
The moniker of masterpiece may help
protect against our fickle human nature.
We cannot be relied upon to consistently care
for our cultural heritage, and museums and organizations play
a critical role by sanctifying a work,
acting as its advocate and keeping it safe.
UNESCO does this important work too,
not just for monumental World Heritage sites,
but also for their exquisitely named Proclamation
of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage.
Less visible works of cultural expression, like folklore,
and rituals, and language need attention and advocacy too.
The idea of a masterpiece may be a construct,
but it can be a helpful one.
When you walk into an enormous museum,
it's really useful to be told what to see.
You don't have time to be an expert in every field,
so looking to those with credentials and experience
makes a lot of sense.
especially if you walk into a gallery
self-conscious about what you know or don't know,
it's a relief to have someone distinguished
for you the better from the good, and the best
from the better, but where does that self-consciousness
Maybe it stems from the belief that there
are objective factors that determine whether something
is good or not, or that there are standards and rules for art
that are possible to know.
While that was arguably once the case when guilds and academies
created and enforced the rules,
over the course of the last century, those rules
have been largely thrown out.
Today, art historians and museums
have a say in whose work is collected and displayed,
and so does the art market, but what works now
enter the pantheon of greatness really
can't be determined by any set of rules.
That's what infuriates some people about art today,
but it's also what makes it exciting and fun.
A masterpiece was originally meant
to demonstrate skill and competence
on the part of its maker.
Its root word, master, is a gendered term,
historically describing a man who
has people working for him, including sometimes slaves.
In its current usage, master as a noun or adjective or verb
still involves an exhibition of control or domination.
You can earn a master of arts, or sciences,
or quantitative finance.
You can master a given technology.
But what does mastery really mean for the artists of today?
It's not just about the way you handle a given medium
or hew to a set of rules.
There are other skills that bring great works into being.
There's conceptual skill, engaging with the ideas
and systems currently shaping our world.
There's also the skill of restraint,
using less as opposed to more.
There are still artists who make astounding and accomplished
paintings, but more and more artists work between media,
selecting their materials and approaches
depending on the particular aims of a project.
There are also increasing numbers
of artists whose work is collaborative, process-based,
We are constantly redefining what mastery means.
And when we evaluate the work we experience today,
it's worth considering what standards we're
weighing the work against.
What do you want to value in your summation of this work?
Does it innovate, but in a language you still recognize?
Does it push you, either subtly or forcefully,
in a new direction?
How important to you is a given tradition?
How important is novelty?
Do you want art that unsettles you or challenges you,
or art that comforts or reaffirms?
Perhaps you like the flexibility of art
to do all of those things.
You can't define mastery without addressing those questions,
or without considering who's doing the mastering
and what, or who, is being mastered.
Because when we talk about masterpieces,
we're talking about what we want the future to know
about the present.
We're advocating for the voices
we want to elevate and preserve.
On the one hand, it's just a word, but on the other,
Its consequences are too great to leave unconsidered.