The Art Assignment


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?

AIRED: March 26, 2020 | 0:12:35

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

a masterpiece?

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 biased.

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

come from?

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,

and ephemeral.

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,

it's history-making.

Its consequences are too great to leave unconsidered.


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