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What do we mean when we call an artwork a MASTERPIECE? Who decides which art becomes one? And what artists make them? Don't forget to check out Serving Up Science over on PBS Zest:

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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? What Makes a Masterpiece? 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. Like a silk weaver, usually early in his career (this was only for men), created a weaving that showed he could do all the things a master silk weaver should be able to do. 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 phenomena 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 Rembrant’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 art 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 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. r 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, ah… 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 it’s 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 daub 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 distinguish for you “the better from the good, and the best from the better,” to quote our old friend Vasari. But where does that self-consciousness come from? Like, 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! It’s consequences are too great to leave unconsidered. What’s the point of beer foam?

What makes dark chocolate so bitter? Serving Up Science—hosted by history buff, science writer and foodie Sheril Kirshenbaum—is. BACK and ready to give you science-backed answers to all of your biggest food questions.

Head on over to PBS Zest to catch new episodes of Serving Up Science! Thanks to all of our patrons for supporting The Art Assignment, especially our grandmasters of the arts Tyler Calvert-Thompson, Divideby Zero Collection, David Golden, and Ernest Wolfe.