When Is Artwork Classic?

Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation after Caravaggio. He was born on July 8, 1593 in Rome and died 1656 in Naples. | Photo: The Artemisia Gentileschi foundation | Artemisia Gentileschi, Art, Painter, Nude, Beauty, Style,

What makes a masterpiece a masterpiece?

One of the curious social pastimes in the art world is to stand around art galleries discussing who's in and who's not and why not. In other words, gossip about the next Next Thing. And strangely enough, the latter concept ' the next Next Thing ' includes what went before, i.e. how much the latest masterpiece went for at auction.

Which brings up an interesting question: what makes a masterpiece? What is it about art that makes it classic?

The term masterpiece came out of the Middle Ages. Various guilds governed artisans, who were required to submit their work for review. If the work under scrutiny proved acceptable, it received endorsement. Naturally, a few artisans produced extraordinary work. These few would be granted the title of 'master,' an elevation that allowed them to teach others. Over time, the definition of the word expanded to include the work itself. A 'masterpiece' exhibited a singular scope of design, and distinctive creativity, along with cogent impact on all who viewed it. This impact was often strong enough to influence the work of other artists.

According to some art connoisseurs, an artwork's impact on other artists and the public's perception of art is part and parcel of adjudicating whether or not a work is indeed a masterpiece. The originality of a true masterpiece overwhelms anyone who stands before it. Its power mesmerizes, influences, shapes, and directs. It's an emotional impact of visceral proportion. However, simply exuding a dominating energy is not enough all by itself to make a masterpiece. Time is necessary: a masterpiece is considered a masterpiece by generation after generation. In other words, universal appeal is a given factor, along with a host of other secondary factors: technical brilliance, and the conveyance of cultural and/or spiritual ideals.

Naysayers assert that the term 'masterpiece' is nothing more than a marketing ploy, a way to justify exorbitant prices and sanction a system of elitism in what some consider a purely subjective discipline. In other words, the term masterpiece eschews the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Instead, beholders need to be told what is excellent and what is inferior, because they are incapable of judging for themselves. And luckily, there is a group of experts nearby to willing to provide insight to the ignorant lumpenproletariat.

For example, the works of Johannes Vermeer weren't elevated to the level of masterpieces until 1866, when an obscure French art scholar wrote an essay in which he ballyhooed Vermeer's anthropocentric qualities. Almost overnight, Vermeer became famous and the intrinsic value of his paintings skyrocketed. His works inspired novels and movies: The Girl With the Pearl Earring.

That's not to say that the French scholar was wrong. Vermeer's paintings are glorious, reminding viewers of the importance of light to the human eye and human sensibilities. It's just funny how nothing succeeds like success. In other words, is Vermeer famous because he's such a great painter or is he a great painter because he's famous?

All that to say this: no one, including the experts, can agree on what makes a masterpiece.

The author ' yours truly ' while conceding to a certain degree of arbitrariness, can nevertheless in good conscience define the criteria that in his mind establish a work of art as a masterpiece.

First, a masterpiece is typified by grandeur. Consider the works of Rembrandt, Rothko, Picasso, Manet, and Richter. Certainly their works are not those of ordinary men, nor the results of ordinary imaginations.
Second, masterpieces are produced by constructive geniuses, who are motivated by inner purposes, which are for the most part shrouded and obscure. What was Rothko trying to convey? What are the goals of the fascinating flamboyant Gerhard Richter?

Third, a masterpiece exhibits a quality best to be described as autonomy. Each masterpiece indelibly demonstrates its superiority when confronted with lesser works of art. A masterpiece is so exquisite that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Anyone who beholds it will come to the conclusion that it is a masterpiece.

Of course, the author is not an art expert of any sort, which is to say he is not captive to any false frame of reference or previous fraudulent experiences or specious doctrines. His standards and tastes have not been delegated to him from without. He simply goes to MOMA in San Francisco, stands before a painting and decides whether he likes it or not. Some of the paintings, like those of Richter, blow him away with their grandeur, their genius, and their sovereignty. If, in his head he says, I'd like to own that one, then it's a masterpiece.

Admittedly, it's kind of a willy-nilly method. But isn't that what art ' like life ' is all about?

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:11 PM EDT | More details


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