Sunday, August 06, 2006

What is a Masterpiece?

This post by Diana Grygo (aka The Lone Beader) has me thinking about the general nature of art, and what makes really good art, as opposed to OK or not so good art. It would be fun to have a discussion about this right here, so I invite (read that as "respectfully ask") you to make comments reflecting on this subject.

I'll start the discussion by talking about a little gem of a book by Sir Kenneth Clark, a British art historian. Clark spoke at an international gathering of art educators and historians on the subject "What Is a Masterpiece?" His lecture was so well received and copies of it were so frequently requested that in 1979 it was published as a small book by the same title. Although it's no longer in print, used copies of it can still be found.

In his analysis of well-known paintings, mostly of the Renaissance period, Clark claims that masterpieces exist “by the extraordinary fact that they can speak to us, as they have spoken to our ancestors for centuries.” In addition, he suggests that “although we may disagree about a theory, the impact of a masterpiece is something about which there is an astonishing degree of unanimity.”

Looking at these paintings, he then lists and describes a dozen or so characteristics which make them masterpieces. This part of the book is fascinating, because these attributes apply not only to paintings, but also to beadwork, paper arts, quilting, knitting, sculpture, photography and any other art form you care to name. My favorite, the one feature that speaks most loudly to me, is this:

A masterpiece does not aim at art, but at truth.

Do not aim at art. Do not try to make art. But, rather attempt to tell a truth. In my opinion, truth is the seed from which all really good art is born. What do you think? What other characteristics are important? Do you want me to share more of Clark's list?

Back to Diana's blog (the inspiration for this post's subject)... If you read through her posts since July 26th, you'll see the start of her current project... a true story about four dogs, four very special show dogs: Bailey, Rachel, Eliza, and Genna. They weren't even personally known to Diana. But a picture she found on another blog and the story about them touched her in some deep way. She fell in love with them, and decided to portray them in a bead embroidery project.

I've followed her progress with great interest, and will continue to do so. Although I'm a cat-lover and not often attracted to dogs, Diana seems to be conveying a truth that totally attracts my attention. Every bead tells of her love for these particular dogs. To my eyes, it has the makings of a masterpiece.


  1. I've never been educated in art (or anything else) so mostly I have to go by just what I feel about art...if I like it or not. At times I can't even tell you why I like it, just that I do. Mostly I think I'm attracted to color and then the subject.

    Thanks for posing this question and I hope you continue this....I almost feel as if I am finally getting an education!

  2. Ah yes, the TRUTH The point to any honest endeavour is to pry a small chip of truth out of the face of the black wall of chaos.
    This impossible job is one that only a god can even think of accomplishing. Chaos is, after all simply all truths combined.
    God did not create order out of chaos, but merely allowed us the vanity to believe we could share some of his vision.

  3. Janet ~ I've never had formal art education either. Even with formal education, I believe that our intuition, the way we FEEL about things, is very important. Paying attention to what attracts you gives you a valuable education in art.

    Lane Savant ~ Oh, I don't know about "this impossible job." Maybe Kenneth Clark implied that we should aim to tell THE truth. But for me, it's enough to aim at telling my own truth, even if it's just as simple as "I love mountains" or "I miss my Dad."

  4. .....what makes really good art, as opposed to OK or not so good art........
    I would suppose it would depend on the audience the art is intended to "impress" ---- I am truly impressed by all of your wonderful works/words of art ---- and I am in awe of you all --- yet, since my "art" is done only for myself --- I feel good about it, it lifts my spirit, makes each day exciting --- my children and grandchildren look forward to seeing what I have done or am working on --- to them, my art is "really good" --- while to many it will just be "OK". To me, it is very rewarding/encouraging when others like my work, but the reason I do it and keep on trying to improve is that it makes me feel good and that is what, to me, is important.

  5. Jackie! What a great outlook you have on your art! It may be true to in order to please others, you must first please yourself. To know what makes you feel good is a blessing.

  6. Robin, I have been thinking about this post all day. This discussion regarding truth in art makes me think of one painting in particular: 'The Daughters of Edward D. Boit' by John Singer Sargent. I spent many hours looking at that piece in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is a rather unusual portrait of 4 girls portrayed exactly as they were. That piece conveys the honest-to-God truth, which is exactly why it is considered a masterpiece.

    This is also known as Realism.
    Realism in the visual arts is the depiction of a subject as it appears in everyday life, with no interpretation. This may also include depicting the unpleasant. In life, many people choose not to see the truth. So, I feel that expressing myself in this manner is a way to show other's exactly what I see.

  7. Thanks "Lone Beader"... I'm glad this post got you to thinking... I wasn't familiar with The Daughters, but when I Googled it, I found it interesting that Sargent painted four girls, not his own daughters, and you are beading four dogs, not your own dogs.

    I'm wishing now that I had posed the question about what makes good art without including the point made by a learned scholar... or if I did included it, I should have just said a guy named Kenny Clark once said... blah blah blah.

    Now I'm not sure where to go with this... you few readers who are still with me... what do you suggest?

  8. OK here goes a bit of a rave- I have 4 degrees in visual arts - have taught art at university level and HATE this question! Not because it is a bad question because I can never quite answer it for myself in a truthful manner. I agree that a genuine masterpiece does contain a truth and I personally like to see works that reflect on and question contemporary culture.

    But I come undone because the word truth infers a universal truth – that truth stands for all time across all cultures- which I do not believe in. One culture will perceive truth as one thing and another will see a different truth. Look at the religious strife in the world it is a battle of truths - or look at some of the philosophies of indigenous cultures – often their truth is not the dominant truth of western culture. It is no less a valid truth, but a different truth. So we are dealing with multiple truths. This for me is why the question is so difficult as it can't be answered without imposing a value system associated with truth! So for me I think what one person sees as a masterpiece another will not because the 'truth' spoken is read or not read from different viewpoints. I guess it boils down to each to their own truth which is a pretty weak reply but for what it is worth it is what I think.

  9. Great rant, Sharon... thanks!

    Like you, I can't accept the notion of universal truth or universal good or universal art either. My brother (who has formal art education) and I used to have heated arguments on this topic... me - an "eye of the beholder" gal vs. him - an "intrinsic or universal art" guy.

    However, Kenneth Clark's book has changed my thinking a bit. Notice he doesn't say "a masterpiece aims at the truth"... just "truth." Like your recent post about bloggers who write with a genuine voice, I believe this to be a necessary component of a masterpiece... that the artist is attempting to convey something important (to them) and truthful (from their own perspective). Maybe this is too obvious to be of significance. But it's helped me, especially when I'm stuck, to question my truthfulness rather than to ask what can I add or do to make my work look better.

  10. It seems like a bit of a philosophical question, but I'm wondering if we can EVER make art that is anything BUT our truth? Art has such a subconcious component, like our speech or our dress, that even when we're doing it "intellectually" our inner being is always being voiced in a variety of choices - colors, shapes, composition, topic, that are somewhat beyond our rational control. It seems that we know so much about many famous artists from their work that they didn't set out to "say" but is communicated just the same.

    I also have had the experience of trying to help my art more fully express my intention, rather than trying to make it more complete visually. The former was so much more satisfying on a soul level!

    Thanks for raising interesting questions and prompting conversation, Robin!

  11. I've been thinking about this for a day and a is a very thought provoking question!

    For me, something is a masterpiece when it has the quality of transcendence - of time and space - and has the ability to awaken the individual who's trying to wrap one's mind and heart around it.

    I have to agree with Sharon that cultural experiences have a lot to do with shaping how we interpret what makes a masterpiece. However, can there be underlying qualities/elements within a visual expression that are accepted across cultures and through time?

    I think "Truth" in Art occurs when all the layers are stripped away and there is left only what matters most. So what is "Truth"? I think "Truth" is the artist's message - it can be beauty, it can be a commentary, it can be a reality or a fantasy or nothing at all.....I think it is whatever the artist defines it to be. I think "Truth" is very "Dada" in that sense (at least what I consider to be Dada anyway).

    I also think it's really difficult to compose a piece aimed at "Truth" because we want others to approve of what we do and what we see (those would be the layers). And I also think there are certain "norms" that we follow and those are hard to get away from (the cultural influence).

    Van Gogh is a good example to me of someone who told his own 'truth'. Very few liked him and I think he cared about that, but he was surpisingly strong enough to not allow it to change the story he needed to tell.

    Well, I need to post this now or else I'll spend another day and a half on it!!! Thanks for the very thoughtful question...I'd love to hear what else Sir Clark had to say.

  12. Vicki ~ Your comment is so RIGHT ON! I've never thought of that before, but I agree. How could it be otherwise. Are you going to start a blog? I hope so!!!

    Suzyq ~ I know what you mean, thinking about this for a day and a half. It took me about 5 hours to write the next post. I don't even know why it feels so important to me. Anyway, thanks for your insightful comments. I have been thinking about Van Gough too, and am very glad you brought him into the conversation.

    You are the only one who has said you'd like to hear more of what Kenneth Clark has to say. Even so, I think I'll do a post which sumarizes his points. Watch for it in the next few days.

    Thanks for mentioning this series of posts on your blog, and also for reminding us that Margie Deeb's new Muse is available now.

  13. Anonymous5:58 AM

    After reading all the comments and I have to say I was intrigued....I wonder if by discussing the philosopy of "truth" in art if we aren't detracting from the art itself? Is art seen only in a "masterpiece"? The American Heritage dictionary refers to truth as "reality", "actuality", "sincerity", "integrity", "a statement proven to be or accepted as true (true= consistent with fact or reality)". With this in mind I would agree with Janet and Jackie in that it is the sincerity or reality that the person doing the creating is putting forth in that particular work. I take photos, mostly for personal use but have sold many of them and won awards for some. Does that make it art? It is MY form of art. It is MY reality, my sincerity in the photos. Therefore, I also agree with suzyq that truth is whatever the artist "defines it to be." I applaud anyone's efforts in the creative processes and to keep searching for their "truthful" path. Thank you LONE BEADER for bringing this to my attention as it definitely is thought-provoking. And keep up with your "REALISTIC" beading. I feel you have helped the "DIVAS" tell their story in your portrayal.


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!