Sunday, August 13, 2006

Characteristics of Great Art ~

Today I want to wrap up the discussion of the previous two articles, which are drawn from a book by Kenneth Clark called What is a Masterpiece? As I mentioned earlier I’m not formally educated in art, nor am I much of a theoretical person.

Being asked to judge a number of juried competitions and the experiences of working with other judges is what initially peaked my interest in the study of art and design from a somewhat historical and theoretical standpoint. In each of the judging situations, I noticed that same tendency toward unanimity mentioned by Clark. Of course personal preferences played some part in our choices, yet even without discussion, the judges tended to agree on which pieces belonged in a category that we might term “excellent.” This surprised me. And for the first time, I began to wonder if there was more to the evaluation of art than “in the eyes of the beholder,” perhaps even more than “cultural standards.” That’s what eventually got me to Clark’s book about the characteristics of a masterpiece.

Clark studied the great paintings of Renaissance Italy, the portraits of Rembrandt and Ruben’s altarpieces. The conclusions he drew help me to understand the phenomenon of unanimity. There are certain elements he found in common among the works he studied. In his opinion, these elements are characteristically found and recognized in all great art.

What follows is my summary, in list form, of the elements he identified. They are not in the same order as his discussion, but rather in order of my appreciation for them:
  • A masterpiece does not aim at art, but at truth.
  • Immense spiritual energy is a component of most masterpieces.
  • In a masterpiece, form and subject are one. If form predominates, there is a loss of vitality and of that humanity which should underlie even the most idealized construction. If subject predominates, the mind releases its hold.
  • A masterpiece gives us a startling original vision of life. The life of the senses is raised by imagination to the condition of poetry.
  • The human element is essential to a masterpiece. The artist must be deeply involved in the understanding of his fellow men.
  • In a masterpiece, the artist’s imaginative power, supported by great technical skill, can force us to suspend the criticisms of common sense. It is a triumph of art when common sense does not even cross our minds.
  • There is a confluence of memories and emotions that together form a single idea.
  • The artist recreates traditional forms so that they become expressive of the artist’s own epoch, yet keep a relationship with the past. A masterpiece must use the language of the day. A masterpiece is not “one man thick, but many men thick.”
  • The artist needs, in addition to his innate gifts, the stimulus of some dramatic situation. He portrays a sequence of dramatic moments. The highest masterpieces are illustrations of great themes.
  • Unusually large works, elaborate works, in which an artist has put everything he knows in order to show his complete supremacy in his art, are sometimes thought of as masterpieces. This is because of the immense respect and awe we feel regarding the artist’s ability to dominate such a mass of material. However to be a masterpiece, such a piece must also possess the other characteristics noted.

Clark concludes: “Although many meanings cluster round the word masterpiece, it is above all the work of an artist of genius who has been absorbed by the spirit of the time in a way that has made his individual experiences universal. Not merely a superb piece of technical skill, it is the record of a profound and a prophetic experience.”

Some months after reading Clark’s book, I gave a slide lecture showing the 31 pieces of contemporary beadwork (selected from 350 entries) juried into a traveling exhibition. I was one of four judges for the show. It was amazing to look at the ones we had selected with Clark’s list in mind. I had to conclude that we had been, more or less subconsciously, searching for and attracted by elements on Clark’s list in this body of contemporary work.

Questions for the day:

  1. Which of the characteristics on Clark’s list seems most important to you? Why?
  2. What is the human element in your current project?
  3. What does spiritual energy mean to you?
  4. What are some of life’s great themes? Is there one which is compelling to you at the moment? How could you work with this theme in a future project?


  1. Anonymous5:14 AM

    I very much appreciate all the wonderful remarks about art, all of them true, all of them important and worth expressing. Couldn't agree more.

    How to define and recognize a masterpiece has long been a question of interest to me. I was happy to learn about Kenneth Clark's "What is a Masterpiece?". Have right away ordered the book through the internet, and it is on its way to me.

    But - risking to be considered superficial - I would like to open a sideline of this discussion: Aren't we getting a little too sombre, idealizing life/art in a way that won't hold up to everyday existence? Doesn't a lot of art include a great element of just fun, love of life and lightness, notwithstanding deep feelings, intellect, fabulous workmanship?

    Let me return to seriousness while we are discussing art, not necessarily masterpieces only, at large: Please never forget the artists all over the world, may they be painters, writers, actors, singers, composers, to name just a few fields of activity, who worked and still work, in opposition to inhumane governments, never giving in, risking or even losing their freedom and life. Where would we be without them?

    Best regards, Sabine

  2. Robin, I posted my answers on my blog!

  3. Thanks,Teantae, for working with the questions at the bottom of this post... Her take on them is definitely worth reading... an unexpected (to me) slant!

    And, Debra... another set of answers well worth reading, yet different than Teantae's. I'm especially intrigued by the integration of her comments about art and reflections about blogging inspired by Sharonb's recent post about authentic blog voices. Sewing and thinking has sent Debra along a special path, which she shares fully. Click here to read her post.

    Sabine! Welcome to this conversation! You don't yet have a blog, but I love your comment about this discussion having a sombre note at the important loss of fun, love of life and lightness.

    And I love your point about artists who work in opposition to inhumanity. I saw a collection of such art once in the Czech Republic, while it was still Communist ruled. The exhibition was illegal and dangerous for both artists and organizers. I will NEVER forget the raw power of the work. Did you have any examples of such artists in mind when you wrote this comment? If so, will you share their names with us here? Thanks!

  4. This requires much thought. I'll try to answer these questions while I'm working on my next piece... LOL

  5. Anonymous4:18 AM

    "Thank you, Robin, for taking the time to comment on my contribution.

    How about Rosie the Uncaged Hen (a totally loveable masterpiece and beautiful covergirl) - doesn't she qualify as a perfect example for the lightness in art?

    I am not a good one for names, I must confess. In my heart, so to say, there is a monument dedicated especially to artists who had and have the greatness and courage to stand up to inhumanity in adverse circumstances. (This sounds pathetic, but is meant to be descriptive).

    Nevertheless, I will give one named example: Abdel Hadi Al-Gazzar, an Egyptian painter (1925 - 1966), was imprisoned during the King Farouk reign, in 1949, because of his painting "Popular Chorus or The Theatre of Life" . The picture shows a line of people, facing the viewer, on the ground in front of each of them an empty bowl or jug. This was Al-Gazzar's way of telling the truth about the people's situation. Luckily, two of his painter friends managed to somehow intervene successfully and get him out of prison. Later, during the Nasser area, there were paintings of his showing, for example, executed opponents. I do not know how far he suffered suppression during that period. Al-Gazzar was a great painter, political themes not being his only subject by any means. He died young of poor health, leaving a wife and children."

    Best regards,


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!